[This post is written by guest blogger Eric Zimmermann, a friend of mine living in China. He’s a lawyer and businessman who loves to abandon the office whenever possible to hunt the elusive confluence point. He has reached 40 points now, mostly first-time hits in remote parts of China.]
The Prime Meridian gets all the glory. Cathedrals are built on it, secrets of the ages buried along it. Seems unfair given that the whole longitude system is based on an arbitrary choice of starting point. The lines of longitude, which form a sort of bird cage around the earth, could be spun to determine a different starting point at random with no ill effects. So the choice of zero longitude passing through the observatory in Greenwich England speaks more to distribution of political power at the time than to any scientific necessity…an egocentricity on par with my current country of residence’s calling itself Zhong Guo, or The Middle Country. Had China been the center of commerce and politics when measuring longitude was sorted out, the Prime Meridian might very well have bisected the ancient capital of Chang An.
Latitude is an older and less arbitrary system. The Equator certainly makes sense as do the 90 degrees north and south to the two poles. Add to this the variety of surveys to choose from which attempt to address the general non-sphericity of the Earth and the non-uniformity of its surface.
Many people find imaginary lines on the ground interesting. The “49th parallel” roughly forms the US/Canada border, and the 38rd forms the border between North and South Korea (not really…this border runs NE/SW). States mark their borders with signs or a change in pavement. Some people have traveled to the point where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet so they could spread themselves into four states simultaneously. Homeowners often meticulously identify their property lines. And maybe you’ve noticed with some interest when your GPS says you’re right on a (whole number) line of latitude or longitude.
If so, then The Degree Confluence Project might intrigue you.
Based at www.Confluence.org, the voluntary, individual-driven, and otherwise uncoordinated worldwide “project” has as its aim the photo-essay documentation of every land-based intersection of whole number lines of latitude and longitude on the Earth’s surface. There are 360 degrees of longitude and 180 degrees of latitude. This multiplies out to 64,800 such integer-intersections. As we learned in grammar school, ¾ of the earth’s surface is water which means there are approximately 16,000 land-based points.
So far, 5,600 of these points have been visited at least once which leaves plenty still to find. And of course, repeat visits to a point show the location through the seasons and over the years. Around the world there are some 11,000 self-selected people engaged in this project, with about 11,000 stories and 80,000 photographs posted on the website. Interested in a hike through a jungle? Read about the visits in the Congo. Or about the desert treks in the Middle East, the mountain points in the Rockies and Himalayas, or the visits to the Poles. Or read my set of visits to Confluence Points in China. People have visited points by car, boat, motorcycle, on foot and in wheelchairs, and the photo-stories of their experiences give glimpses of geography and cultures unvarnished with tourist marketing hype or party-line political spin.
The targets are extremely well-defined as the exact intersection of the whole number latitude and longitude lines—such as 43.0000 North by 103.0000 East—and the entire grid of Confluence Points has existed for centuries…long before anyone could have tinkered with them to make the points easier or more difficult. Unlike letterboxing or geocaching, which strike me as rather uninteresting contrivances, Confluence Point hunting is attractive to me for its rawness. With geocaching one tries to follow clues left by someone else to find whatever plastic trinket it is they have hidden there. But with Confluence Hunting one takes the world’s geology and people as they present themselves with the registration of “perfect zeros” on the GPS as one’s confirmation of success. For those points as yet unvisited by confluence hunters, there are no clues to the best way to get there. And once in the vicinity, no clues on how to deal with the local people, the police, the food, the dogs, the altitude, the swamps, the rivers, the ravines, the mountains, or the fences.
Confluence Hunting in China, where I’ve now lived for six years, brings me to places far off the tourist trail where few outsiders, and probably no foreigners, have ever gone. As I confront new and unfamiliar places and people, those people also struggle to figure me out. Being uncertain about what happens next is an interesting and addictive feeling. For example, in a tiny village in a remote part of dusty Gansu province, an 87 year old Chinese ex-soldier told me I was the first American he’s seen since World War 2. Upon learning I am ex-US Army he thanked me for America’s help in fighting the Japanese, then stepped back and snapped a salute which I proudly returned to this ancient warrior on behalf of those American soldiers who fought here all those years ago.
I am a planner. I enjoy pouring over low-res Google Earth photographs and old US Army topo maps, trying to identify features so I can finesse them to fit each other and modern road maps. This planning, as well as the on-the-fly improvising and trying to figure out survival rules, is intellectually challenging and enjoyable. During extended Confluence trips, the unrelenting stress of unforeseen obstacles, unfamiliar territory where the GPS surrenders to steep ravines and dense tree cover, strange geology, small group self-reliance, real dangers with no walkways and no safety fences, unfamiliar food, etc. is emotionally challenging. And the physical exertion is healthy and makes me feel alive.
Many of the Points in the US have already been visited, and of course the culture is very familiar to me and those of you living there. But despite the absence of some of the more stressful elements (which I quite enjoy) of journeys to unvisited Points, Confluence Hunting is alive and well in the US. Turn on your GPS and check out the Points closest to you. According to Confluence.Org, you’re always within 49 miles of a Point.
Photos: Eric Zimmermann