Imaginary Lines

Have you ever been to the Four Corners monument where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah come together? It’s a relatively remote tourist trap of a place that’s really only good for two things: Navajo fry bread, and standing in four states at once while saying “Hey, look! I’m standing in four states at once!” The surveyors who set the states’ boundaries declared the point to be at 36° 59′ N, 109° 02′ W. And unless you own a GPS receiver you’d never know that the concrete slab proclaiming to be the Four Corners point is actually completely in Arizona. The true Four Corners point is awkwardly situated a hundred yards or so away, as my friend Roy (who does have a GPS receiver) determined. Think of all the misguided pictures of sneakers on that slab! Oh the humanity!

This business of invisible survey lines floating over real terrain is fascinating. After all, as this satellite image of the Four Corners region shows, nothing about the landscape particularly invites us to paint straight lines across it. But in doing so, we make some barren patch of nowhere worth visiting. Cynically I want to say: if looking at invisible lines is so interesting, I’ll put some in a box and ship them to you for a very small charge. But looking at invisible lines is interesting, as the Degree Confluence Project illustrates. In a practice akin to geocaching, adventurers with digital cameras and GPS units are photographing places in the world where lines of latitude and longitude come together. The pictures are charming and the stories are folksy. You can spend hours here. Look at the great big map of coverage and click on some remote place and see what you turn up. I like the story of 49 N 133 E, which is near Birobidzhan in extreme eastern Russia. The author writes “If you ever thought that explaining what a confluence is and why you want to find one to friends was hard, try explaining one to your Russian driver with a translator.”

Incidentally, the ever-helpful Wikipedia also notes

Another four corners, the intersection of the borders of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut in Canada, is not graced with a similar tourist attraction because it is located in extremely remote northern wilderness.

Set up a Navajo fry bread stand there and you could make a killing!

9 thoughts on “Imaginary Lines”

  1. The difference in locations for the concrete slab on the ground and your buddy’s GPS reading could be the result of the GPS using a different geodetic datum than the surveyors.

    For a little primer, as you know, the earth isn’t spherical. To apply the spherical coordinates of a lat/lon to this irregular surface, thousands of geographers and cartographers have devised different translation formula to better describe the earth.

    Your buddy’s GPS is undoubtedly using a much, much newer datum (probably WGS84) than the surveyors, which would account for the significant error in placing the four corners.

  2. My wife likes to hike and I like to do meaningless odd things (I should have been an Englishman).

    I didn’t read this entry in your blog in real time, Ned, I only ran across it recently.

    I’ve spent the better part of two days sifting through the pictures at the Confluence Project site. It feels as though I have been set a Quest. I can’t quite define the quest just yet, but it’s there somewhere.


  3. I think your mission should be to use your old reservist ID and a little creative social engineering to get onto military bases so you can scoop up those last few North American confluence sites.

  4. Ok, that’s some nutty stuff. Global train spotting I suppose. Seems like a good premise for a reality TV show: Extreme Confluence – Four (hot) girls, Four (hunky) guys, 8 GPSs… Who will be first to make it half way round the world to find their antipode, antifame, and antifortune?

  5. Still haven’t gone on the quest.
    My wife and I think we might drag the kids out to any remaining China confluences if/as/when we ever go there to visit. (We have vague ideas of going to visit the province where her grandfather grew up.)

    But I have been reading for the better part of two years now.


  6. What is the actual Lat Lon in Deg Min Sec of the real 4 corners? it must be a military secret, A GPS reading is not accurate enough (survey value).

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