Re-reading Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent recently reminded me of my own, on-a-whim visit to the Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States in early June, 2013. In an attempt to stay off interstate highways as much as possible to see a bit more of the country while driving east from Denver, CO (vaguely) towards NYC, I took US-36 across northern Kansas; a long, two-day, straight route through very gently-rolling hills, grassy agricultural fields, and very little else. Northern Kansas is very wide and mainly empty.
On Day One soon after crossing the state line, I stopped off at a few rather sad, grim, empty small towns in a vain attempt to find palatable coffee. I recall St. Francis in particular being desolate, beaten-up and largely devoid of human activity (and available coffee, palatable or otherwise). The few people I did see out and about were largely very large. Passing through the superbly-named Bird City I did indulge in taking a quick detour to ogle at the family-named post office, convenience store, city signs, city hall, etc.
I spent the night in a violent rain storm in the town of Norton. Less of a town really, more just one main road with a couple of gas stations, a dollar store, and a Dairy Queen. I think I dined that evening at a gas station Subway. Living the high life. The next morning I drove a further 75 miles east to the tiny conurbation of Lebanon where I took a 90 degree left turn north on route 283 and then another hard left to head back westward. The Geographic Center of the US lies at the end of a narrow road through flat agricultural fields with nothing in view, no buildings or landscape features or animals or people, for a couple of miles. Arriving there you are confronted with a small, highly-manicured park with a flag pole, a tiny white chapel, a park bench and a picnic shelter. The chapel is apparently relatively new due having been rebuilt after a speeding, semi-conscious farmer nodded off one afternoon in 2008, failed to notice the T-junction, and drove straight into and through the original.
How one goes about determining exactly where the centre of a huge and irregularly-shaped country like the US is, I am not completely sure. Someone did as early as 1918 however, and this isolated patch of Kansas lawn has since been deemed the location to plonk that particular marker down. Should one want to visit a more modern interpretation of the centre of the nation, one has to travel much farther north to a similarly exciting locale, Belle Forch on the western end of South Dakota just north of Deadwood. That particular interpretation of what constitutes The Middle takes into consideration Hawaii and Alaska, but somewhat creatively treats the Pacific Ocean, British Columbia and the Yukon as if they do not exist, and conceptually digs up Alaska and Hawaii, drags them over land and water, and sticks them to Washington state and southern California respectively. I suppose one would have to float a flag somewhere in the sea off the coast of California otherwise.
There is really not an awful lot to see at the monument in northern Kansas and it’s kind of pointless really, but the day I visited was a glorious one. I wandered as far as I could within the confines of the park in a warm, gentle breeze, under a clear, deep-blue sky, surrounded by twittering birds (sound snippet below). Somewhat predictably, I had the place to myself for as long as I wanted. As much as the sign showing distances from here to Seattle, Miami, San Diego, Bar Harbor etc. was distracting to look at for a minute or two, that wasn’t all that long to be honest, so I retraced my steps and continued eastwards towards Kansas City.