ONE IF BY LAND is about the roads we drive on, the places we pass and the maps we have open on the seat beside us. ONE IF BY LAND is about where we are going, how to get there, and understanding, perhaps, where it is we’ve been.
If you are motoring north along Route 281 in north central Kansas, you might want to take a left on Smith County Route 191 and start slowing down. Ease off onto the shoulder of this back road and step out of the car. Congratulations! You are now just a couple of feet away from the exact geographic center of the conterminous United States. You are at the dead center of the 48 states. Private individuals have placed a monument here at latitude 39 degrees 50 minutes north and longitude 98 degrees 35 minutes west to mark the spot. There’s nothing official or especially scientific about this designation. There wasn’t any intensive statistical analysis and no higher math was involved. It just so happens that this is “that point on which the surface of the lower 48 states would balance if it were a plane of uniform thickness.” In other words, if you did a cutout of the 48 states and balanced it on say, the point of a pencil, this “center of gravity” or pencil point would leave a mark on the cutout right here at this very spot.
The significance of this place is purely circumstantial and entirely symbolic. But pause here a minute or two – think of cowboys and Pilgrims, feel the gentle breeze, take in the seemingly endless fields and the surely endless sky – and see if something about this wide great Republic doesn’t mean something special to you here, at its very center.
Notice the distinctive badge-like sign that tells you that you are on Smith County Route 191. It wasn’t always easy to know where on earth you were, never mind in Kansas. In the early days of the automobile, the best directions an intrepid driver could hope for were visual. Roads had no consistent names or numbers. Hardly anyone ever traveled far enough to get lost. Road maps consisted of a sheaf of postcard-like photos in a flip folder. There were photos of crossroads, of intersections and of forks in the road. Black arrows were superimposed on the road to insure that the correct route was followed. Directions and commentary appeared as captions below the photographs. Then the growing popularity of automobiles brought more and more oil companies into the brand new gas station business.
As competition grew keen, the oil companies looked for ways to build customer recognition and loyalty. They began giving out free road maps. (A happy tradition that the mid-1970’s oil embargo ended.) For the purpose of their maps, each oil company came up with their own numbers for roads and proceeded to mark the roads with their own distinctive signage. Some chose badges, others chose shields. Some chose stars. Soon enough, telephone and telegraphs poles were festooned with different route signs, each with unique numbers, each keyed to a different oil company’s map. The system was not perfect but it gave state and local governments the idea to work out a more coherent and comprehensive arrangement. The now familiar system was adopted and coordinated, first on a state by state basis and then nationwide. Some of the routes developed their own mystique and entered the lexicon of American cultural icons as surely as Gettysburg and Coney Island and Dodge City. But that is another column.