A series of lines crisscrosses the world's maps and globes. The 180 horizontal latitude lines, and 360 vertical lines that mark east and west longitude, are vital to navigators. But to everybody else until recently, this imaginary grid was just an abstract tool for geography lessons. Now hundreds of hikers, climbers, and geography buffs around the world are finding and photographing the actual points where these lines intersect.
And it's all because an 18-year-old hiker in Massachusetts bought a handheld GPS receiver eight years ago. "GPS" stands for global positioning satellite, and the receiver can pinpoint your exact position on earth. Alex Jarrett discovered that he lived within a few kilometers of the place where the 43 degree north latitude line crosses the 72 degree west longitude line.
And he wondered what one would see at that very spot. It turned out to be an unremarkable patch of woodland, but Mr. Jarrett photographed it anyway, took some notes, and went home.
From that visit came the idea of an Internet website to which people around the world could contribute by visiting every possible point on earth where latitude and longitude lines cross. Turns out there are almost 16,000 of them, not counting those near the poles and in the middle of great oceans and seas.
Thus was born what's called the "Degree Confluence Project." The name refers to the exact crossing points, or confluences, of full degrees of longitude and latitude. Thirty-eight degrees north latitude, for instance, crosses eighty degrees west longitude near Fayetteville in the mountains of West Virginia.
"It's a way to look at the land surface of the planet and take a sampling of what it looks like in different places. It's a collection of data that is sort of a new way of looking at the planet," says 31-year-old Ada Kerman, who has visited much of the United States on family camping trips, was a high-school classmate of Alex Jarrett. She now lives in Portland, Oregon. And she's one of three U.S. coordinators of the Degree Confluence Project. Among them, the Kermans have visited dozens of latitude and longitude crossing points, including one in someone's backyard on Oregon's Pacific coast. "The basics are: make sure you're not trespassing; take a camera; and for a successful visit, you need to get within a hundred meters of the location. Most people use GPSs, although you can also do it with detailed maps," she says.
How are the visits verified to be sure the right places have been found and photographed? The coordinators say they pretty much take people's word for it. Corrections are made if later visitors find something amiss. "One of my favorite photos is from the first Alaskan confluences that got visited. They got to within a hundred meters of the confluence, but it was actually out in a swamp. And the guy decided that he wanted to get to the exact confluence. He waded out into the swamp, and his friend took a picture of him, waist deep, waving his GPS," says Ms. Kerman.
Many of the 809 U.S. confluences have now been documented, save for one in the middle of a nuclear test site in Nevada, a few on scattered mountaintops, and a couple hundred sites in the vast and remote state of Alaska. Two tiny states, Rhode Island and Delaware, have no latitude and longitude crossing points at all.
Curt Christiansen, a 41-year-old avid hiker, bicyclist, and camper from the little farming town of Palmer, Alaska, is credited with twenty-nine confluence visits, including three of the seven that have so far been completed in America's "Last Frontier." "I like to see what's over the next hill, what's out there. Exploring around, I've always enjoyed very much. Kind of gives me an excuse to go to a new place and see what's there," he says.
Once he started visiting confluences, Mr. Christiansen, who works at a nonprofit agency that finds housing for poor people in Alaska, was hooked. "I got married in North Dakota, so I didn't have a lot of friends down there, although a couple of them had come down early," he says. "Instead of having, you know, a drunken spree or something, we spent, I think, two and a half days driving around North Dakota and South Dakota, hiking out to these confluence points and taking pictures. So I think we hit nine, total. That was my bachelor party!"
Curt Christiansen and most others who have successfully found and photographed the places on earth where longitude and latitude lines cross say they haven't felt any sort of other-worldly tingles, but rather feelings of deep satisfaction.
Christiansen: "It's a feeling like you get when you summit a mountain."
Landphair: "A bit of a rush."
Christiansen: "Yeah. Yeah."
It's a feeling that 55-year-old Ed Vinson, a chemist in the little town of Snyder in the wide-open spaces of West Texas, knows well. He's an amateur astronomer who happened upon the Degree Confluence Project website while searching for coordinates for an astronomy experiment. He has since set foot on seventeen confluence points in Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. "I've always liked maps. They're fun to look at. You can look at a map of an area you know nothing about and imagine, well, 'What might that place be like?' And it's kinda fun goin' and seein' what's out there. It's a wonderful waste of time!"
And not always a successful visit, as in the time, one New Year's Day, when Mr. Vinson and his wife, Sonja, attempted to document a site in the Texas Panhandle.
Vinson: "It had snowed up there a couple of days before, and the location itself was in the middle of a huge cotton field that was just sticky, black mud. We would have sunk clear to our ears if we had tried to walk out there. So we had to write it down as an attempt, 'cause we didn't make it."
Landphair: "Now, does Sonja think you're a little [crazy]?"
Vinson:"Oh, she already knew that years ago.
And she looks on this project, the ones she's gone with me on, as somethin' other than stayin' home and watchin' TV, get out of the house, see some country, and maybe eat at some restaurant in some out-of-the-way little town that we'd never even heard of before. That's kind of fun, too."
Mr. Vinson says that out amid the sagebrush and jackrabbits and horned toads, he likes to leave a little stack of rocks, or drive a stick in the ground, as an informal marker that means "Ed Vinson was here" at the very spot that is, we'll say, thirty two degrees north latitude, ninety-nine degrees west longitude.
As to the long-term value of the Degree Confluence Project, those with whom we spoke say it records not just the earth's familiar landmarks or beautiful scenery, but also what you might call the "real world" as it is. It's a world that is developing to the point that, fifty years from now, when each of the confluence points may or may not have been documented, people will look at the photographs and read the visitors' notes, and marvel at the changes.
Between now and then, there's work to be done. As of today, of those 16,000 places where the earth's imaginary lines cross, 13,644 have yet to be photographed.
The website for the Degree Confluence Project is www.confluence.org.