From the Columbus Dispatch: Monument fudges geography
Frequent travelers know that not everything on the road is as advertised or expected.
I often joke that my biggest travel disappointment has been the tour of the Jack Daniel’s
Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. — not because the tour is lacking information or fun but because at
the end visitors to the site, located in a “dry” county, until recently were given lemonade instead
A similar disappointment was waiting for me when I made a trip to the center of the country, or
so I thought.
The quaint little town of Belle Fourche, S.D., about 55 miles northwest of Rapid City, bills
itself as the geographic center of the 50 United States.
The town is home to a neat, manicured park containing an impressive Center of the Nation
monument surrounded by flags from every state. The monument is conveniently located behind the
Chamber of Commerce headquarters and the local history museum.
The monument and park made for a lovely, easy stop on my 250-mile drive from Rapid City to
I gathered some travel information at the chamber office, explored a bit of local history at the
museum and even posed for a self-portrait at the marble edifice marking the “center” of the
country. But I felt oddly uncentered.
I soon discovered why.
A historic monument nearby noted that the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (an official-sounding
organization if ever there was one) had determined that the precise center of the 50 states is at
latitude 44 degrees, 58 minutes north, and longitude 103 degrees, 46 minutes west. But, according
to my GPS, that was not where I was standing.
As I read the fine print on other signs in the park, I learned that Belle Fourche is more of a “
ceremonial” center — the closest town to the true geographical center of the United States, a point
that actually lies about 20 miles northwest in the middle of the prairie.
To me, a geography and cartography nerd, the lack of geographical precision seemed deflating. I
felt like a mountain climber who had to turn back 100 feet from the top, or a bowler who had rolled
a 299. And, unfortunately, I didn’t have time that day to seek geographical perfection.
For the next few days, my failure nagged me, like a blackberry seed stuck in the precise center
of a molar.
But this story has a happy ending. On my return to Rapid City several days later, I was driving
along Rt. 85 when I spotted a tiny, hand-lettered sign: “Center of the U.S. — 8 mi.” The sign
pointed west along a narrow dirt road striking off across the prairie.
Exactly 8 miles down that lonely road I arrived at a small rock cairn and another crude
hand-lettered sign declaring the place to be “The True Center of the Nation.” I crawled through the
barbed-wire fence behind the sign and hiked a short way across the prairie to a survey marker and
the small American flag planted there.
Finally, I had reached the nation’s geographic omphalos. And except for a few hawks riding
thermals, I was alone on the prairie.
There was no snack bar, no brochure rack, no historic marker. But in the distance, a few ruddy
buttes rose up like strange, portentous beacons indicating potential new adventures — adventures
that awaited in precisely every direction.