Spring 2011

The Center of the World and Other Points of Interest

You can’t get there from here

James Trainor

Pyramid at Felicity, aka the Center of the World. Photo Center for Land Use Interpretation.

If you wanted to locate the exact “center of the world” on a map, where would you start to look for it? It’s admittedly very difficult to decide. The world is large, 196,939,900 square miles large. There are so many good candidates: Greenwich, England (too obvious, too retro-Victorian imperial?); Peru (at the point of intersection between two mystically auspicious Nazca lines?); a Celtic stone circle in the Outer Hebrides endowed with New Age energies? The North Pole? The South Pole? All potential candidates, all noble contenders in the field. However, you might find yourself wondering if this quest were not unlike Lewis Carroll’s epically quixotic 1874 poem The Hunting of the Snark and its blank-page-as-treasure-map: nonsensical and impossible on its face, the quarry being everywhere and nowhere, the location being the zenith of anywhere you happen to stand. You might find yourself mumbling Zen-inspired neo-mystical aphorisms like “No matter where you go, there you are” (which look good tacked over your desk but discourage expeditions) and resigning yourself to your armchair and your Rand McNally world atlas.

But if, instead, you guessed a numberless exit on a barren stretch of Interstate 8 near the California-Arizona line, then you’d be getting warm. Very warm, actually. During a recent summer visit, it was 114 degrees in the shade here in this bleak, treeless expanse, where between the indifferent thrum of the highway skirting the US-Mexico border to the south, and the tawny Chocolate Mountains to the north, you will find the unincorporated town of Felicity, California. Permanent population: two. Status: happily married. Founded on 21 May 1985 and declared the precise Center of the World by its self-appointed mayor, designer, architect, historian, archivist, postmaster, chef, high priest, resident parachutist, and fifty percent of the local populace: the French-born Jacques-André Istel.

Consider the facts: It has an official plaque (in a persuasively authoritative style approximating the distinctive brown and white signage of the National Park Service, suggesting a bureaucratizing blessing upon the landscape for the greater good). It has a bronze marker embedded at the exact geographical coordinates of the Center of the World (which, apparently, are longitude 114° 45' 55.35" west; latitude 32° 45' 1.38" north). This epicentral disk is enshrined within a large marble pyramid, which rises atop a platform reached via the Seven Ceremonial Steps (although why seven and how they figure into the ceremony is a bit of a mystery). For a nominal fee ($2), you can enter, stand on the marker, and have your picture taken by the mayor (it’s optional, no pressure) and be presented with a signed certificate solemnizing the whole drive-by ritual. In addition to the pyramid, a post office, and, somewhat oddly, a brasserie (run, needless to say, by the mayor and his wife), Felicity has an ever-growing number of other structures, landmarks, monuments, and points of conspicuous interest, all laid out in an exuberant paroxysm of aligning axial symmetries that further point to its uncontestable centrality. Twenty-five meters directly south of the pyramid is the Sundial, the fifteen-foot-long gnomon of which is an imposing bronze rendering of the right arm of God from Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. So the Judeo-Christian God of Renaissance Rome seems onboard with the project. His finger points, somewhat disconcertingly, directly north, toward the pyramid and the Hill of Prayer beyond (a mastaba-shaped mound where once there was nothing but alluvial salt flats, created with 150,000 tons of earth moved there by Istel), atop which sits the aptly named Church on the Hill (a real chapel based on a fictive one depicted in a fresco by Giotto inside the real Scrovegni Chapel in Padua).

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