Journeys to the Center The undeniable appeal of Middle America--no matter how you measure it.
By Paul Lukas

(MONEY Magazine) – A few summers ago, I was driving around North Dakota with my girlfriend, researching a Lost in America article about that overlooked, underrated state. We focused primarily on historic and cultural sites, but one day we detoured about an hour out of our way to the small town of Rugby, which features an unusual attraction: a stone obelisk designating the Geographical Center of North America--in other words, the exact point at which the continent would balance if it were flat and perched on a fulcrum. Gripped by an odd but undeniable sense of excitement, we hurried out of the car and began taking photos of each other standing alongside the marker.

Some of you may have difficulty understanding why I'd want to visit the Geographical Center of North America, and that's fine--the appeal of the place is admittedly hard to articulate. Basically, it just sounds like it must be an important place, or at least a cool one, and visiting it therefore made me feel important and cool. There's something intuitively fascinating and satisfying about being at the center of things (especially for Americans, who like to think they're at the center of everything). That's why so many highways crossing the 45th line of latitude have signs that say, 45th parallel: halfway between the equator and the north pole. It's why similar signs appear on roads crossing the Continental Divide (which separates rivers flowing east from those flowing west). And it's why more than 10,000 people visit Rugby's obelisk every year--an impressive figure for a place that's as much in the middle of nowhere as it is in the middle of North America.

Of course, there's nothing truly important about places like Rugby or the 45th Parallel. But they lend useful perspective to the enormity of our surroundings, sort of like giant YOU ARE HERE pointers, which helps explain why the Rugby marker is just one of several geographic centers dotting the Great Plains--all of them, ironically, in tiny rural towns that couldn't be farther from the center of our national consciousness. Some of these towns, emboldened by the notoriety of their location, have developed their centers into tourist attractions (okay, tourist traps)--the Rugby obelisk, for example, is adjoined by a so-so cultural museum called Pioneer Village. Regardless of commercialization, however, that aura of being at ground zero makes geographic centers worth a detour if you're nearby--they're great "What I Did on My Vacation" fodder for the kids and unbeatable for snapshots.

Let's start with the Geographic Center of the United States, which is located on U.S. Highway 281, just outside Lebanon, Kans. (about 120 miles southwest of Lincoln, Neb.). A limestone cairn, erected and maintained by a local booster club, marks the exact spot, and the site includes a picnic area and a grill, so you can pack some burgers and say you had lunch at the center of America (I did this myself 10 years ago and can report that the meal felt unusually resonant and significant, as if I were eating the lunch around which all other lunches revolved). There's a tiny chapel at the site too, which is occasionally used for center-of-America weddings and underscores the near-spiritual aspect of being at the national midpoint.

But wait. The Lebanon center was established in 1940, before Alaska and Hawaii became states, so it covers only the Lower 48. For fully inclusive centrism, you'll need to visit the Geographic Center of the 50 States in Belle Fourche, S.D. (near several popular travel destinations, including Devils Tower, Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills). A plaque and a stone marker designate the spot, which just happens to be situated at the local chamber of commerce, whose staffers will happily take a snapshot of you as you bask in true Middle Americanism.

If you prefer your centeredness a bit more on the eggheaded side--or if you'd just like to be able to one-up the people who visit the other geographic centers--head to Osborne, Kans., about 40 miles south of Lebanon. Here you'll find not just a geographic center but a geodetic center--specifically, the Geodetic Center of North America, which takes the earth's curvature into account. (And just how does that work, you ask? Don't ask.) The exact spot, which is the key triangulation point for all American, Canadian and Mexican land surveys, property-line assessments and maps, is on a private ranch, but a nearby rest area on U.S. 281 has a very official-looking replica of the U.S. geodetic survey marker and an explanatory display. As the historical marker notes, "What Greenwich is to the Longitude of the world, therefore, a Kansas pasture is to the lines and boundaries of this continent." Guaranteed to make you feel more sophisticated than if you'd visited a mere geographic center.

Now, a few killjoys out there may be shaking their heads and muttering, "These aren't the real centers." And yes, that's right, Mr. Smarty-Pants, they're not. For starters, geography is always shifting, particularly at the coasts, where the interaction of land and water constantly redefines the nation's outlines. Moreover, geographic center calculations have long been suspect. The Lebanon site, for example, was reportedly determined by cutting out a cardboard map of the contiguous 48 states and balancing it on a pencil point--an inexact method, to say the least. And sometimes a center turns out to be, well, in an inconvenient spot; the Belle Fourche center was moved to its present location after the original site, about 20 miles away, turned out to have a high rattlesnake risk.

But just as learning that there's no Santa Claus doesn't diminish the true spirit of Christmas, a bit of scientific imprecision doesn't change the oddly palpable way these sites help us feel connected with the immensity of our national landscape. If this occasionally entails suspending disbelief, or even fudging a measurement or two, I see no harm--the urge to travel, after all, is rooted in escapism and fantasy. And what could be more wonderfully escapist than feeling special simply by standing on an otherwise nondescript patch of land?

Paul Lukas looks forward to visiting Edgar Springs, Mo., which according to the latest census is the new population center of the United States.