The Nation; COLUMN ONE; These Guys Just Look for a Point; Positioning devices in hand, adventurers seek out the globe's perfect spots of confluence -- where latitude and longitude meet.
Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Jun 12, 2003; Steve Chawkins;
The plan for the afternoon seemed straightforward enough: Leave the Internet conference in Kuala Lumpur, head for the jungle and find an imaginary dot. On the map, it seemed to be just off the road.
So in pursuit of a little techie fun, a Vermont computer programmer named David Lawrence and his pal James Seng bumped and swerved more than 120 miles over tortuous Malaysian highways. As darkness fell, they waded into a swamp, offering themselves up as free lunch for leeches and stinging bugs. They cut themselves on razor-sharp thistles. Seng lost his glasses in the muck and nearly parted with his Birkenstocks. The ooze swallowed Lawrence's leather business-card holder.
Focused on his hand-held global positioning system, Lawrence pushed on. But a couple of hours after they had entered the swamp, the two gave in to heat, nausea and exhaustion. They missed what they had come for: a glimpse of the single spot on Earth where the 4th degree of latitude north and the 102nd meridian of longitude east intersect. Photographed by later travelers, the spot, it turned out, was nothing more than a thick, tangled, wet, fetid, green mess.
But that point -- which the seekers of such things call a "confluence" -- was hardly the point.
"I have a wanderlust," said Lawrence, who in his three-continent quest for confluences has been detained by border guards and nearly struck by lightning. "Yet traveling without a destination seems so random. This gives you a purpose."
It's an aim that has moved thousands of confluence-hunters to scale mountains, tromp through muddy fields, hack into jungles, and attempt explaining themselves to incredulous natives from Montana to Mongolia. To confluencers, what is on the spot is not so important. It's the getting there that matters.
Alex Jarrett has shrugged off the get-a-life naysayers for years. Jarrett, 27, is the founder of the Degree Confluence Project. At www.confluence.org, it chronicles the effort of volunteers to photograph and describe nearly 16,000 whole-number confluences girdling global land masses. So far 3,000 adventurers have contributed.
"We once made someone's list of the hundred stupidest Web sites," Jarrett said ruefully in an interview. "But now I don't think that would happen. Now you can see that the project has some merit; I call it a sampling of the world."
Jarrett writes computer programs and helps run a recycling service via bicycle in Northampton, Mass. But seven years ago, he was working in Peterborough, N.H. -- just 10 miles from the enticing intersection of 43 degrees north and 72 degrees west.
Growing up with a reverence for maps, Jarrett was intrigued by the simple wholeness of those coordinates. Lines of latitude and longitude, it must be said, meet at every spot on Earth. But 43 degrees north, 72 degrees west was uncluttered by the usual subdivisions of minutes and seconds. It was pure. It offered Jarrett a chance to use the nifty GPS device he had recently bought. And it was just a bicycle ride away.
"It was basically a woods by a swamp," he recalled. "We found an interesting-shaped tree there and took a picture of it."
Jarrett told friends and family members about his find. A few got a kick out of it and hunted down other confluences in New England. Then Jarrett started the Web site.
"I can't say I was seriously thinking it would ever get anywhere," he said. "But why not? I just thought it would be interesting to see if anyone else would do this and send me their photos."
The rules were simple. Hunters had to take their photos within 100 meters of a whole-number confluence. If the spot lay on private property, Jarrett encouraged confluencers to seek permission, providing request letters in seven languages on his Web site. The points themselves are on land or within sight of land, except for some spots at the poles, where lines of longitude converge and confluences can be just a mile apart.
Slowly, word of the project spread, piquing the interest of computer and engineering types who were up for a little adventure. At the same time, GPS units, which triangulate signals from satellites, plunged in cost and soared in accuracy. Many now go for as little as $100, and most can pinpoint any spot on Earth within about 15 feet.
In Saudi Arabia, oil company engineer Colin Irvine marvels at the technology that has eased his treks through places such as the trackless orange dunes of the 250,000-square-mile Empty Quarter.
"This is definitely GPS country," he writes on the confluence Web site. "If you set up camp and drive away for a look around, you may find your tracks have disappeared within an hour if the wind is blowing. You may pass within 100 meters of camp and never see it behind the next dune, which is strangely like the last dune, and sort of like the next dune .... "
At last count, 73 of Saudi Arabia's 184 confluences had been visited, many of them by oil expatriates such as Irvine. Some of the confluences are just off whatever passes for a road, leading Irvine to admit a bit of what he calls "confluencial inadequacy."
"I read on the Web site about all these people finding confluences while hanging from ropes, clawing their way through manzanita, or cross-country skiing for 50 miles one way," he wrote after picnicking with friends mid-desert at 26 degrees north, 49 degrees east. "This trip didn't do anything to address this shortfall of self-image, but by God, this time we had chairs and coolers so we could savor the experience."
In fact, confluencing is not just a pastime for granite-jawed, Patagonia-clad thrill-seekers. In California, video game technical artist Spencer Lindsay is one of many confluencers who have packed their children into the van, headed for the Sierra, and made an educational weekend of it.
"The kids really loved it," said Lindsay, who lives in San Diego. "And before we went, it was really important for me to get out the atlas and help them figure out just where we are on our planet."
In Utah, state Judge David Mower has visited 18 of the state's 19 confluences, keeping his eye open for opportunities as he rides a circuit through five remote, rugged counties.
"In my work, I'm scheduled out weeks in advance," he said, but sometimes a case will settle quickly. He will veer off to pick off another confluence. "There's always this feeling of exultation," he said. "I always return to the courtroom refreshed."
No Minutes, No Seconds
For confluence-seekers, the eureka moment hits when zeroes start rolling into place on their GPS devices like so many cherries on a slot machine. That means that the fractions of degrees measured in minutes and seconds are vanishing and the lucky seeker is approaching the promised land.
"I get tunnel vision when that happens," said Matt Taylor, a musician in Fort Wayne, Ind. "You can forget completely about things like safety."
Beset by famished mosquitoes, Taylor waded chest deep into an Alaskan swamp to bag a confluence en route to Denali National Park.
"I didn't think about what could be lurking," he said. "I waded out and had no idea how deep I'd get with the next step."
With 86 visits in 30 countries under his belt, the undisputed king of confluencing is Peter Mosselberger, captain of a refrigerated cargo ship called the Nova Scotia.
"Frankly, I'm a lazy person," said Mosselberger, who was reached on the docks of Kaliningrad, Russia, while unloading frozen turkeys and chickens from Brazil. "I will not walk 20 miles through the mountains. I do only comfortable confluences."
For some of those, he didn't even have to leave his chair as he piloted his ship past offshore targets from Florida to Finland.
Others were not nearly so comfortable, despite the captain's preferences. Prodded by a local guide, he had to "leap like a he- goat" from hummock to hummock to avoid the quicksand of a treacherous bog in Russia.
"I was scared to death," he said. "We could have disappeared forever."
In northeast Nigeria, he was wary of snakes and crocodiles as he and his local shipping agent gingerly ambled down a jungle path toward 5 degrees north, 7 degrees east. But what turned them back less than half a mile from the confluence was a crude, man-made structure -- an "idol fence" set up to warn wanderers of the unseen power residing behind it.
Its message: "If you enter this territory without properly sacrificing an animal, you'll be afflicted with an incurable sickness," Mosselberger said.
"I would never dare to violate sacred areas," he added.
About 14% of the world's confluences have been bagged, but in the lower 48 states, only 65 of 867 remain unconquered. Many are in the hands of recalcitrant private owners or are on inaccessible government land, including Nevada's famous Area 51, the military base at the center of many a UFO conspiracy theory.
So what does America look like, at least from 802 arbitrary, more- or-less evenly spaced vantage points?
"I've been very surprised that it's not filled in with cities everywhere," said Jarrett, the project's founder. "I've been amazed that there are so few houses."
Yes, some confluencers have found their quarry smack in the middle of a North Carolina townhouse complex, an Ohio factory, a Mississippi trucking firm. But browsing through the Web site's U.S. photos, you discover shot after shot of farms and fields, Eastern hardwood forests and rolling Western plains.
Even in populous California, the state's 52 confluences somehow have managed to plunk themselves beyond cities.
The only confluence in the Los Angeles metropolitan area is in Whittier. While there is some debate about whether the exact spot is in a frontyard or on a nearby slope, the area is thickly wooded and tranquil. Other California confluences are in citrus groves, on mountaintops, in a Humboldt County forest and the desert at Joshua Tree National Park.
A Geek Moment
True to California, a remote confluence in the mountains of Mendocino County somehow drew two confluencing couples at the same time on the same January day.
"We made introductions all around, took group photos and enjoyed an excellent geek moment in the wilderness," wrote Jim Gaughran, one of the seekers.
Such moments are at the heart of confluencing. The photos might make a nice coffee-table book one day, but the activity has no real commercial value, Jarrett said. Geography instructors have used confluence quests as a teaching tool, he said, but most confluencers are turned on simply by the thrill of the hunt.
That tickles Miles Hicks, superintendent of golf courses for the city of Santa Cruz.
Until recently, he didn't know that a wooded area off the 10th fairway of DeLaveaga Golf Course hid 37 degrees north, 122 degrees west. Easily reached in a stroll from the clubhouse, the point has drawn at least 15 confluencers.
"These people really need something to do," Hicks said. "What ever happened to going to Hawaii?"[Illustration]
Caption: PHOTO: KING OF CONFLUENCE: Cargo ship captain Peter Mosselberger has made 86 confluence visits in 30 countries. But he admits: "I will not walk 20 miles.... I do only comfortable confluences."; PHOTOGRAPHER: Volodymyr Sydorenko For The Times
Credit: Times Staff Writer
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Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times