I almost made it to the geographical center of the United States a few weeks ago, but something prevented me. A little background.
The U.S. Geological Survey has decided that the center of the U.S. is in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, in the northwest corner of that state. The locals have erected a plaque to celebrate the spot. On my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I happened to be going right through Belle Fourche, a town of 5000 with a culture shaped by nearby ranchers, farmers, and strip miners. They mine bentonite there, known as “the mud clay of a thousand uses.”
As I drove along Highway 85, a sign informed me that if I turned right, I would find another sign just up the road informing me that I was smack dab in the center of my country. But instead of taking the extra ten minutes to drive there, take a selfie, and get back on the road, I felt a sudden urge to just drive on. How could this place be the center of my country? The land was trashy, the bumper stickers and billboards were mean-spirited, and the location was not only isolated, but felt disconnected. Of course, I was being judgmental. But please don’t judge me too quickly. There might be legitimate reasons we feel offended from time to time.
I have been haunted ever since by my refusal to see this landmark. So, I did further research, and discovered that the plaque in Belle Fourche stated that the center of the U.S. was at Latitude 44 degrees and 58 minutes north, Longitude 103 degrees and 46 minutes west. But this sign was at a different latitude and longitude! It should have been located about 20 miles north of where it actually was.
South Dakota has only hosted the geographical center of the US for about sixty years. The middle of the country used to be in Kansas (before Alaska and Hawaii became states 49 and 50.) In the early 20th century a committee made a cardboard map of the 48 states and figured out where the whole thing would balance on a pencil. It turned out to be on a hog farm just outside Lebanon, Kansas. To keep tourists from disturbing the hogs, they placed a decoy plaque a half mile away. Again, fake tourism.
I guess I have aspirations for the “center of my country.” For starters, it would be nice if we could be truthful. Furthermore, it seems as though the center of the country should match the “heart” of the country. It should reflect the magnitude of our history, diversity, and ideals. When approaching such a place I should be able to sense something of our nation's power, joy, and ambition. The closer I get to the center of my country, the closer I should feel to home. But in Belle Fourche, I only felt a long way from home.
Perhaps I should have been looking for the population center of the country, rather than the geological center. In 1950, the population center of the country was right outside Olney, Illinois, where I served my first church. Then in 1960 it moved to Centralia, Illinois, where my very good friend Mark Myers is from. But with the popularity of air conditioning, and the emigration to California, the population center began to move south and further west. By 2010 it was just outside Plato, Missouri, population 109. The only famous person from there is one of the screenwriters for Desperate Housewives. I suspect I wouldn’t feel any more at home there than in Belle Fourche.
Christianity teaches what is called Centering Prayer. It is a ritual designed to help us connect with our creator. It delivers us from the humiliations life inflicts and ushers us into a peace that can only be found in being genuinely humble. We discover the value of our own selves and of others. While most Christians have never practiced this particular ritual, all people of a healthy religion have found ways to approach these same benefits. Even secular people fall apart if they do not find some way to make it back to the center.
I guess “finding the center” is no small matter for me, particularly now that my life is changing dramatically in retirement, now that my body is aging, now that my church and my country are at such loose ends, now that there is such disconnection in the pandemic…
All due respect to Belle Fourche, I was seeking a “center” more desperately than I realized, and when I was just about to come across the marker they had placed, I knew instinctively it wasn’t what I was seeking. I didn’t just not stop, I fled away: desperate but not despairing. Belle Fourche overpromised. The center I’m seeking is not in any one place, nor person, nor ideology. I keep running across bits and pieces of it: in different places, books, relationships, experiences… Like Centering Prayer, finding the gift may or may not deliver at any given moment. Finding the center is always an ambush, surprising us when we discover it. And so, like I said, I'm just desperate, but not at all depressed or despairing.