Cadott, Wisconsin billboard.
Cadott, Wisconsin marks its halfway point in the town park; the real spot is a few miles north.

When Halfway is Far Enough

Milestones Along the 45th Parallel

We are reminded daily, in everything from Lexus advertising inserts to Tony Robbins infomercials, that halfway is for losers. We are told that we must never stop growing -- emotionally, spiritually, financially -- that we can, will, MUST pursue ever-distant perfection or be left in the dust. What satisfied Americans last week now only satisfies barbarians with socialized economies and fecklessdreams.

And yet, for some of us, there is an invisible belt across the upper reaches of the Lower 48 (and parts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario as well) that proves that halfway is far enough.

Peshtigo Theoretical Halfway Marker.
Peshtigo Theoretical Halfway Marker.

The 45th Parallel, a line of latitude halfway to the Equator and halfway to the North Pole, invisibly beckons map lovers, or those attempting to calibrate their GPS devices. But anyone can put together a 45th Parallel travel adventure. One place to start is the first of the U.S. markers along the invisible line.

In 1896, an enterprising, dare-we-say visionary, American put up a monument -- a tiny hunk of pink granite, now worn and stained with age -- to point it out. It's north of the town of Perry, Maine, which is about as far east asyou can get in the U.S. Engraved on it are the words, "This stone marks latitude 45 degrees north, halfway from the equator to the pole."

Westward, other American towns and civic boosters followed Perry's lead. Green highway signs, historical markers, plaques on rocks, even billboards, have been erected to remind travelers they are at a meaningful spot, even if it isn't any more meaningful than the same spot five, or ten, or five hundredmiles east or west of it.

Beaver, Wisconsin marker.
Beaver, Wisconsin marker.

For example, in the 1930s, newspaper editor Frank E. Noyes put up plaques around his hometown of Marinette, Wisconsin to mark the halfway line. One, south of Peshtigo, is diplomatically labeled "Theoretical Half Way Point" because Frank knew that the 45th Parallel is not, in fact, exactly halfway. The Earth is an oblate spheroid, flattened at the poles and bulging at the equator because of its rotation -- which shifts the halfway line slightly north.

So Frank also placed two "Half Way North" plaques at what he felt was the proper latitude, one north of Beaver, Wisconsin,and the other north of Menominee, Michigan.

No one thought to build a 45th Parallel National Highway, so visiting a sequence of markers can be a minor odyssey along perpendicular farm roads and weed chokedpoint-of-interest pull-offs.

Poniatowski's Geological Marker for the
Halfway picnickers at Poniatowski's Geological Marker for the "Exact Center of the Northern Half of the Western Hemisphe

To further torque your topology tripping, plan to spend a minute at the "Exact Center of the Northern Half of the Western Hemisphere." A hemisphere halfway point occurs at only four spots on Earth. Two are under water, one is in northwestern China, and the other one is just down the road from Poniatowski, Wisconsin.

Poniatowski is comprised of a church, a bar, and a couple of houses. In the early 1970s, John Gesicki, owner of Gesicki's General Store and Tavern, petitionedthe U.S. Geological Survey to mark the spot. Gesicki then named Poniatowski "The Center of the Northwestern World" and established the "45 x 90 Club" at his bar.

Visitors were encouraged to buy 45 x 90 Club t-shirts, bumper stickers, and post cards, and to sign the bar's guest register, which eventually overflowed with thousands of names.

Poniatowski eventually tapped out the 45th Parallel lode. Gesicki's closed in 2003. The 45 x 90 Club is no more [The Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitor Bureau kept Gesicki's original club registry and invites visitors to sign it]. But the survey marker is still in the ground, accompanied now by a big wooden sign within a small, square, fenced-in plot of land off of a dirt road -- "Meridian Road" -- surrounded by farm fields.

The Lombardi Family pauses at the 45th Parallel sign during an otherwise normal vacation in Michigan.
The Lombardi Family pauses at the 45th Parallel sign during an otherwise normal vacation in Michigan.

Probably the boldest 45th Parallel cartographic marker is one created by the town of Halfway, in eastern Oregon. Though originally dubbed Halfway because its post office was between two towns, the town name was later promoted for its proximity to the Parallel. In January 2000, its town council voted to change the town's name to Half.com, an e-commerce web site, to the amusement of journalistsaround the world.

In the thin air of the post-dotcom bubble, Halfway's name change never broke the profit barrier for "America's first dot-com city." But when it comes to abstract destinations, a vanished web site that trafficked in digital bits and bytes is not so different from an invisible, globe-spanningcartographic line.

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August 1, 2014

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