The Center of the World

Since I can’t travel this fall, at least not for pleasure, I’m going to revisit here one of my favorite spots in the American Southwest.

Interstate 8 leaves Casa Grande in Arizona and drifts west into the Sonoran Desert. It’s 175 miles to Yuma and maybe a stop for lunch. But Yuma is a sprawling patch of asphalt and traffic and McDonalds. Too much like home. And that’s not why I came.

Across what’s left of the Colorado River (and it isn’t much, just enough to trickle down to the Gulf of California in a good year) lie the Algodones Dunes of southern Cali­fornia. It’s less than two hundred miles to San Diego and the Pacific, but I turn off the highway just after entering the Dunes.

There isn’t a lot here. Dirty sand, blazing sun. And a tiny dot of a town called Felicity.

Felicity has a part-time post office. No other amenities. No streets. No stores.

But it’s the Center of the World.

If you think I’m joking, you can look it up. And you’ll learn of Jacque-Andre Istel, Korean War veteran, adven­turer, successful businessman, and a man of some charm. He bought the land here, thousands of acres of baking sand, probably for a song, and thought about what to do with it. Inspiration struck, and he persuaded Imperial County to designate a plaque he placed under a pyramid as The Center of the World, then incorporated a town and named it for his wife, Felicia.

All in fun, perhaps. But no joke. Mayor Istel is a forever-young romantic, and Felicity his personal monument to the human spirit.

Monuments are usually made of granite, and here are many hundreds of feet of it, long pink slabs of polished granite with the history of the world engraved for the ages, in text and illustrations, laid out like a crystal ball atop an hourglass. That’s what it looks like, at least, from space.

http://www.bing.com/maps

It’s a museum without walls, and Istel its curator. He selects the history, and, so far as I know, cares little for expert opinion. This is not a museum designed by committee.

The long slabs are divided into panels, dozens and dozens of them. Not surprisingly there are panels honoring the Marines lost in Korea, and the French Legion­naires who willingly parachuted into the hopeless siege at Dien Bien Phu. But there are long, long stretches devoted to many aspects of human history besides war, from aviation to languages, from classical Rome to women’s equality.

For Istel is an optimist, and the small panel with his own dedication ends with, “In hope that the human race will endure far longer than this stone.”

Amen.

Standing at The Center of the World, you can believe that it will.

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