Our Hero, Zero

Intrepid map nerds discover a new GPS pursuit.

By Julian Smith October 11, 2010

The hillside spot, about 30 miles southwest of Mount Hood near Bagby Hot Springs, looks like any other bit of mossy Oregon forest, with sunlight flickering through an evergreen canopy. But a GPS unit reports that this is, in fact, a special place: 45º00’00” N, 122º00’00” W, to be exact. It’s a “confluence,” one of 64,442 places on Earth where a line of latitude meets a line of longitude. Eureka!

Such are the geeky joys of confluence hunting, the latest geographic-cum-outdoorsy pursuit to scratch the same arcane itch as geocaching. Since the mid-’90s, lat-long enthusiasts have shared photos and notes online at the Degree Confluence Project. Confluence hunters have already bagged every target in the continental US and mainland Europe, and the list is steadily growing in Alaska, Asia, and elsewhere. Oregon alone boasts 31 grid points, including a handful within day-trip distance of Portland.

Aside from the strange satisfaction of seeing all those digital zeros roll up on your Garmin, what’s the point? Former Portlander Ada Kerman, one of the Confluence Project’s original members—and the first to claim 45º N, 123º W—says reaching these often-remote locations poses a satisfying challenge, even if someone else has been there first. “Bring spare batteries for all your devices,” she advises, “and allow more time than you think it will take.”
And in the Northwest, at least, this wonky diversion carries some mythic resonance. In 1851, a tiny frontier survey team braved the primordial Cascadian woods (now Portland’s West Hills) to hammer a stake into the intersection of the Willamette Meridian and Willamette Baseline. The spot still defines all land surveys and private property descriptions in Oregon and Washington.

Modern confluence hunters reenact such epic efforts, and in a world whose farthest corners have been mapped, confluence hunting renews the thrill of discovery. For the truly hardcore, plenty of confluences remain up for grabs. Anyone game for Tajikistan (37º N, 72º E, among others)?

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