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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.

June 12, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

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 .... "

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