Prairie Lights: Some consoling news from inner space

Kerguelen

Tim Vasquez

With a map of northern Montana projected on the Indian Ocean, the town of Rudyard overlaps almost perfectly with an islet that is part of the Kerguelen Islands. We’re not sure why Winifred, lower right, is misspelled.

I was still trying to get my head around the news of the dwarf star and its seven planets when I made an amazing discovery about our own planet.

I suppose “discovery” isn’t quite the right word, since the fact was already out there and I merely stumbled upon it in the course of poking around the internet in search of something else.

That fact is this: The tiny burg of Rudyard, up there on the Hi-Line east of Chester, is the only community in the United States that sits atop a non-oceanic antipode. In other words, if you went straight through the Earth from every other city, town or census-designated place in the United States, you would come out the other side of the globe in salt water.

Only in Rudyard, population roughly 250, does the exactly opposite point of the globe consist of land, and then only by a whisker.

Rudyard’s is antipodal to the Kerguelen Islands, an archipelago consisting of one large land mass and 300 smaller islands and islets. One of those little islands happens to overlap, in projection on the other side of the world, almost perfectly with Rudyard, as you can see on the map above.

A bit of northern Alaska is antipodal to Antarctic lands, and a few uninhabited specks of central Colorado are opposite a couple of islands that, like the Kerguelens, are lost in the vast reaches of the southern Indian Ocean, but Rudyard is the only town in the United States antipodal to terra firma.

I’m sure Rudyard, out there on the high plains, can seem pretty isolated at times, especially in the dead of a long winter, but the Kerguelens, also known as the Desolation Islands, are more than 2,000 miles from the nearest populated place, in Madagascar.

The Kerguelens were named for the Frenchman who discovered them in 1772. The next visitor was the celebrated Captain Cook, who spent a bleak Christmas on the main island in 1776. Cook described it as a “cold blustering wet country (with) the melancholy croaking of innumerable penguins,” and it was he who called it the “Island of Desolation.”

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I found it powerfully consoling, somehow, to have discovered this information last week. I was coming off the flu, for one thing, and my brain had been unwilling to latch onto anything at all for five or six days. My interest in Rudyard seemed to be a sign that my brain was on the mend.

I also cherished it because none of my desultory internet research turned up a single instance of anyone denying that Rudyard was antipodal to land. In short, probably because of the peaceful obscurity of both Rudyard and the Kerguelen Islands, this appeared to be one of those rare facts for which there were no alternatives, in the very modern sense of that word.

There was one more reason I found this “discovery” consoling—it reminded me how big this world is, despite the shrinkage engendered by air travel, Google Earth and near-universal, near-instantaneous communication.

Montana can seem awfully expansive if you are, say, driving across the Hi-Line, but nearly all of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America, at their antipodes, are swallowed up by the Indian Ocean. I’m guessing there’s no cell service on Desolation Island.

All of which makes me wonder whether Rudyard has given any thought to capitalizing on its antipodal distinction. The most obvious first step would be establishing a sister-city relationship with Port-aux-Francais, the only inhabited place on the islands.

Port-aux-Francais is more of a scientific base than a city, but it does have a church and a pub, which, in Montana, is enough to qualify any wide spot in the road as a town. There is also a gymnasium in Port-aux-Francais, if anyone is wondering about basketball tournaments.

Additionally, my research turned up the fact that while there are many antipodal communities outside of the United States, there are no non-stop scheduled commercial flights between any pair of them.

In today’s world, where increasing numbers of people have too much money and are always looking for new ways to spend it, a nonstop flight from Rudyard to Port-aux-Francais could be the next big thing. You could bill it as the ultimate get-away.

Of course, if current trends continue, it might be hard to find respite even on Desolation Island. It may be necessary to travel to one of those small planets orbiting that red dwarf star in the constellation Aquarius.

When I mentioned how big the world is, I was speaking relatively. The universe is so large that NASA described the newly discovered planetary system as “nearby,” while the New York Times used the phrase “not too far away”—a mere 235 trillion miles.

That’s a long way even for people accustomed to traversing Highway 2, but we live in a period of rapid technological advances. It’s entirely possible that someone now living could visit one of those recently found planets.

Unless they’re inhabited and they’ve been watching us. They might be working on a wall as we speak.

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