Sunday, November 12, 2017

At the Center of the World, History Is Dead. Long Live History.

If you were to visit a place that's touted as the "Center of the World," you might think you'd find it in Egypt, Israel, along the equator somewhere, or at the North or South Poles.

But then again, since Planet Earth is more or less a perfect sphere, pretty much anywhere you go on its surface can be construed as the "center."

Wherever you go, there you are. And so on.

If you were to ask anyone at the Imperial County office or the Institut Geographique National of the Government of France, however, by law they'd have to tell you that the Center of the World is in Felicity, California.



And for that—and all of the other attractions found in Felicity, the town he founded in 1986 and named after his wife Felicia—we have a French-born aeronaut named Jacques-Andre Istel to thank.



A pioneer in both sport and military free-fall parachuting, Istel is widely considered the "father of skydiving," but he's also the author of a children's book called Coe: The Good Dragon at the Center of the World.



Using the tale as inspiration, Istel built an actual pyramid in the desert, just like there is in the book—only this one is in the southeastern corner of California just a few miles west of Yuma, Arizona and just east of the Imperial Sand Dunes.



Istel also more or less elected himself mayor of Felicity and has since operated the "Center of the World" as a roadside tourist attraction. You need his set of keys to get inside the pyramid where the actual "center" is, and you need his signature to make your souvenir certificate official. And you can pretty much only do that between Thanksgiving and Easter, when the weather isn't quite so brutally hot here.



However, the grounds are more or less open all year, so although I arrived a bit too early in the season in October, I could occupy myself with the Museum of History in Granite—a series of 21 monuments comprised of various engraved and etched granite panels covering the History of the United States of America, the History of California, the History of Arizona, and the History of Humanity.



With some granite panels still blank, this "museum" is a work-in-progress that's made Mayor Istel somewhat of a significant historian of his time—though, based on the geometry and geography of Felicity, some might be apt to think he's something of an occultist.



In actuality, he built The Church on the Hill at Felicity and dedicated it in 2008 with the blessing of both Monsignor Richard W. O'Keeffe (on behalf of the Catholic Church) and Reverend Arthur P.Stanley (on behalf of Her Britannic Majesty's Forces).



It sits atop on the manmade "Hill of Prayer," engineered in 1996 and created in 2002 out of 150,000 tons of dirt with the sole purpose of keeping the chapel as the highest building in town.



With a design inspired by La Chapelle Notre-Dame d’Espérance in Brittany, France, it seems an appropriate landmark for a town whose name is derived from the ancient Roman term for divine happiness and blessedness, felicitas.



But there's also something unsettling about the town of Felicity, especially when it's not officially open.



The wind is brutal up there on that fake hill, not blocked by the chapel and, in fact, even perhaps worsened by it. The sand from the nearby dunes gives the entire compound a dusty pallor.



The monuments in the array stand there like triangular tombstones that memorialize events that have passed in short epitaphs, lest we forget.



Not surprisingly, they're the handiwork of master carver Ron Clamp of Memorial Design, a company that specializes in grave markers, headstones, mausolea, and other funerary monuments.



But, though they were built to last 4000 years, there's only so much room on those panels—so, by necessity, the histories etched in Missouri red granite are selective and incomplete. The "Rosetta Stone" is inscribed with only a tiny sliver of the languages that actually exist throughout humanity.



But it's impossible to always tell the whole story. There's always something you've got to leave out to avoid digression and oversaturation. And besides, the Museum of History in Granite is just a fraction of what there is to do and see in Felicity, too.



There's also the "railroad station," which looks like it's just for show but is located pretty close to the Southern Pacific Railway line that runs more or less parallel to the 8 Freeway from Yuma (and points beyond) to Sidewinder Road just east of Felicity. There, it bears northwest through the ghost town of Ogilby, where it once serviced the American Girl gold mine (on land now managed by the BLM).



And just as there's a station with no train, there's also a disembodied, rusted iron staircase—intriguingly once part of the Eiffel Tower in Mayor Istel's hometown of Paris, France.



One of 20 such sections from 1889 that were removed for safety reasons and sold at auction in 1983, this one—number 12 (Escalier élément no. 12 de la tour d'Eiffel)—weighs 6,600 pounds and stands 25 feet high in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.



It's missing its tower, and its tower is missing its original staircase. And, presented as an orphan sculpture, it serves no other purpose.

L'histoire est morte. Vive l'histoire.

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Photo Essay: A Fake Cemetery (with Real Headstones)
My High Desert Hideaway
Photo Essay: (Frank) Lloyd Wright's Joshua Tree Retreat
Photo Essay: The Triforium, A Disco Spaceship Gone Dark