(Editor’s Note: Dear, dear reader. My advice to you is the same as it was as Andrew got a couple paragraphs into writing this morning: halt. There’s nothing to be gained by reading a word of it and plenty to be lost, chiefly, your valuable time. Andrew admitted that his only goal at the outset was to inform people that he was heading to Spain and Portugal soon, and to convey the thought that he’s been mulling of late that there’s much more of the world that he hasn’t seen than he has, and a determination to try to rectify that, but as you’ll see if you choose to disregard my warning, the thread gets quickly lost in the strange labyrinth of Andrew’s 3 am mind.)
I’m in an expansive frame of mind. No doubt it will affect what I write today.
Recently, I had a thought: I wonder what percentage of the world I’ve seen.
How would one go about estimating that?
Sure, I could look up the total land area of the planet, then total the area of every state in the US I’ve been to plus every country I’ve traveled to outside of the US and divide that number into the total, then multiply the result by 100…
Too much math. Nix that.
Plus, really, how much of each state and country have I actually seen? I’ve had a layover in Heathrow before. Can I add England to the list of countries I’ve been to? How much of my own state of Colorado, where I’ve lived for most of my life, have I seen? Even half of it?
In the southwestern corner of Colorado, there’s a National Monument called “Four Corners” where the corners of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet. Go there, pay the $8 entry fee, and you can put your finger directly on the center of the bronze monument and literally touch the tip of each state.
Let’s imagine someone from Hawaii who had never visited mainland US before flies into Las Vegas, Nevada, and immediately charters a helicopter to the Four Corners National Monument while blindfolded. The pilot lands the chopper directly next to the monument, the passenger pulls off their blindfold, leans out of the chopper, and touches the “X marks the spot”. Could they claim to have seen all four states? Technically, sure, but even if they look up and scan the horizon from that vantage point, the actual percentage of the area of the four states they could claim to have seen would be, what, .1%? .01?
Not to get bogged down in minutiae, but I’m about to get really bogged down in minutiae. Because accurately calculating land area, come to find out, is difficult.
Actually, it’s impossible. Land isn’t perfectly flat anywhere, including the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, a place so laser line flat they use it to try to break land speed records with vehicles more like wingless jets than cars. One square foot of that relatively flat, salty ground, were you able to shrink down to the size of an ant, with a correspondingly small measuring wheel whose numbers now reflected fractions proportionate to your diminutive size, is not so flat anymore. Now the surrounding ground is quite rocky, and as the measuring wheel bumps up and over the rocks, you end up with a longer measurement than the initial 12”. Now, it might be something more like 13 3/8”. Shrink further to one-third the height of your average grain of salt and you’ll find the resulting landscape quite hilly and bouldery. Now, were you able to roll your wheel over and under all the Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass-sized boulders surrounding you, your measurement might end up being, let’s say, 43 7/16”. Surface is surface, as my friend, the artist Sean O’Meallie likes to say. (Ed. Note: Sean was not consulted in the writing of this post. Sorry, Sean.)
Or think about Colorado again. It’s land area is officially 103.5K square miles, but that doesn’t account for all the mountainous verticality. If the state’s topography were made from a sheet of 20 gauge steel, and you could take a giant press and squish all the mountains and hills flat, the resulting land area would be much larger. Maybe it would be 178.2K square miles. Possibly 178.3. But thin steel can only conform to the surface of the ground so much. If you viewed a cross section of the steel at close range, you’d find gaps where the steel missed some of the gaps in between rocks, to say nothing of the gaps between pebbles, grains of dirt, dust, molecules, the space between atoms, etc. At some point, unless the sheet of steel is infinitely thin, you have to generalize.
Let’s take our measuring wheel and shrink down to the size of an atomic particle, where grains of salt are, let’s say, the size the sun is to our actual bodily scale. The measurement resulting from rolling the wheel over and between the perhaps tens of thousands of suns that it would take to make up 1’ of Bonneville Salt Flats ground would transform 12” into perhaps a length that would reach to the moon and back. Probably much, much further, since you’d have to measure up and over and around all the atoms that made up the outer edge of each grain of salt. Or, smaller still, you’d have to measure individual quarks, if that were possible, which would be tough, as they evidently have a propensity to move in all sorts of strange ways, but where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.
Here’s a question to ponder: If you could shrink down to that size without yourself becoming a field of disembodied quarks, and your measuring wheel shrank along with you, wouldn’t your beady eyes be able to see things that were yet smaller? Let’s say you also took a pin with you as you shrank. Let’s say you’re a quadrillion times smaller than a quark. You take out a magnifying glass and examine the head of your even smaller pin. If it were possible to view the pin, why couldn’t you shrink yet further, down to where you could safely dance on the head of the pin without fear of slipping off its convex surface, now, so seemingly flat that you might start a Flat Pinhead Society? Talk about a tiny dancer…
All that to say that one linear foot of earth, anywhere on Earth, is, “nearly” infinitely large. It all depends on scale and the precision of your measuring instrument. Oh, and possibly your imagination.
I recall debating such genius-level theories with my brother, Gijo, when we were kids. My frankly superior argument was that there was no end to how small things could theoretically be – that there could always be a yet smaller Russian Doll. Gijo’s argument was that there would be some sort of stopping point where things simply couldn’t be broken down into yet smaller things. The shrinking machine would tap out at some point. It’s as if you’d finally shrink down to a level where, say, you’d peer into your similarly proportionately shrunken microscope to view an impossibly tiny sign on a slide, invisible to the naked, beady eye, informing you, “Congratulations! Way to go! There’s absolutely nothing smaller than this sign. You did it. Don’t know how you did, or, frankly, why, but you did. Now, would you please grow up.”
At this point, my brother’s and my debate would devolve further. He’d say he was right, and I’d say he was wrong. Right, wrong, right, wrong. Right, right, right, right, right so many times I can’t go over it, he’d say. I’d respond that that was impossible.
Now that we’re grown up, I’m still fairly confident that my brother was wrong. Had he come along me on my journey to infinitesimal and beyond, I’d ask him to view the microscope and make note of the period at the end of one of the sentences on the sign. If that sign’s correct, and there’s nothing smaller than it, then what’s that, I’d say. Then I’d rest my case. Period.
I think that if it were possible to shrink indefinitely there would always be a smaller fraction and a smaller fraction and a yet smaller fraction. Maybe there comes a point where all there is is “field” or a whole lot of nothing, but I don’t think so. (Ed. Note: that’s more than I can say for this post.)
But I’m tired of thinking small, to say nothing of small talk. I’m interested in experiencing different cultures, meeting different, interesting people, learning new things, tasting different food, seeing new sights, etc. In other words, a larger, more expansive life.
Because while I’ve been to Oklahoma, I’ve never been to Spain. Or Portugal. In fact, I kid you not, I was actually driving out of Oklahoma one very early morning a couple years ago when “Never Been To Spain”, performed by Three Dog Night, came on the radio.
And so, later this month, my wife, our friend Kathy, and I plan to rectify that.