Rainer Mautz visited his first confluence nearly a decade ago, at the point on the planet where the 20th parallel North above the equator meets the 106th meridian East. He found it in the back yard of a Vietnamese farmhouse, about a three-day bike ride in the August heat south from Hanoi. The unsuspecting family inside offered him and his traveling partner green tea.
There are 64,442 of these perfect integer degree confluences on earth, places where the theoretical latitudes and longitudes that humans have drawn to navigate the globe crisscross at actual, pinpoint-able locations. A little more than 14,000 of them are on land not near either of the poles (and about 2,000 more are over accessible water where you might still be able to make out land in the distance). You can, in other words, try to visit these places—at least, if you have a GPS device in hand.
Mautz has since tried to hunt down 380 more confluences in 80 countries, most recently this summer in China, Spain, and the United States. Every one of them is cataloged as part of the Degree Confluence Project, a grassroots, international effort to survey the world’s places by documenting these conceptual intersections that are at once random and precise. The project, which dates back to 1996, calls itself "an organized sampling of the world." That’s a much more poetic way to put an activity that might look, to bewildered outsiders, more like a quixotic quest to visit the middle of nowhere, everywhere.
"I find it interesting, this argument that it’s a waste of time, there’s nothing in it, that you should do other things," says Mautz, a German geodesist who describes himself as having "quite a normal day job" at a university in Zurich. "But many hobbies, if you play tennis, or you throw a ball back and forth, is there any progress, any sense in it? In this project, there’s actually a common goal. It actually makes sense."
In fact, more sense than a game of baseball, if you pause to think about it. The cumulative and growing archive of the project (which has, as of this year, knocked off more than a third of the 16,345 confluences at its goal) reveals a stunning diversity of landscapes. Each visited confluence is documented in photos and stories on the project’s website. Collectively, the images speak to the fact that you could drop a pin on most parts of the world and bump into hardly a soul there. Few of the pictures include any signs of human life. This also means that many of these places—on the side of a cliff, in the heart of a jungle, at the center of a lake—are not that easy to access.
Shawn Fleming, a retired Air Force pilot, spent a couple of days in July hunting across the 38th and 39th parallels in Utah and Colorado, as part of his methodical tour of the Southwest (he’s hit almost every confluence in California, and 170 in all). He learned long ago traveling with his children to places like Yellowstone that the world is seldom best observed from a designated parking lot. "We’d often go out in the middle of nowhere," he says, "and found it’s just as fascinating there as, say, the tourists’ spots."
This activity lures adventurers who share that philosophy, as well as hikers enticed by the logistical challenge of getting to these places, and also sticklers compulsive enough to take joy in the sight of something as mathematically neat as this:
"It’s like a drug," Mautz says of the addicting nature of this hunt. Wherever you are on Earth, you’re within 49 miles of a confluence, which also makes these places seem both mysterious and accessible. Mautz earlier this month was back in the United States for a conference on satellite navigation. Before heading to the event, he and a friend ran a half-marathon in Zanesville, Ohio, a town that happens to sit atop the meeting place of 40 North and 82 West.
Mautz, of course, had to go looking for its precise location, and he found it on the driveway of a private home with a for-sale sign out front. "So if you want to buy a degree confluence point," he says laughing, "you can do it in Zanesville."