19-Jul-2003 -- I found out in late June of 2003 that I would be traveling to Huntsville, Alabama for the 39th Joint Propulsion Conference. Having contracted "confluence fever" after visiting four in May, I decided to check the area for unvisited confluences. There were three in the general vicinity-two in Alabama and one in Georgia. I made plans to visit all three, but was unsuccessful in obtaining permission to visit 31°N, 88°W. The other virgin confluence in Alabama was in private forest, with Georgia Pacific signs marking the perimeter of the target area (see prior incomplete visit).
After a hellacious round of phone "ping pong" (about ten calls), I finally found a gentleman who could help me obtain permission to visit the property. Georgia Pacific sold all their timber property to Plum Creek, and a nice fellow named Glenn Johnson at Plum Creek helped me out immensely. He described the property, helped me plan my route, and told me about the flora and fauna I would encounter along the way to 32°N, 86°W. I had to sign a five-page legal document, relieving Plum Creek of any liability during my traverse of their land. Glenn told me that folks occasionally request permission to visit Plum Creek sites, typically to hunt deer, look for old cemeteries (presumably for genealogical research), or to pick blueberries. A request to hunt a confluence, I'm quite sure, was something new entirely.
Anyway, I left LAX on Friday night, July 18, 2003, on a red-eye flight to Huntsville on Northwest Airlines, via a connection in Memphis. I spilled cranberry juice all over my bare legs, thus providing further invitation for southern mosquitoes to attack my alabaster limbs for a sugary treat. I had just put in a few double shifts at work, so with only one hour of sleep total on the two flights, I was feeling a bit groggy following my arrival in Huntsville. After finally getting my rental car at the Hertz counter (all of their computers were down), I started heading south towards the confluence. I knew I was in the right part of the country when I saw a Piggly Wiggly delivery truck. Even with virtually no sleep, I decided to stop in Birmingham to check out the Civil Rights Institute. It was a wonderful museum that paid tribute to those that struggled through the civil unrest of 1960's Alabama.
I hit the road again, heading south towards Montgomery. After a quick stop at the Dairy Queen near Verbena (don't tell my cardiologist about the foot-long chili dog, fries, Dr. Pepper, and local ice cream treat called a "Pecan Mudslide"), I used brute force to remove a buried tick (my first) from my calf and set off. I tried to brace myself for the heat and humidity of Alabama, but I was not prepared for the last vestiges of Tropical Storm Claudette that hit the region earlier in the week. I encountered a few nasty storms south of Montgomery while driving Highway 231. At one point, I had to slow to 35 mph due to the fierce downpour. The highway was a four-lane divided road, with a wide grass median between the lanes. I dodged certain injury when a white pick-up in an oncoming lane hydroplaned and did three or four 360's, slid across the grass median, and ended up in my lane about two car lengths behind me. Gulp! I pressed on, noticing lightning flashes right above the confluence.
I turned left on County Rd. 37, just after the Pike County line, with the confluence a few miles away. I found what surely was my gate and took a GPS reading with my Garmin receiver. It displayed 31° 58.319' N and 85° 59.622' W, so I knew I was quite close (1.97 miles as the crow flies, to be exact). The rain had stopped and the road didn't seem too bad for walking, so I loaded up my GPS and digital camera (both borrowed from a co-worker) and throwaway camera (for redundancy) and set off. I don't own a backpack, so I put these items in my attaché case, along with drinking water and my maps. I also put on some "lounge" pants and tucked them into my wool socks, thus providing less pasty-white real estate for the local blood-sucking arthropods. "Lounge" pants are kind of a cross between sweat pants and pajama bottoms, which made for quite a sight in the Alabama wilderness.
I made many mistakes during this confluence hunt, and this became obvious less than 100' into my trek. The road was red clay, full of high grasses and water-filled ruts. I brought my boat shoes, and they were poorly suited for this terrain. Undaunted, I slopped on, swatting away many mosquitoes along with the occasional chigger or tick. I did get my first chigger bite in twenty years; living in California has really spoiled me with respect to bug bites! I did see some beautiful blue-and-black iridescent butterflies, along with some enormous deer among the grasses and timberland. After traveling about half a mile and nearly losing my footing many times, I came to a dead-end in the road. In looking at my GPS, I had slowly come to the realization that I had started at the wrong gate! Aaaargh! I didn't drive far enough on County Rd. 37, so I started at a point south and west of my intended jumping-off point. Just then, as I started trudging back through the muck, disheartened and a bit nervous, I heard a slew of gunfire! I was told that deer hunters might be on this property as well, since they also had obtained permission to be there. Praying that I wouldn't be gunned down in an Alabama forest, I pressed on and finally arrived back to the car.
I regrouped and checked out my ruined shoes and pants, offering them up as a sacrifice to the confluence gods. Undeterred, though, I decided to find the true gate. I drove northeast and crossed under the power transmission lines, a helpful landmark on my map. Just to be sure I had found the correct gate, I drove a few miles to the end of County Rd. 37 and verified my expectations. Convinced that I was now familiar with the area, I backtracked and turned left into a driveway. It turned out to be a Lockheed Martin missile facility! After nearly getting shot yet again, I explained my mission. The local law enforcement officer was there, so he offered to show me the correct gate. It was the one I had suspected during my traverses of County Rd. 37. After explaining confluence hunting to the officer, I asked him if he could join me. He said he couldn't (understandably), but I did ask him to send someone in after me (or my corpse) if I hadn't returned to my car within two to three hours. He led me to the correct gate, and I set off from there. My GPS reading at that point was 31° 58.993' N and 85° 59.237' W, so I was a mere 1.38 miles from the confluence as the crow flies. Actually, I estimate that the walking distance to the confluence was closer to 1.90 miles, a trek for a couch potato such as myself. Anyway, the road looked much better, so I set off on foot with renewed vigor.
The sojourn to the confluence immediately turned sour, as the road again deteriorated to the same weed-laden, water-filled, red-clay nightmare within the first 100'. I pressed on, occasionally hearing bleats of nearby forest animals (perhaps goats?). Nearly one mile into the journey, I encountered a particularly nasty region of water-soaked red clay. I plunged eighteen inches into the muck and pulled my right foot out, only to find that my boat shoe was gone forever! Oh, boy. This was probably the darkest moment of the journey, because I wondered if I was setting into motion the steps that would lead to a well-deserved Darwin Award (granted posthumously, of course). Ignoring my last vestige of common sense, I pressed on with one shoe. I crossed under the transmission line, happy to see a landmark that I could cross-reference with my map. I nearly lost the other shoe at least a dozen times, and my GPS batteries started running low. I had spares in the attaché case, though, so no worries.
I finally crossed the 86th W. parallel and prepared to bushwhack north about 500'. I was told that there would be a light, herbaceous understory, with some briars and honeysuckle. Well, the "light" understory turned out to be thick foliage above my head, dominated by briars! Without a machete, I made very little progress into this "jungle." I backtracked, headed east, and then took a left on a poor excuse for a road. I finally encountered the 32nd N. parallel, where a "road" conveniently headed back west. I trekked to the west but became discouraged as the road turned to the northwest. Eventually, I realized I would have to bushwhack again, this time to the southwest. First, though, I had to cross what looked to be a small swamp-with one shoe, no less! I told myself it might just be a localized area of flooding as I crossed about 10' of bayou, trying not to think about snakes. The bushwhacking that followed was at least as difficult as what I had done before. I started getting many small cuts on my arms from the briars. Generally, I used my left (shoed) foot to press down briars and then gingerly placed my right foot down, trying to avoid stickers. I went as far as I could and then stopped, checking the GPS. The receiver read 31° 59.997' N and 85° 59.970' W when I snapped my digital picture, though the initial GPS latitude reading was exactly 32°N. The GPS accuracy was 33.5', with five satellites tracking; Garmin also provided an elevation estimate of 457'.
I was discouraged to not obtain all zeroes on the GPS, but then I perked up when I realized I had probably logged a successful visit. It was now time to dust off the trigonometry that Mrs. Neal taught me in high school. I knew that the circumference of the Earth at 32°N was about 25000 miles times the cosine of 32 degrees, which is darn close to the cosine of 30 degrees, which I remembered to be 0.866 (one-half times the square root of three). Therefore, 360° of arc at this latitude is worth about 21650 miles. This number is actually conservative, since I used 30° instead of 32° (for convenient trigonometry). Using this ratio, I estimated about 60 miles per degree of east-west arc, which was a great round-number result! I therefore knew one minute of arc was equivalent to one mile, so I could tell that I was only 1/30th of a mile from the confluence. Recalling that there are 5280 feet per mile, I realized that I was only about 176' from the confluence. Even including the 34' of GPS uncertainty, I now knew I was about 210' from the confluence, or 64 meters. This was within the generous 100-meter accuracy requirement of the DCP, so at that moment, I knew all my travails had been worth it! Thank you, thank you, DCP, for your 100-meter tolerance policy! Given the terrain, I just couldn't go any further. All of this trig would have been superfluous if I had just known how to mark a waypoint in this borrowed GPS. Oh, well, it's not often you get to do trig in an Alabama pine forest! Checking my results with an "exact" calculation of my closest approach, I estimate that I was within 189' (58 meters) of the confluence. So close and yet so far!
At my stopping point, I took digital photos in the four cardinal directions. Since the understory was so high, I held the camera above my head for the photos, at an approximate height of 8.0' (2.4 meters). Based on aerial views of the property, my photos should be representative of the view from the true confluence. This area is loblolly pine forest, with trees about 45-50' tall and 20-40' apart. The pines in this area were planted in 1975 and will be harvested within a few years. A few hundred feet to the north is a stand of oak and sweet gum. These hardwoods are used as a stream buffer, for protection from water. Turkey, quail, and rabbits are known to inhabit this forest, though I didn't see any of these creatures. I took a picture of my asymmetrically attired feet at the closest approach point, as well as a hand-held self-portrait.
Fatigued, overheated, and perspiring, I retraced my steps to the car as the sun headed down in the west. The trip out was much less adventurous, though I did nearly lose my one remaining shoe many more times during the two-mile voyage. I felt a huge sense of relief when I spied my white rented Toyota. I stopped again at the Lockheed Martin plant and asked where I might buy some shoes. They directed me towards Montgomery, naturally, and I eventually stopped at a convenience store on Highway 231. The two gals working there saw me enter, covered in red clay and half-shoeless. They said, "You poor dear! What happened?" I gave them the short version, and then asked if they sold shoes. They said they did not, but then one said, "Honey, three stoplights down is a Wal-Mart. It's open 24 hours. They'll take care of you." I'm sure it was quite a sight when I walked into the Wal-Mart just southeast of Montgomery at 9 pm on a Saturday evening, covered in red clay, effectively in my pajama bottoms, walking around with one shoe! I bought six pairs of white gym socks, some black tennis shoes, and two bottles of water for $19.93! Ah, bless good old Wally World! I hit their bathroom and threw out my socks, shoe, and lounge pants. I cleaned up the red clay all over my legs and feet, making a royal mess in the process. I then cleaned up the Wal-Mart bathroom as best I could and did a drive-by, after-dark tour of downtown Montgomery. I saw the capitol building, the 1st White House of the Confederacy, and the corner where Rosa Parks was arrested. Even though I was beat, I set off for 32°N, 83°W some 250 miles away. What an unbelievable adventure and challenge this confluence turned out to be! I'll never forget it. I would like to send a special thank-you out to Glenn Johnson and Plum Creek for permission to visit the property. Perhaps someday I'll return and obtain the coveted all-zeroes GPS photo!