Journey to the Center of the World

Its not everyday that you are able to travel to the Center of the World, but we were able to do just that outside of Yuma, AZ.

As Celia mentioned in our last post, we are camping off of Ogilby Road near the Imperial Sand Dunes in Southern California. The Center of the World is just down the road so Celia and I made the short trip from our boondocking location to check out this desert attraction. While we didn’t plan to stay long, we quickly realized that you could spend hours here. After all, the goal of this monument is to share the history of the world.

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The Center of the World is located in the town of Felicity, CA. The town is on Interstate 8 only a few miles from the Imperial Sand Dunes and the Mexican border. It is the dream of Jacques-Andre Istel who was born in Paris in 1929. His family left for the U.S. during the Second World War. The 2,600 acres of desert land is part of a purchase that he made in the 1950s but did not think much of it or develop it for three decades.

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Mr. Istel’s career was focused on skydiving and he is considered the “Father of American Skydiving.” He was the founder of Parachutes, Inc., the first commercial skydiving center in the United States, located in Massachusetts. Having risen to the rank of Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Marines, he pioneered the method of parachuting called HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) that is still used today.

After selling Parachutes, Inc. decades ago, Mr. Istel and his wife moved to Felicity, CA, a town he named after his wife. Felicity Lee was a Sports Illustrated reporter who met Andre during an interview for the magazine.

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The highway sign on Interstate 8 says “Felicity Pop. 2.” Mr. Istel is the mayor of the desert town and has been for many years. He was elected by a vote of 2-0!

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The Center of the World theme is based on Istel’s self-published children’s book, Coe the Good Dragon at the Center of the World. One of the first buildings erected was the hollow pyramid that houses the marker for the Center of the World. You can purchase a numbered and dated certificate showing that you have indeed visited the Center of the World for two dollars. The general admission fee is three dollars and tours are available during the winter months.

After retiring from their successful careers, Mr. and Mrs. Istel worked on creating the Center of the World in Felicity. To date, there are twenty long granite monuments in place and each one is about 100 feet long. Each monument has around 400 panels and Mr. Istel instructed the builders to construct the red granite panels to last 4,000 years. Each rock panel weighs hundreds of pounds and are steel reinforced three feet underground. The panels display hand-engraved pictures and information on them. Mr. Istel wrote the text for all the panels. In some cases, he has written up to 50 drafts for them.

To underscore the international flavor of the monument, the text is engraved in multiple languages. The on-going work is done by the engravers who typically work at night to avoid the heat of the day and the glare off the panels. While we were there, we saw both text and drawings taped to the granite slabs that the engravers use. Also, we stumbled across the tools of the trade: portable lights and a powered dremel-like engraver. Gene Britton is the lead artist who has been working at the History of Granite for over 15 years. He too has dedicated much of his adulthood to the monument.

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The attraction’s centerpiece is a series of granite panels that depicts the History of the World. Most of the information is historical in nature, but there are also some sections that include facts about animals, religion, and war memorials. Since Mr. Istel served as in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, there is a Korean War Memorial with the engraved names of the fallen, much like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.

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Here are several panels describing the French Foreign Legion.

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Another focal point at the Center of the World is the “Chapel on the Hill.” Inspired by a church in Brittany, Mr. Istel constructed a large man-made hill and placed the chapel atop it. This allows the chapel to tower over the campus and it can be seen from any vantage point. The simple structure with teal doors strikes a memorable pose in the setting sun.

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From the top of the chapel steps, there is a great view of the whole area and its newest addition called the Maze of Honor. Anyone can add an engraved plaque of their own design to the walls of the concrete structure for “$100 plus tax.”

Felicity is a place of whimsy and history. Given that we live on a sphere, technically any place can be the Center of the World. In 1985, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors declared that this place was indeed the Center of the World and there is a marker to prove it. It is an interesting place to explore and perhaps learn a little bit of history.

We have just moved away from the Center of the World to another boondocking spot in California that overlooks the Salton Sea. Hopefully Celia will be able continue some outdoor painting as we are piddlin’ around.

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