Journey of a Lifetime

Grab a telescope — or an atlas — and follow a stream of water to the center of the universe.

Journey of a Lifetime

I have driven through the center of the universe. It isn’t an unfathomably distant and nebulous point in space. It isn’t a black hole or a star. It’s in Idaho.

Wallace, Idaho, is a small community in the state’s Panhandle region with a population under 1,000 people. The community was built on mining — first gold, then silver — in the 1880s. The area was no doubt the center of the universe for those early settlers looking to strike it rich. Little did they know its celestial significance.

Mining has largely faded from the area, but that doesn’t mean the town has faded into obscurity. Quite to the contrary, it is has actually become the most significant place on earth, and beyond. In 2004, then-Mayor Ron Garitone officially proclaimed Wallace to be the center of the universe.  

Probabilism, an ancient Greek doctrine, gave Wallace license to stake its claim as the center of the universe, essentially stating that if you can’t prove something isn’t true, it is true.

But it wasn’t the study of philosophy or mythology that brought this notion to Wallace. It was the Environmental Protection Agency. In a story about this quaint little town where every downtown building is on the National Register of Historic Places, Atlas Obscura reports that the EPA paid a visit to the town and announced that due to more than a century of mining, the local water and soil were polluted. Wallace was declared a Superfund site, but the EPA also admitted it couldn’t prove whether the lead problem was due to contamination from mining operations or was just naturally occurring. Neither could be disproved, so to accommodate both potential causes, the Superfund site was significantly expanded. 

That’s when Wallace was introduced to — and embraced — probabilism. In angry response, the story goes, the mayor stood in the middle of the street and declared himself to be at the center of the universe, and if he couldn’t be proven wrong, he must be right. 

My favorite part of the story is how the center of the universe is marked — with an ornate manhole cover at the intersection of Bank and Sixth streets. In an industry that gets little positive attention or thanks from the general population, it should be heartening to know that a small piece of your infrastructure is really at the heart of all life and existence.

And we’d never know any of this had water not brought the EPA to town.

Coincidentally, it was water that brought me through Wallace 20 years ago, albeit in frozen form, on a ski trip with my friend Scot. We skied our way from Montana to Idaho, up into British Columbia and back, unknowingly traversing the center of the universe in a beat-up Chevy truck. You can’t get more well traveled than that.

Enjoy this month’s issue.


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