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A Visit to the Official Center of the World

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By Nicola Bridges

A trip to the Official Center of the World is, well, trippy if not intriguing. But it's well worth a sidebar stop if you're cruising Interstate 8 a few miles from the California-Arizona border and bored of the vast, flat, snooze-inducing sand and scrub-strewn landscape slowly eating up the horizon miles to your destination.

Out of nowhere, you first see rising out of the Sonoran Desert dunes an eye-catching and curious bright-white chapel with a distinctive big blue door situated atop a high earth mound protruding from the flat line of the surrounding area. Then (do your eyes deceive you?) a towering sandy-pink colored pyramid.

In California. In the middle of nowhere.

This nowhere is the town of Felicity, population two, consisting solely of the Museum of History in Granite, a 2,600-acre monument area that showcases the Official Center of the World. It's marked by a plaque inside the 21-foot-tall pyramid that you come to observe close-up is made of red granite and glass.

It's the centerpiece and nexus of founder Jacques-Andre Istel's vision back in 1986 to build and set in stone (granite, to be precise) a "monument to humanity" that captures meaningful historic moments spanning back to the dawn of time to celebrate mankind's existence on the planet for visiting aliens of the future to learn just what we got up to.

 

Istel, now 95, is a colorful character with an acclaimed background. He's hailed as the inventor of skydiving as we know it today after being a military parachutist and reinventing the equipment to be more forgiving and allow anyone to fall from the sky from shorter distances without being killed on landing.

As the story has been retold many, many times over the last decades by Istel and his wife Felicia to anyone who will listen, when they landed on their sparse patch of desolate desert amid a smattering of remote RV parks in what was then mostly no-man's land, he dreamed up the plan to honor important people, events and places by building gargantuan, professionally engraved granite monuments.

But first Istel's vivid and quirky imagination envisioned the need for a town, named after his wife, which he persuaded the local Imperial County Board of Supervisors to establish with its own freeway exit sign, the Istels as the only two residents and Jacques-Andre as the unopposed mayor of Felicity.

And then the building and granite-engraving began.

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