If I were to ask you what the southernmost point in the United States was, many of you would assume that it’s Key West, Florida. Well, it is and it isn’t. Mostly, it isn’t.
It’s rather a loaded question, as it happens. We Americans get very competitive about our extreme points. (The facts below are thanks to Wikipedia, that font of all human knowledge. Financially support it if you can.)
Recently I stood on the southernmost point in the 50 states, which is Ka Lae, Hawaii. Ka Lae is Hawaiian for “the point”, so it’s also known as South Point. I got there after having first passed through Nāʻālehu, Hawaii, which is the southernmost town in the 50 states. I did that after having visited Hilo, Hawaii, the southernmost place with a population over 25,000 in the 50 states. And to get to the Big Island to experience these “southernmosts”, I had to change planes in Honolulu, which is the southernmost U.S. state capital and the southernmost incorporated place in the 50 states. The Big Island of Hawaii also happens to be the most extensive, and also the tallest, island in all U.S. territory, and in fact is the tallest island in the entire Pacific Ocean. So there.
And here I was, thinking this post would be simple. Silly me. It turns out that these southernmost points depend upon if you’re considering unincorporated territories, such as American Samoa, or just incorporated territories, such as Palmyra Atoll, or only the 50 states, or only the continental United States.
The southernmost city of more than 250,000 residents in all U.S. territory is San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’ve also been there. Florida only starts coming into play when you look for “the southernmost point in the 48 contiguous states occasionally above water at low tide.” That “place” is called Western Dry Rocks, and I think that’s stretching the whole southern extremes thing to the breaking point. (By the way, Key West can take credit for being the southernmost incorporated place in the contiguous 48 states. And I’ve been there, too.)
When you get to the Easternmost and Westernmost extremes, it gets even worse. Are we talking about direction of travel or longitude? Are we talking about the first sunrise or sunset in a U.S. territory? The Prime Meridian and the International Date Line also throw a spanner in the works.
Don’t even get me started about what constitutes the highest and lowest points, and the “pole of inaccessibility”, which is the place most distant from ocean access. You also have to take geographic centers with a grain of salt. Visit that Wikipedia page for some enlightenment regarding extreme points. (I was amused to discover that I work in the northernmost city of more than 500,000 residents but less than a million residents in the United States, which is Seattle, Washington.)
I have no idea why all things extreme seem to be so important to us, but there you have it.
Now that I’ve boggled your mind, I’ll tell you what the southernmost point in the 50 states is like. First impressions of Ka Lae, Hawaii: It’s as windy as all holy hell. These short videos taken by Dear Husband will give you an impression of how windy that is.
I don’t think I could live down there or I’d lose my mind from the unrelenting noise. It’s so windy, in fact, that the area hosts a wind farm. It’s so windy that what few trees trees there are wind up looking like they’re sporting a Donald Trump comb over.
In 1964, the whole area was designated a National Historic District called South Point Complex. When I came upon the plaque, I discovered that at least one person isn’t very happy about that. Later, we came across other monuments which I assume were put up by native Hawaiians. One of them said, “Hawaii is not America.” Another said, “We’re still here.”
Indeed, the locals have much to be testy about. This map of the big island, which shows you how much land is owned by rich white men and corporations, is similar to the map of every island, and it’s kind of sickening to think about. Colonialism in its purest, most unpalatable form.
Ka Lae is also home to the ugliest lighthouse on earth, in my opinion. It’s a 32 foot concrete tower. I think the southernmost point in the 50 states deserves better than that.
The area is also an archaeological site where it’s believed the Polynesians first landed in Hawaii. It is home to the ruins of an ancient Hawaiian temple, and a fishing shrine. You can see holes in the rock ledges that ancient Hawaiians used to moor their canoes, so they could take advantage of the excellent fishing grounds without drifting out to sea.
This area is still known for great fishing, because it’s the point where two ocean currents converge. That also means that the water is really choppy at all times. The green structure atop the 40 foot cliff that you see in the photo below is where people like to jump into the ocean. But it’s a really, really, REALLY bad idea.
If you jump off this cliff, you might meet the fate of Chief Halaea, who was carried out to sea here. The strong current that caused his death is named after him. (For future reference, Dear Husband, please do not name the thing that kills me after me.) Even if you survive the jump and the current, you could easily be dashed up against the rocks by a wave, or find yourself incapable of climbing out of the water, thus eventually drowning from exhaustion and/or hypothermia.
And then there’s the fact that this is the most garbage-strewn coast in the entire state, again because of the confluence of two currents. And it’s all but impossible to clean this mostly inaccessible shoreline, so it’s pretty gross down there. (I’m glad I didn’t know that during my visit, and even more grateful that you can’t really see much of the debris from the cliff top.)
Speaking of garbage, the state of Hawaii is deep inside the Subtropical Convergence Zone, and shares that zone with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which I’ll be writing about in another post. Fortunately, one of the most dense concentrations of garbage currently extends about 100 to 600 miles to the north of the state. (Yep. That big.) That patch is growing at an alarming rate. The idea that gorgeous views like this could someday be a thing of Hawaii’s past is heartbreaking to contemplate.
But my most lasting impression of South Point is that when you look south, toward the vast, churning Pacific, with nothing, nothing at all, on the horizon, you really understand what it’s like to be completely and utterly isolated. You also fully comprehend the vastness of our planet. Kudos to the ancient Polynesians for even finding these islands. For their efforts and their bravery, their descendants should own every square inch of this state, and then decide whether they want to remain a part of a country that stole their land in the first place. They may not have big industry, but I think the 20 million tourists that visit each year (but less than 3 million during the pandemic, unfortunately) would keep them afloat.
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