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Theres just a little stake at heart of mapping matter

Bill McDonald/On His Own

Do you feel lost? Are you unsure of the boundaries in your life? Would you like to return to the starting point and figure it all out again? If so, I can tell you exactly where to begin.

Head up West Burnside Street for a few miles till you curve off on Skyline Boulevard. Follow the winding road a short distance, and keep your eyes peeled for some official signs on the left. They lead to Willamette Stone State Park Ñ the place in the Pacific Northwest where location was born.

Among the millions of things I've never really thought about is what a monumental task it must have been to survey America. We've all seen surveyors out working on water lines, etc. Imagine when they first packed up their equipment and headed out to map the entire country.

The intriguing part had to be the moment someone said, 'OK, let's start here.' In Ohio it was called 'The Point of Beginning.' It led to a scramble to survey each new region of the country using 37 initial points, sometimes jumping ahead to where the most action was. These starting points were special Ñ surveyors rarely get to think outside the box, unless it's to survey the next box. Eventually, it was our turn. In 1851, President Millard Fillmore sent a man named John B. Preston to find an initial point for the surveying of the Pacific Northwest.

Have you ever had a problem making a big decision? I mean, it takes some people forever just to choose something off a menu. Could you imagine having to find the best location to begin mapping two states? Preston explored the area for a while, and on June 4 he drove a wooden stake into the ground. As the plaque in the park states, 'Beginning here, the Willamette Meridian was established running north to Puget Sound and south to the California border, and the Base Line was established running east to the Idaho border and west to the Pacific Ocean.'

Now, let's face it: The park is no Yellowstone. It's very small with an asphalt path running downhill to a concrete slab. To the right, four gigantic satellite dishes are nestled under a TV tower. The actual Willamette Stone, which replaced the wooden stake in 1885, was set upon by vandals in the lawless 1980s. Today, just a metal cap on the slab marks the exact spot.

But something else lingers Ñ the tantalizing question 'Why?' Why here? We know Preston wanted the base line to run south of the Columbia River and the north-south line to run west of Vancouver Lake, but why did he pick the side of a hill? Wouldn't you at least want to start at the top? I decided to ask a professional.

Multnomah County surveyor Robert Hovden loves his work. He says, 'The thrilling part is finding evidence of original corners from the 1850s. It's a satisfying career because you end up helping a lot of people find their boundaries.'

Fair enough. But why did Preston pick the spot he did to drive in his stake? 'It's hard to say,' Hovden says. And that's the mystery of the Willamette Stone.

Bill McDonald is a Portland writer and musician.