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A trip to the Center of the World | Bartell's Backroads

One man's desert dream to preserve the history of the world in granite is in Felicity, at the Center of the World.

FELICITY, Calif. — The Center of the World is located in the middle of nowhere, but it's not exactly hard to get to - just travel to the southeastern-most point of Imperial County, California and exit Interstate 8 before the Arizona border. 

Then, turn right on Center of the World Blvd, and when you see the sign to the town of Felicity, drive past the Stairs to Nowhere and park just outside the small pyramid. If you are lucky the mayor of Felicity, Mr. Jacques-André Istel will greet you. 

However, this all begs the question of why the Center of the World is located in the Algodones Desert.

“I thought it would be nice to buy a township in pure desert and do something with it,” Istel said. “When I sold my company, I got a few dollars and we moved to the bare desert here."

There are two things you need to know when meeting the 93-year-old mayor for the first time. First, you better be able to keep up with him, and second, he'll rarely give you a short or direct answer to your questions. 

Born in France, Jacques and his family fled to America after Nazis made advances in WWII. At age 14, he hitchhiked across the U.S. and eventually joined the Marine Corps. His resume includes everything from banking to real estate and even competitive parachuting. 

Istel circumnavigated the globe in his own plane, and in the mid-1980s, gave up everything to build a town on 2,800 acres in the desert which he named "Felicity," after the love of his life. 

“My wife. I thought it would be cheaper to name a town after her than buy a fur coat,” Istel said.

The money he saved on the fur coat went to decades of property development starting off with a pyramid-shaped monument. He convinced the Imperial County Supervisors to proclaim that the ground beneath it was the Center of the World. 

“Unbeknownst to most people, including me, property laws define the boundaries of countries and are recognized by the United Nations, and four years later we received international recognition,” Istel said.

It’s unclear if Istel’s land proclamation would hold up in court, but it hasn’t stopped his obsession with building monuments around the Center of the World. 

First, he dedicated some old steps from the original Eifel Tower, then a monument for Korean War veterans, and eventually his biggest monuments of all: "The History in Granite." 

“Hopefully, this is for humans of the future,” he said when asked who it's all for.

Day in and day out since about 2002, etchers like Shelly Evans continue to scribe small summaries of world history on 416 different granite slabs. 

“I may not retain all the information, but it’s nice to learn a little bit while I am working,” Evans said.

Istel researches and writes the historical summaries himself. They document everything from Greek philosophy to animal evolution. Because the history is literally written in stone, Istel said it could last for over 4,000 years. 

“I am told an earthquake could bury all the tablets. My answer to that is 'think how happy future archeologists will be,'” he said.

Istel’s latest monument is a 150-ton dirt pile that he calls the "Hill of Prayer." At the top is a replica of a French-style chapel where weddings and daily prayers take place. Istel said the bell that rings on top was a gift from a French ambassador. 

“When it arrived, it was so heavy we had to rebuild the whole top of the church,” Istel said.

Istel knows he may not be alive when all the tablets are finished, but to him, that’s OK. His non-profit will continue the etching, and in his mind, the most important message is already written in stone. 

“May distant descendants perhaps far from planet Earth view our collective history, understanding, and affection,” Istel said.


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