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Rudi Kiefer: 49th Parallel sets an imaginary border between world cultures
Rudi Kiefer
This year, a little-noticed 200th anniversary is at hand.

In the small town of Lynden, Washington, a drive northward on Bender Road shows open farmland, grassy plains, one-story ranch homes and commercial yards filled with farm machinery. Suddenly, the highway takes an unusual turn. It now heads east, parallel to another two-lane road that also carries traffic in both directions. Between them, the narrow eight-foot median is occupied by power poles and some mailboxes. Long rows of blueberry bushes on both sides show one of the area’s best products. This strange twin-road location, looking almost identical on both sides, is an international border.

Much farther east, going north on Montana Route 16, it takes only seconds to pass the town of Raymond with its dozens of grain silos. Wheat fields appear endless on the flat plain.

Then a large structure comes into view. It resembles the truck and fuel centers on Interstate highways. But it’s a border station, requiring identification before we can pass from the U.S. into Canada and cross even more wheat-filled plains.

This is the 49th Parallel, 3,383 miles north of the equator. On two continents, that latitude shows more of what nations have in common, rather than what divides them.

The boundary was established 200 years ago. Also known as the 1818 Treaty, the agreement drew a fixed border between lands claimed by Great Britain (later Canada) and the United States.

In Europe, the 49th Parallel goes exactly through the municipal zoo in downtown Karlsruhe, Germany. A stone obelisk and a line drawn on the sidewalk mark the spot. One can follow the 49th west through suburbs filled with white apartment buildings and two-story family homes, cross the Rhine River, and enter France without any international border procedure. The only obvious change is that suddenly the billboards are in French.

Continuing west on roads that roughly follow the 49th Parallel, towns and traffic get very busy. A few hours after leaving Germany, we’re in Paris. Sarcelles, one of the suburbs of the French capital, is at exactly 49 degrees north. It looks remarkably similar to Karlsruhe on the German side, now 280 miles distant.

Whether it’s the blueberry fields of Washington and British Columbia, the wheat towns of Montana and Saskatchewan or busy suburbs in Germany and France, the 49th Parallel unites more than it separates.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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