Setting the Record Straight

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Setting the Record Straight

by Joey Green

Is Rhode Island an island? Is the Middle East in the middle? What is the biggest, deepest, longest? You might be surprised.

When I was 10, I went with my family to New York City, and we saw the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall. We also went ice skating at Rockefeller Plaza and rode a series of elevators to the top of the Empire State Building. But for me, the highlight of the trip was riding a ferry to Liberty Island in New York Harbor and climbing the 354 steps to the crown of the Statue of Liberty, where I was certain I stood inside the head of the tallest full-figure statue in the world.

During the return ferry trip, however, the guide burst my bubble. She informed us that the Statue of Liberty, measuring 151 feet, 11 inches tall from her base to the tip of the torch held in her right hand, was the tallest full-figure statue in the United States, but not the world. That distinction belonged to the Motherland Calls—a statue of a woman in Volgograd, Russia, that represented the Battle of Stalingrad. It measures 279 feet from the base to the tip of the sword in her right hand. I was crushed.

Today, the Spring Temple Buddha, a statue of Vairocana Buddha in Zhaocun, China, rises 420 feet from the base of his lotus throne to the top of his cap, dwarfing both the Russian statue and Lady Liberty. Still, the Statue of Liberty, symbolizing the lofty promise of freedom, remains the tallest of the three—in my own little mind.

Years later, while backpacking through Italy, I climbed the 320 vertigo-inducing steps to the top of the 393-foot-tall dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, convinced I had reached the pinnacle of the world's largest religious structure. I pulled my guidebook from my day pack only to discover that I had duped myself again. The dome of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro Basilica, a pretentious replica of St. Peter's Basilica built in Ivory Coast in the late 1980s by eccentric President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, rises to a height of 518 feet, easily surpassing St. Peter's. More crushing news.

It has all been a part of my education, however. I have learned to not make assumptions, and in so doing I have discovered some fascinating travel facts. Here are a few:

The Grand Canyon: Not the world's deepest canyon
The deepest canyon in the world is Cotahuasi Canyon in southwestern Peru. It is 11,004 feet at its deepest point—nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, which measures 6,000 feet at its deepest point. In fact, the Grand Canyon doesn't even qualify as the deepest canyon in the United States. That title goes to King's Canyon, which runs through the Sierra Nevadas in California and reaches a maximum depth of some 8,200 feet. Technically, the deepest canyon on Earth is the Mariana Trench, an underwater canyon in the Western Pacific Ocean that descends 36,201 feet.

The State of Rhode Island: Not an island
Yes, Rhode Island does indeed include the island of Rhode Island, the largest of 35 islands in Narragansett Bay all of which help make up the state of Rhode Island (together with Block Island in the Atlantic Ocean). But the combined area of those islands is less than one-third of the state. The remaining two-thirds sits on the mainland. Locals refer to the island of Rhode Island as "Aquidneck Island" to avoid confusing the island with the state. Or maybe they were just trying to get me to leave.

Old Faithful: Not the tallest geyser in Yellowstone National Park
As the most famous and frequent big geyser in Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 120 minutes—and sprays up to 8,400 gallons of boiling water for up to five minutes to a height ranging from 90 to 184 feet. But the tallest active geyser in the park (and the world) is Steamboat Geyser, erupting to heights ranging from 195 to 380 feet, followed by hours of thundering steam. Unfortunately, Steamboat is highly unpredictable, lying dormant for months or decades between eruptions. Neither geyser compares with the world's tallest inactive geyser, Waimangu Geyser in New Zealand, which spouted to a height of more than 1,500 feet (at least eight times the height of Old Faithful)—but not since its last eruption in 1904.

The Middle East: Not in the Middle East
Look at a map of the Eastern Hemisphere and you'll clearly see that India lies in the middle. Yet the Middle East, a geographical area with ill-defined borders, commonly includes Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. What people call the Middle East should be correctly referred to as Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa.

The giant sequoia tree: Not the oldest living thing on Earth
The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park in California, estimated to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old, ranks among the largest and oldest living things on Earth. The oldest living thing in existence, however, is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine named Methuselah in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California, dated by its tree rings to be 4,765 years old (older than the pyramids in Egypt). No matter how old you are, Methuselah makes you feel like a sapling.

The song "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling": Not originally from Ireland
Songwriters Chauncey Olcott (a native of Buffalo, N.Y., whose mother had emigrated from Ireland as a child) and George Graff Jr. (an American of German descent) never even visited the Emerald Isle. But they did write the lyrics to "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" in New York City in 1912. Composer Ernest Ball (a native of Cleveland with no Irish ancestry) set the lyrics to music for the 1913 off-Broadway musical The Isle o' Dreams, which closed after only 32 performances. Olcott';s 1913 recording of the song became one of the best-selling records of that decade, making "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" synonymous with Ireland—along with potatoes (which originated in Ecuador and Peru), St. Patrick's Day parades (started in New York City in 1762) and the tradition of dyeing rivers green (begun in Chicago in 1962).

Jamestown, VA.: Not the oldest city in North America
On May 14, 1607 (13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Mass.), roughly 100 English colonists landed on a small peninsula in present-day Virginia and established the first permanent English colony, naming it Jamestown in honor of King James I. They weren't the first European colonists to set up shop in North America, however. On Sept. 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles claimed Florida for Spain and founded St. Augustine on the central coast of Florida, which, I might add, serves much better tropical drinks than Jamestown.

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge: Not the world's longest suspension bridge
When it opened in 1937, the bridge was 4,200 feet and was the longest suspension bridge in the world. In 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City, with a center span of 4,260 feet, surpassed the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, built in 1998 to connect the Japanese island of Awaji to the mainland city of Kobe, is the world's longest suspension bridge, with a main span of 6,532 feet.

Mount Rushmore: Not the largest sculpture carved into a mountain
The impressive sculpted heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota stand approximately 60 feet tall and 185 feet wide (for a total of 11,100 square feet). But the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, Ga., with carved figures of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback, is 90 feet tall by 190 feet wide (for a total of 17,100 square feet). When finished, the sculpture of Chief Crazy Horse, 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, will stand 563 feet high and stretch 641 feet long, making it the world's largest mountain carving.

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Copyright Ⓒ 2014 by Joey Green. All rights reserved. Reprinted from American Way magazine.