“I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,”
(Steven Vincent Benet)
I, too, am I love with American names, and the maps that show me those names. What better time to meditate on the great variety of our country's names then on a 'quick' drive to Chicago and back with my daughter at the wheel. Two nine-hour days of interstate, our only Chicago sightings Wrigley field and the airport. A pity really, as Chicago is a city to spend a week in, at least. Still, even super fast road trips needn't be all bad. The best part of traveling, besides arriving where you want to be, or maybe getting home from some place you didn’t want to be, is the scenery and the names of the towns you pass. Since you can’t always count on the scenery -- I-70 through Kansas, anyone -- I rely on maps and road signs for inspiration. Probably we've all joked about the oddity of travel in America. For example, on the way to Chicago we found our selves passing signs to Manhattan, which got Betsy pretty excited. The Statue of Liberty, Broadway shows! Unfortunately our deadline kept us from that detour. I did point out that it might take us on a much shorter trip to Manhattan, Kansas. But that plainly didn’t interest her at all. It seems our family has driven through Kansas way too many times already. (No offense to Kansans intended.)
In the same way, from my own little corner of the country I can travel quite easily to Egypt. Memphis and the pyramid are just a few minutes away. A little over an hour takes me to Cuba Landing where, presumably, refugees regularly sneak ashore under cover of night. I don’t begrudge them. I do, however resent our proximity to Paris. After I save up all my quarters and finally visit France I'll come back proudly sporting my Eiffel Tower T-shirt and carrying my Gay Paree hand bag and no one will even notice. They’ll just assume I spent a few days in Paris, TN. How deflating! The same would be true of Milan, Moscow, London, Hayti, (sic) and Belfast. Kind of makes you wonder why we Americans bother going overseas at all, doesn’t it?
Leaving aside the towns named by people either homesick or completely lacking in imagination, I prefer the Illinois towns of Eureka, Goodfield, Sweetwater, and Fidelity. What treasure made the towns people cry Eureka? How special is that good field, really? If I swing by Sweetwater for a quick drink will it taste better than the freezing cold, uncontaminated water coming straight from a Rocky Mountain stream? Is that even possible? Could it taste sweeter than the natural artesian that comes out of my taps everyday? I’ve drunk a lot of water from a lot of places around the world, and some of it was nasty. If all that water was lined up side by side would Sweetwater's win? I’d like to think so, but I have my doubts... As interesting as the town’s I’ve just named are, the one that intrigues me the most is Fidelity. Just think of it --Fidelity. Did the women of the town get to pick the name? Or the preachers? Is naming a town Fidelity a warning to any riff raff to keep moving? What happens to fools who don’t live up to the name? Puzzles like this give one something to think about on those long car rides.
My home state of Colorado is blessed with strong sounding town names that describe its history and terrain. Copper Mountain, Leadville, Marble, Gypsum, Granite and Silverton speak to our mining past. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that high in the Rockies one finds the National Mining Hall of Fame. Well, alright, so it did surprise me. Obviously I need to brush up on my Colorado maps. With towns called Aspen, Snowmass, Evergreen, Crested Butte and Elk Springs, who needs a glossy tourist brochure? Add Gem Village, Whitewater, Grand Lake, and my personal favorite, Tin Cup, and I’m not sure why I ever left. Personally, I think Colorado has the best town names anywhere, but I’m forced to admit some people believe the honors should go elsewhere. One of those people is a certain southern governor’s wife. Meeting a television producer who had several successful shows set in the South, the governor’s wife encouraged him to research the names in her state for the setting of his next project. And why not? Choosing from Apple Spur, Lone Sassafras, Pickles Gap and Tomato, Flippin and Toad Suck, (please don’t lick the toads, they’re hallucinogenic), Violet Hill, Frog Town and Tulip can’t be easy. One wonders how he made that decision. Why, soon after that meeting, was the television world introduced to Burt Reynolds and Marilu Henner in Evening Shade, Arkansas? What do you think of the choice? Better yet, what would Stephen Vincent Benet say? You decide.
"You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee."
Read Well, Friend
Let me know what you think, share some of you favorite place names with the rest of us, or nominate your favorite state for the honor of Best Names.
Also, I want to thank you for your patience and support during this difficult time. I am doing a little better, and I hope to be up to full speed again soon.