IN LOVE WITH AMERICAN NAMES
It was the longest school field trip in history, so meandering that we called it "Highway History." During the summer of 1969, the summer of Apollo 11 and Woodstock, thirty-some high schoolers studied for three weeks, then boarded a plane from LA to Detroit, set out by bus and toured the American past.
Henry Ford's Michigan museum to Boston's Freedom Trail. The Empire State Building to the Washington Monument. Motels and french fries and seeing girls in their pajamas. But what stands out most in my memory is Intercourse.
Pennsylvania, that is. Amish buggies. Shoo-fly pie. Funny hats and beards. And then there was that place name -- a gift for pimply, wise-cracking teens. Our teachers took us to Intercourse just to send postcards home, postcards with INTERCOURSE printed beside the stamp. We spent just a half-hour there before heading on. "We're pulling out of Intercourse," someone said. I've never been back but ever since, I have been in love with American names. Seems I was not the first.
I have fallen in love with American names.
The sharp names that never got fat.
The snakeskin titles of mining claims
The plumed-war bonnet of Medicine Hat
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.
That tribute was written not in the American heartland but in Paris, in 1926, where Stephen Vincent Benét was hobnobbing with the Hemingway crowd. An American in Paris! The chorus swells. But Benét, a Yale-educated poet proud of his ancestry, had grown weary of cynical ex-patriates. Writing home, he noted, "I am tired, not of criticism of America, for no country can be healthy without self-criticism, but of the small railers, conventional rebels. We also have a heritage -- and not all of it wooden money."
Like Benét, I find our heritage on maps, maps that contain so much more than capital cities. Before enjoying Intercourse, so to speak, I thought the only funny name on the map was the one that still sends kids into hysterics -- Lake Titicaca. But I soon went searching for American names. Pennsylvania, I discovered, is the place to start.
Luckily, I had no Google Maps to cage each quadrant in its own screen. No, I had to scan an atlas, awkward and bulky unless laid on the floor. Sprawled on the carpet, I let my imagination roam across Pennsylvania, stretching beyond Intercourse to such towns as Bird-in-Hand, King of Prussia, Tire Hill and Snow Shoe, Star Brick and Black Lick. Then came Economy, Punxsutawney, and Shickshinny. It was a long way to Distant, Pennsylvania, but along the way I passed through familiar names. Boston and Bethlehem, Dublin, Denver, and Dallas, Frisco, Scotland, and California. California, Pennsylvania is an hour south of Pittsburgh, not far from Lover, Crucible, and a town that must truly be scenic -- Scenery, Pennsylvania. If you get to Drunkard, turn back. You can't miss it.
Once I'd hitched by atlas from Intercourse to Drunkard (it's usually traveled in the other direction), I paged beyond Pennsylvania and found other American names and the patterns behind them. Texas names towns after people -- Alice and Anna, Clyde and Clint, Louise and Lolita. Imagine a sister city relationship between Intercourse, PA and Lolita, TX. Western states, as Hollywood knows, offer towns touched by death. Deadwood, South Dakota, Death Valley, California, and of course, Tombstone, Arizona. Biblical names abound in the South -- Jericho, Arkansas, Mount Zion, Georgia, Nazareth, Texas... But the Bible also sanctifies New England -- Gilead, Maine, Hebron, New Hampshire, Bethlehem, Connecticut. . . New Jersey names are so colorful that the old folkie Dave Van Ronk used them as lyrics for a song.
Allamuchy, Hacklebarney, Rockaway, Piscataway
Ho-Ho-Kus, Secaucus, Lower Squankum, Fair Play
Wanamassa, Succasunna, Manumuskin, Plumbsock
BiValve, Buckshutem, Turkey Foot, Macanippock
Jugtown, Feebletown, Nummytown, Rahway...
But beyond the eccentric, names embed American history in each map. The centuries unfold east to west. With a few exceptions, East coast names are tied to European royalty. Georgetown, Jamestown, and Charlestown. Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Southern names are tinged with the legacy of the first occupants, Native-American and Spanish in Florida, native and French in Louisiana. Along with many "forts" from its Seminole days (Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale) Floridians enjoy Kissimmee, Okeechobee, and Boca Raton (big rat mouth.) Louisiana offers Atchafalaya and Natchitoches, Lafayette and Baton Rouge (big red stick). But after the American Revolution, English names were passé, and once we overran Florida and bought Louisiana, Americans cut their ties and got creative.
Foreign tourists admire the Native-American names that grace our landscape. Mississippi and Monongahela. Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa, and my favorite, the lilting Susquehanna. But moving westward, few American towns have native names. That would be too stark a reminder of who once lived there and what we did to them. Whole states are named native -- Iowa, Utah, Dakota -- but when faced with the grave responsibility of pinning a name on a tiny new settlement, Americans just wanted to have fun.
Yes, we have dozens of Beaver Falls and Elk Creeks, and at least forty Springfields, including two in Indiana and five in Wisconsin. Yet where but in the U.S. will you find Big Butt Mountain (NC), What Cheer (IA) and Wankers Corner (OR)? Then there's Joe, Montana, (pop. 22) which cheated by re-naming itself after the quarterback to draw attention. (The town has since resumed its original, forgettable name which I forget.) No, American place names are rarely boring. NOTE: there is a Boring, Oregon, a Boring, Tennessee, and a Boring, Maryland, but we won't go there.
Finally, the atlas brought me to the Spanish-tinged Southwest. Here the names seem too saintly -- San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Monica -- until you translate some. Who among us on "Highway History" knew that Vacaville means "Cow town" and "El Cajon" “the big box.” And that national park called the Grand Tetons? Big breasts.
These are troubled times, when it's tempting to say the worst, shout the loudest, proclaim the coming wreck and ruin. I share the growing concern. But perhaps some solace can be taken in American names. Can a country hosting Toad Suck, Arkansas and Superior Bottom, West Virginia take itself too seriously? Could anyone question the future of towns so confident they dare to be No Name, Colorado or Normal, Illinois?
So call me Weird (Weird Lake, Minnesota). Call me Eclectic (Alabama). You can even call me Ishmael (Missouri). But...
I have fallen in love with American names.
The sharp names that never got fat...
And if you don't agree, may I suggest a trip to Hell? Hell, Michigan, that is. About an hour west of Detroit.