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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

THE NAME GAME

After paying $15.00 for each of our checked bags, Rob and I decide on principle not to add one more unnecessary penny to Delta's coffers. No HBO TV shows at $2.00 a peek; no $6.00 movies and no $5.00 game packages. Instead, with that very tempting screen staring me right in the face from the back of the seat in front of me, I touchscreen “my flight” and watch myself traverse the continent.

I look up from my book every so often to see where I am, and slowly a pattern emerges—place names change as we move westward. By the time we are over Minnesota, we leave behind staid Northeast and Midwest names like St. Paul, Rochester, Madison, Duluth and Des Moines.

We enter the realm of the imagination. Pioneers had a great gift for place names. What were they thinking?

Some must have been homesick for the far away places of their youth. Why else would I fly over New Prague? Britton, Wimbledon, and Leeds are near one another. I pass over Aberdeen, Glasgow, Winchester, Medina, Chelsea, Odessa, Moscow, and Lebanon. I wonder what remains today of the original cultures, but I am 37,999 feet above them. They are just little blips on the planet.

Unlike this first group, other settlers did not look back; they looked forward. There are hope and ambition etched in their descriptive names that often conjure up nature's beauty and abundance. There's Elk River, Moose Lake, Pine City, Grand Forks, and Forest Lake. Buffalo is not far from Bison, Bighorn, Killdeer, Bearmouth, Fairview, Superior, and Eureka. There's also Orient—meaning West—their new direction in this new world.

Are these places still naturally abundant or had time's passage blunted or erased the awe that inspired these names?

As my plane moves across the map, I marvel at the places named for people. Were we talking egos, lost loved ones, or honored heroes? There is Tuttle, Isabel, Winifred, Anita, Angela, Florence, Alexander, Adel, Brady, Dutton, Kevin, Augusta, Arlee, Harrison, Geraldine, Carter, and Fergus Falls.

The names I like best, however, are the ones that goose the imagination. My eyes jump across the border to Canada. Saskatoon—Roger Rabbit's Fortress of Solitude? Regina—pronounced by Canadians to rhyme with a part of the female anatomy. Climax—use your own imagination. OK I'll stick with U.S. names.

Butte and farther north Heart Butte. Was Heart Butte founded by a Butte outcast? Did it inspire that famous song “I Lost My Heart in Butte, Montana”?

Fertile. How do you account for the humongous population growth? Big Beaver. Hmmmmm. Moyle Springs. If you're a Jewish male, you might be wary of moyles springing out at you and catching you unaware. Kettle Falls. Does it look like this? Othello. Is this a hotbed of war, deceit, betrayal, and death? Calendar, where each day is a new and beautiful beginning. Froid—where you pass your days on a couch being told how you really want to kill your father and marry your mother. There the public library is full of copies of Oedipus and “The Rocking Horse Winner.”

Lost in my reveries, the flight passes very quickly. I am still tinkering with Walla Walla, Gwimine, and Minnewaukian, probably named by a Minnesotan who spent some time in Milwaukee's breweries, when everything shuts off and we get ready to land. Ah, what a county!


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