Monday, January 25, 2010

Game of the Name: The Wrapup

Notes from Lynn:

Thrilled as bird watchers at a warblers’ convention, we spotted side roads on the Blue Ridge Parkway for Fancy Gap, Deep Gap, Roaring Gap, Horse Gap and, near Roanoke, Va., a town named Low Gap. It wasn’t chance. Any experienced name dropper knows how to mine the nation’s two-lane highways for rare collectibles among the names of places, plants and players.

Let’s start with towns. Every state has specimens suitable for framing. In California, we’ve got Shrub (near Shingle Springs), Teakettle Junction (Death Valley), Cabbage Patch (near Bear Valley) and Hellhole Palms (near Borrego Springs), but these are blinks on the road. They should be thrown back as too small to be netted for the National Museum of Rare Nomenclature.

Our road trip around the U.S. convinced us that the natural state of Arkansas is the nation’s leader in notable names. Sure, we’ll get objections from place-name curators in Kentucky (Rabbit Hash, Do Stop, Beaver Lick, Oddville, etc.) and downstate Virginia (Goosepimple Junction, Goochland, Bumpass, etc.). Let them sue. No other state can match the Arkansas gallery of Old Alabam, Hogeye, Blue Balls, Possum Grape, Turkey Scratch, Bald Knob, Toad Suck, Greasy Corner, Okay, Ash Flat, Snowball, Birdeye and Cotton Plant. Besides, Arkansas stamps its license plates with a one-of-a-kind motto: “The Natural State.”

After studying the map of the Natural State, we hoped to visit Morning Star, Evening Star, Red Star and Star City. No such luck. Same with Ben Hur, De Queen, Sunset, Bull Shoals, Marked Tree and Gin City (the cotton machine, not the main ingredient in a martini). We also yearned to experience Delight, Heart, Amity, Economy and Friendship. A route along the state’s southern counties could have given us Hope – Bill Clinton’s home town. It’s not too far from Smackover (“Home of the Buckaroos”).

Instead, we drove from the state’s northeast corner and found that it’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a long way to go, at least 10 miles off our route on U.S. Highway 62. With regret, we passed up the chance to take a swing through Knob and Hooker to get to Tipperary.

After a motel night with Pocahontas, we headed across the north tier of the Natural State on Ozark roads that took us through Flippin, Snow, Little Flock, Gassville and Yellville, the seat of Yell County. By two weeks we missed Yellville's annual Turkey Trot. It's true: Live turkeys are dropped from low-flying airplanes. Considerably less messy are the National Wild Turkey Calling Contest and the Miss Drumstickz Contest (the judges see only the legs).

Next came Pea Ridge, site of a bloody but largely forgotten Civil War battle. War and peas.

Next time we’ll take State Route 12. That would be Best.


As for botany, our visit to Red Cloud, Neb., allowed us to add Purple Poppymallow to our list of lovely weeds with seductive names. Ms. Poppymallow, whose name leaves no doubt as to gender, is a neighbor to Rough Fleabane, Dotted Gayfeather, Slimflower Scurfpea and Butterfly Milkweed.

Together with many others, they grow wild a few miles south of town at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. The author, who grew up in Red Cloud and reproduced her hometown in many of her novels and stories, once wrote, “The shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.”


As we drove by Jefferson High School in Portland, we spotted a banner: “Home of the Democrats.”

We braked in Nebraska for Republican City, population 200, which moved to high ground in 1950 after the old site was drowned by a reservoir. The town was named for the Republican River, we are told. French traders in the 18th century believed, incorrectly, that Pawnee Indians had a republican form of governance.

We kept Republican City as a trophy to begin our collection of place names like Tennessee's Bucksnort and Sweet Lips, or Oklahoma's Bowlegs and Slapout, or Pennsylvania's Scalp Level, Gobblers Knob, Fear Not, Intercourse and Virginville, or... We a have lot of collecting to do. We did the same for the Jefferson Demos, a key acquisition for our proposed Mascot Hall of Fame.


Our interest in another author, Sinclair Lewis, coincided with the search for team names. Our relentless itinerary, sad to say, kept us from tarrying in the writer’s birthplace in southern Minnesota. Although he was an unathletic loner who despised all sports, we dearly wanted to attend a football game in his honor so we could shout “Go Mainstreeters!”

Thus do the people of Sauk Centre celebrate the iconographic Midwesterner who in 1920 wrote “Main Street.” This is a surprise. His novel indicted the fictional city of Gopher Prairie as typifying the meanness, smugness and bleakness of small town America. But everybody back in Sauk Centre knew that the acne-spotted boy called Red had dunked his home town in the toilet.

“Main Street” scorned the city’s fathers, businessmen and social upper crust for their “unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable.” Half a year went by before the weekly Herald even mentioned the national best seller. Offended, Sauk Centre’s poobahs of 1920 never considered a welcome-home celebration until Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930. He stayed away for many years. Librarians in a nearby Alexandria banned the book, and students in rival high schools began to refer derisively to the Sauk Centre teams as the “Main Streeters.”

In “Travels With Charley,”John Steinbeck wrote, “I had read “Main Street” when I was in high school, and I remember the violent hatred it aroused in the country of his nativity.”

Never underestimate the power of tourism.

When we drove into Red’s home town, we soon discovered that Sauk Centre had anticipated Howard Gossage’s maxim: “If you have a lemon, make lemonade.” The townsmen (Lewis had called them “the quiet dead”) turned the Minnesota town into a tourist stop. We drove past Main Street Real Estate, Main Street Auto, Main Street Coffee and the Main Street Theatre on what’s been renamed as Original Main Street. The Chamber of Commerce made a cottage industry out of the hometown ingrate who, when he went off to Italy to die of a heart attack, left word that his ashes be buried in Sauk Centre’s cemetery.

For me, the highlight was learning that the high school football team adopted the epithet hurled by opponents.

Mainstreeters rule!


Also true:

At northern Idaho’s Clearwater River, we stopped in Orofino. We didn’t know then that the local high school is represented by the Maniacs. When we visited our daughter at Oberlin College in Ohio, we were reminded that its players are called the Yeomen – and that her mother, the alumna, once played basketball for the Yeowomen. (“Yo! Women!”)

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we passed up the chance to shout, “Go Hematites!” The Hematites, who sound like one of Assyria’s ancient tribes, play for my grandmother’s alma mater, Ishpeming High School. The name is a mineralogist’s term for iron ore. The mines died years ago, but the name didn’t.

We have been to Sonora, a mining town in the Gold Rush, where students at Columbia College root for the Claim Jumpers. In a visit to Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., our daughter learned the teams are called the Hustlin’ Quakers. At UC Santa Cruz, of course, it’s the Banana Slugs.

A fat file of whimsical high school nicknames beckons us to towns we’ve yet to visit: The Battling Bathers of Mt. Clemens, Mich. (a former spa); the Fighting Grape Pickers of North East, Pa.; the Fighting Cocks of Cocke County, Tenn.; the Screaming Penguins of Bellingham, Wash.; the Awesome Blossoms of Blooming Prairie, Minn., and the Headless Horsemen of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

As aficionados of the name game, we’re all too familiar with the hundreds of team mascots christened unoriginally as Panthers, Falcons, Bobcats, Tigers, Lions, Bears, Wolves, Huskies, Buffalos, Wildcats, Jaguars, Grizzlies, Hawks and just about every other ferocious beast or bird in the zoo. Even a couple of Rattlers.

So far, no Vampires. But we exulted as giddily as claim jumpers when we drove through the desolate Carizzo Plains west of Bakersfield. On the outside of a 46-pupil K-8 school, we saw a banner that says with pride, “Home of the Polecats.”


Mainstreeters gets our nomination for the first annual team award of the American Academy of Mascots. Polecats is a strong second choice. We haven’t yet documented third place, but we hope someday to sit in the frozen bleachers of a tiny southern Montana town, Belfry, where we can shout “Go Bats!”

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