American Place Names

In William Least Heat Moon’s American classic, Blue Highways, Least Heat Moon explains that one of the goals of his 11,000 mile American journey was to visit towns with unusual names.  Since another of his goals was to follow the old U.S. Highways, I guessed he knew the work of  George R. Stewart.  So when I met him, I said, “You’ve been influenced by George R. Stewart.”  He looked up from the desk where he was signing books and said, “Yes.  Profoundly.  How did you know?”  “Because I’m a scholar of GRS’s works, and Blue Highways is clearly influenced by U. S. 40, Names On The Land, and American Place Names.”

American Place Names is one of the last books – all about names – that Stewart wrote before his death in 1980.  He had a fascination with names, of place particularly, and with what names tell us about the people who do the naming.  Names on the Land is his masterwork, a history of American place naming – which Stewart considered untranslatable since it included so many unique American references.  (But that’s not stopping Scholar Junlin Pan, who, following a request from one of the most distinguished publishing houses in China, is well along in her translation – with a little help from someone who knows American history and can give some sense of meanings of American place names.)

Researching  Names on the Land, Stewart had built a huge file of the history of how places were named, far more than could be used in the book.  So now, near the end of his work, he decided to publish those mini-histories of the names.  Released in 1970 by Oxford University Press, American Place Names was described as “an instant classic.”

The book contains the meaning and brief history of approximately 12,000 names of places from coast to coast and border to border, in its  500 plus pages.  Names like Arroyo Grande – Big Gulch or Big Creek or Big Ditch, named tautologically – Arroyo Grande Creek means Big Creek Creek – or for some prominent local feature.  Pismo, as in Pismo Beach, means tar in Chumash, since the area is filled with tar seeps (and now oil fields and a refinery).  Bug Scuffle warns the visitor that he or she should expect to spend time fighting off bedbugs or other members of the insect world.  Likely was named because the locals believed it was unlikely that any other town with a post office would have that name.  Nameless, a humorous name for a small feature or town;  Accident because somebody surveyed some land by accident; Los Angeles, an Anglo contraction of the Spanish name “Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula; Angels Camp, for founder George Angel.  And so on, and so on.

The book is a wonderful read….the type of book to keep by the bed so you can browse through it before sleep and thus perchance dream of all those exotic places on American roads and trails that you hope to see someday.  I also suggest to friends that they keep a copy in their car, so that when they’re on a long trip, they can find the meaning of interesting names of the places they pass through-  Devil’s Churn, say, or Ekalaka, or Deer Lodge, or Ten Sleep, or Monticello, or Yosemite.

William Least Heat Moon visited or acknowledged several places with unusual names on his great odyssey – Dime Box, Texas; Nameless, Tennessee; Igo and Ono, California.  His chapter on Nameless is one of the great pieces of American writing, which everyone should read.

If you’re going to visit these places, you’d better hurry.  The  bowdlerizers are hard at work,  removing some of the most interesting and important names from the map. Nellie’s Nipple may go; Shit House Mountain has probably gone.   In some instances, the names are offensive; but they reflect a part or our history, and the censors should not be allowed to erase that from the map.  But they’re in high dudgeon now, and have the ear – or some appendage – of the establishment, so much of our language is at the risk, including our place names.  Visit while you can.  And in preparation, read Stewart’s book.

The book is available used; check with your local bookseller to order a copy.

 

MAKING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING – George R. Stewart in the Donner Summit Historical Society Newsletter

October’s issue of The Donner Summit Heirloom has a series of articles about George R. Stewart, or topics that relate to Stewart’s subjects.  There’s a good article about the search for the California Trail route over Donner Pass, which includes some information about the Lincoln Highway route – think Stewart’s U.S. 40 and The California Trail – a review of Stewart’s landmark work, Ordeal By Hunger, a description of the new George R. Stewart interpretive sign.

There’s also my article about Stewart, with an emphasis on his connections to the Donner Summit area.  It gives a good overview of the man and his work.  If you’d like a quick introduction to GRS, you’ll find the article – and the other articles – useful.

Here’s the October 2015 Heirloom:

By the way, if you have an interest in GRS, or Donner Summit, or Lake Tahoe, you might want to join the Society.  It costs little, but supports the historic preservation and interpretation of the area.

The Donner Summit George R. Stewart Interpretive Sign

Thanks to several sponsors and the hard work of Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society, the George R. Stewart interpretive sign, which will be part of the Twenty-Mile Museum, has gone to the manufacturer.  The base will be installed soon; the sign, late next spring when the Pass opens.  Here’s the final (or nearly final) sign:

  The almost final sign

Bill chose the location with care, and it’s perfect:  A parking area which overlooks Donner Lake, Donner Peak, the historic “Rainbow Bridge” on U.S. 40, and the Summit of Donner Pass – which would have been the route of the first covered wagons over the Pass.

Here’s a photo from Bill, showing where the sign will be placed:

photo of GRS sign location

Stand by the sign, face northwest across old U.S. 40 to look directly at George R. Stewart Peak.  Here’s a photo from a kind soul who posted it to Google Maps:

parking area - grs peak

The parking area is close to the Pacific Crest Trail, too,  The PCT crosses U.S. 40 not far beyond the left (west) side of this photo.  Here’s a map from Bill which shows the PCT crossing – yellow arrow – in relation to the sign location at the parking lot – black arrow.

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It’s a short walk – always face traffic! – to the Trail Crossing; from there, it’s a short hike and scramble to the summit of George R. Stewart Peak.  The directions are on the new sign.

Let’s all hope to meet there some day in the summery future, and do the hike.  Afterward, we can have a picnic – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart loved picnics – and read from Stewart’s books.

Thanks to Bill Oudegeest, and the sponsors who made this possible:

  • Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, Founder of the National Association for Interpretation, Stewart Scholar;
  • Paul F. Starrs, distinguished geographer, University of Nevada, Reno, Professor, author of books about California agriculture, the Black Rock Desert, and other topics;
  • Willie Stewart, George R. Stewart’s grandson, who accompanied GRS on trips;
  • Joyce Colbath-Stewart, wife of GRS’s son Jack Stewart, inveterate hiker, and caretaker of Stewart family history;
  • Steve and Carol Williams.  Steve – who went to school with Lennon and McCartney –  is a Stewart scholar, artist, teacher; Carol is his partner in all things;
  • Denise and Milton Barney, campers extraordinaire, who have walked the GRS journey with me for many years.  Denise is a poet, Barney a scouter encouraging young folks to explore the outdoors like Stewart;
  • Beth Lapachet and Brian Byrne, also campers and colleagues for many years.
  • John and Angela Lucia, former Rangers, who have also walked the GRS journey for decades, and helped support it;
  • Bob Lyon, Founder of The Friends of George R. Stewart, Stewart Scholar, and Encourager of all things Stewart, who first introduced Steve Williams to the Friends of GRS.

IN SEARCH OF US 40: ON THE ROAD WITH FRANK BRUSCA.

In 1953, George R. Stewart published his ground-breaking U. S. 40 — a book which used photography and text to interpret the transcontinental geography of the United States from U.S. 40, then the major east-west highway.

In 1983, Thomas and Geraldine published U.S. 40 Today.  The Vales traveled Stewart’s route, re-photographing most of the sites from the original book, and describing the changes in the 30 years since the original was published.

Now, leading U.S. 40 scholar Frank X. Brusca is rephotographing Stewart’s sites as they appear today.  Last week, I was honored to accompany him on part of his re-photography project.

We spent the first two days at the Bancroft Library, researching Stewart’s papers, and the first three nights with John and Angela Lucia at their historic home in Sacramento.

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The food and the accommodations were excellent,  and the conversation went on into the night.  John and Angela are also roadies, and “car guys,” so we had much to discuss – like John’s interest in U.S. 50, and the Lucias’ 1950 Ford Woodie (which is one of the best woodies in the country).

DSCN2874Then Frank and I headed east on I 80, which parallels or covers historic U.S. 40.  Our first stop, thanks to Dispatcher Maria and Sergeant Dave Brown of the California Highway Patrol, was productive.  Sgt. Brown took us to two of the sites in his patrol car, sites not safe to photograph now unless there’s CHP support, so we were glad for the  help.  Sgt. Brown’s also an amateur historian from the Dutch Flat area, where George R. Stewart had a summer cabin, so he was interested in Stewart.

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We spent the night in Truckee; then continued east to Wendover, Utah, photographing along the way.  Highlights of the photography were Donner Pass, Emigrant Gap, Wendover – and the most difficult photography of the trip – from Black Rock, near the Great Salt Lake.  The steep Rock was challenging to climb, but Frank made it to the top and took his photos of the scene.

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I stayed in Salt Lake City that night, while Frank headed east to finish his work.  My plan was to take the Amtrak train west to Sacramento after visiting family in the area.  I eventually did so – after a 2.5 day delay.  The train delay and the poor attitude of Amtrak’s customer “service” were good reminders of the enjoyable freedom of auto highways, like U.S. 40.

Frank plans to publish a new version of U.S. 40, using the photographs from this and other trips.  His version will include color images and 360 degree panoramas, which will make Frank’s publication a technological leap forward from both the original work and the Vales’ classic re-visiting.

If you want to learn more about Frank Brusca and his work on U.S. 40,  read William Least-Heat Moon’s best-selling ROADS TO QUOZ, which has four chapters about Frank, George R. Stewart, and U. S. 40.  Or visit Frank’s excellent U.S. 40/National Road website.

Was his trip a success? The photo says it all.

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Frank Brusca’s U.S. 40 Rephotography Project

Frank Brusca is a George R. Stewart Scholar with a special interest:  U. S. 40.  He discovered the book when he was a boy, and it has shaped his life since.  Frank’s goal is to re-photograph as many of the places Stewart photographed in 1949 and 1950 as he can, to record the changes over time.  Geographers Tom and Geraldine Vale did that for their 1983 classic U.S. 40 Today, which tracked changes over the 30 years since GRS published his book.  Brusca has more elaborate plans – he’s including color and virtual panoramas of some sites.

His love affair with U. S. 40, highway and book, helped Brusca connect with author William Least Heat Moon, who wrote the classic Blue Highways. Eventually  Least Heat Moon and Brusca traveled the old highway together.  Those journies are the meat of four chapters about Brusca and GRS and his road book in Least Heat Moon’s Roads to Quoz. (Least Heat Moon is also a fan of GRS’s other work, and so there’s more GRS influence in  Blue Highways.)

Last Sunday, Frank held a web meeting for a small group of road scholars, describing his project in detail and showing his photos of the GRS sites on the old highway.  It was impressive to see how much he’s done so far.  His work, like that of the Vales, expands Stewart’s ground-breaking book.

Brusca has a deep understanding of Stewart’s book.  During the web session, Brusca revealed how to identify a first first printing of U.S. 40 – one photo is a mistake, so the book was pulled and corrected.  (The photo, from a Hogback ridge west of Denver, was supposed to show the town and valley to the west of the ridge, but a photo from the ridge showing the eastern view was printed.)  If you have a copy with the wrong photo, you have an early first printing.

His knowledge of the book and the highway helped my GRS biography.  Brusca directed me to German Filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky, whose U.S. 40 West was inspired by Stewart’s book. Bitomsky agreed to a long interview about the film and Stewart’s influence on the work; much of that interview is in my book.

Frank is off on a road photographing trip this summer.  He drives from Massachusetts to San Francisco, and then zips back, photographing as he goes.  (I hope to join him for one or two days in Calfornia.)  He will also copy some of the original negatives for U.S. 40, in the Bancroft Library.

All of this is expensive. Just copying the Stewart photographs in the Bancroft would cost more than $5,000.   So far, it’s been self-funded.  But now Brusca has a Kickstarter proposal to help fund the effort.  If you’d like to help, you can do so here.  A small 30 dollar pledge gets you an ebook with all of the 120 photos he’s planning to put in the book.  More important, you become a patron of continuing the U.S. 40 work of GRS, the Vales, William Least Heat Moon, and Frank Brusca.

George R. Stewart: A Founder of the Environmental Movement Turns Road Scholar

Today, many people see a conflict between the environmentalist view of the world and the engineered view of the world.  Roads are often seen as threatening the environment.

George R. Stewart didn’t see it that way.  So after he helped create the Environmental Movement with Storm, Fire, Earth Abides, and Sheep Rock, he turned to writing about odology – the study of paths.  Doing so, he created a new kind of literature – the odological book.

Stewart had often considered writing about US Forests – a book that would be a kind of a wayside introduction to them.  But his friend Wallace Stegner, now a regional editor for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggested that he focus on highways instead.  Stegner’s suggestion made sense, since hundreds of thousands of Americans were now taking to the road in cars, rather than using the train. A book that explained America from the roadside should be a big seller.

Stewart was convinced, and went to work. Since U.S. 40 went from Atlantic City to San Francisco on a central route, he chose that road.  Today, many people consider Route 66 more important – it’s the Mother Road.  But U.S. 40 is in fact much older and much more important.  In the east, 40 followed the route of the first Federally-funded road, The National Road.  That was also the eastern route for the first transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road, established and signed before the Lincoln Highway was founded.

In 1949, the year of Earth Abides‘ publication, and the Year of the Oath,  he took the first of two coast-to-coast research trips to gather material for his book.  Ted accompanied him on one trip.  His son Jack, who was turning out to be a good map-maker and photographer, joined him on the other.  The family presence helped; he listened to their ideas, which improved the book.

Stewart wrote a few introductory essays, essays introducing each section of the road, and a concluding essay about road signs.  Most of the book, however, consisted of photographs of geographically-representative sections of the road and precise (rather than literary) descriptions of the scenes.  There were beautiful maps and small expository drawings by the great mapmaker Edwin Raisz placed appropriately throughout the book.

U.S. 40 was published in 1953.

Stegner was not happy with the result.  He felt it was too academic. Yet the book was a success.  It helped Americans traveling through their country to understand its geography and history.  At least one owner wrote the date pf their visit by each place visited.  It was, that is, a roadside interpretive guide to the USA in the mid-twentieth century.

The book also had a great influence on others.  William Least Heat Moon was inspired in part to write Blue Highways by Stewart’s book; and in researching Roads to Quoz, Least Heat Moon took U.S. 40 Scholar Frank Brusca along, eventually adding four chapters about GRS and U.S. 40.  German film Director Hartmut Bitomsky, who had been commissioned to do a movie about the trails of the Westward Movement, chose instead to produce “U.S. 40 West” after reading Stewart’s book. A copy of U.S. 40 is visible in some scenes of the movie, which has become a German classic.  And Tom and Geraldine Vale produced  the first book to “descend” from a George R. Stewart book, U.S. 40 Today.  Following Stewart’s route, the Vales photographed and described as many of the original Stewart locations as they could find, commenting on landscape change between 1953 and 1983.

Stewart liked the book, and its approach.  It was successful enough that he was encouraged to write more odological works.  N.A. 1 Looking North (more properly N.A. 1 Looking North: The North-South Continental Highway) and N.A. 2 Looking South were the result.  These were a two-volume examination of a highway which existed partly in the imagination – a Highway that would go from Alaska to the Panama Canal.  Stewart traveled from the Canadian border north to the road’s end 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle for the first book; and from the Mexican/U.S. border to the impenetrable jungle north of Panama for the second. It was a much more adventurous pair of drives than those for U. S. 40; but on the other hand the proposed North-South Continental Highway was no more rugged than the National Old Trails Road Stewart hitch-hiked in 1919.

Were the road books anti-environmental?  Had Stewart abandoned his great Whole Earth vision?  In a passage from the southern highway book, Stewart makes clear that  highways aren’t the problem – it’s the TYPE of highway:

  …freeways…almost brutally imposed upon the face of the countryside…the driver and his passengers alike lose the sense of a countryside, because it has literally been steam-rollered away….

… in Mexico or Central America … if [the road] winds through a canyon, you still know that a canyon is there.  It does not by-pass all the villages and towns, and so you see what they are like. And, all the time, you know you are really driving a car and feel the pleasant sense of achievement that goes with that….

So even here, in arguing for a gentler highway which follows the contours of the land and takes the traveler into that land, Stewart sees such a road as an introduction to the ecology and geography of a place.  He is suggesting that travelers who are enjoying their journey – as opposed to tourists rushing to some heavily-advertised vacation spot – should follow what Least Heat Moon calls the Blue Highways.  Thus even in a car on a highway, we can choose to be environmentalists, and Stewart is showing us how to do that.

“Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected…” EARTH ABIDES

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James Sallis on EARTH ABIDES:

“…Each time I read it, I’m profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art—Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say—affects me….

“… Art’s mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness. I begin each reading of Earth Abides knowing that, once the flight’s done, I’ll be meeting a new man there at the end of the concourse. The guy who got on the flight’s okay. I like the one who gets off a lot better.”         (Quoted with permission.)

James Sallis is a fine contemporary writer – poet, detective novelist, and the author of the recently filmed Drive.  Of all the accolades given to Stewart’s great novel – and there have been many – Sallis’s seems to me the best.  He captures the power, the magnificence, and the beauty.  He also honors the transcendent, life-changing nature of the novel.  For most, to read Earth Abides is to undergo an epiphany.    (Read Sallis’s essay here.)

Sallis is not the only one who reads and re-reads the book.  The Pilgrim, Steve Williams, who went to school in Liverpool with Lennon and McCartney, has read it so many times he’s lost count – but it’s in the hundreds.  A fellow blogger who goes by the name of teepee12 tells me she reads it every couple of years. I’ve read it many times since the summer in 1956, when it was placed in my hand by The Librarian.

She was one of the best teachers encountered during my life journey, and I don’t even know her name.  To this day, and in my biography of Stewart, that perceptive woman is only known as The Librarian – but when she handed me that book she handed me my life.

I don’t want to give the plot of Stewart’s novel away, but I’ll share enough to intrigue you – if you like adventurous, ecological, philosophical,  almost-religious works of literature. As in Storm and Fire, the ecosystem is the protagonist.  But in this case, it’s not an isolated ecological event; it’s the entire ecosystem, thanks to a small virus. The lives of the few human characters are defined by how they respond to the effects of the virus.  Ish, the male protagonist, is an intellectual who tries to find meaning in the events of the book. For him it’s a quest for a faith. His wife, Em, responds by bringing new life into the post-human world. For her, it’s a duty to carry the flame of human life and culture onward, no matter what the conditions.

The greatest adventure happens in the early part of the novel, before Ish meets Em. Returning from an ecological research project in the Sierra he finds that he has returned to a post-human world. He must deal with what has happened – even questioning whether it is worth continuing to live.   But he finds his answer in the sciences of geography and ecology.  It is a remarkable opportunity for a scientist – he can study the effect of the removal of most humans from the ecosystem. (Note that this book was written a decade before the Environmental Movement and nearly two decades before the first Earth Day.)

He decides to travel the USA to see how others have fared.  (Stewart was a great wanderer of trail and road, and took the journeys he describes in the book.)  Ish begins by heading south from Berkeley, California, on US 99.  He heads east over Tehachapi Pass on California 58; then follows Route 66 until a tree blocks his way.  Eventually he reaches Manhattan; then returns on a more northerly route on US 40 until a forest fire near Emigrant Gap forces him to turn off on California 20.   Along the way, he finds a few survivors who seem to be almost stereotypes of diverse American subcultures.  Some, Ish believes, will prosper.  Others, like the couple in Manhattan who drink martinis in an apartment with no fireplace, probably won’t survive the first winter. Here, and later in the book’s sections on the evolving culture of The Tribe, Stewart is writing a wonderfully speculative anthropological work.

After the journey Ish meets Em.  As they grow closer, and begin a family, his quest changes to a search for faith – one that will help him, and his descendents, live in the changed world?  As the work evolves, he finds himself turning to the Old Testament, since it was the work of a small tribe like Ish and Em’s Tribe that had to survive and find meaning in an often hostile world.  (Stewart taught himself Hebrew so he could translate some of the Old Testament – notably Ecclesiastes – into English without losing the rhythm of the original.)

But the book is not a dreary religious tract by any means.  Much of the time, Ish and Em are building a small community in the Berkeley Hills.   Others join them and the “Tribe” begins to grow.  The “Americans” – those who lived before the event which begins the story – work hard to keep some of their culture alive.  But the youngsters, who will truly become a tribe, must live within the new world.  To them, a good method of hunting with bow and arrow is much more important than learning to read or going to church.

The book is an anthropological work in many ways.  The old culture tries to protect its great store of knowledge.  The younger members of the Tribe work to survive, and have little time for sitting and reading or listening to prayers.  They practice shooting their bows and arrows. Yet The Tribe will develop its own faith, as Ish is seeking his.  Both faiths, ironically, revolve around a simple American object.

During his research in the American River Canyon, Ish finds an old single-jack miner’s hammer.  It gives him a sense of security, so he carries it with him throughout the novel.  By the end of the book, the Hammer of Ish has become the most revered object the tribe possesses.  They insist that Ish must pass it on when he dies.  The person who receives the Hammer will become almost god-like – as Ish does, in the latter pages of the novel.

The Hammer of Ish is one of the great symbols in literature.  And it’s a quintessentially American symbol, designed for common tasks by the Common Man  – but it can also be used to find and mine gold.   I believe the Hammer is one of the reasons for the book’s strong effect on readers.  Like Ish, readers feel very comfortable with the Hammer; but readers feel its mythological power growing throughout the tale as it becomes a spiritual object.

Like the book, the Hammer haunts readers.  A casual mention of the Hammer in conversation often starts a discussion of the novel; and that happens more often than you might think.  One wealthy reader, the late Frank Sloss, even had a sculptor create a silver version, which sat at the center of Sloss’s vast Stewart collection.   Stewart Scholar and Artist Steve Williams was inspired to do a series of fine paintings of The Hammer:

Ish's Hammer(1)The Hammer of Ish.  (Painting Courtesy Steve Williams, Artist and Scholar.)

The book was based on solid research.  The Stewart Papers in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley hold many letters from colleagues and companies responding to Stewart’s questions about a post-human world.  For example – how sheep and cattle would fare, how long auto batteries would last, and when rust would collapse the Bay Bridge. One of the letters is from Carl Sauer, the greatest geographer of his age and one of the greatest minds of any age, discussing the sheep/cattle question.  It, like all the letters, reveals how intrigued Stewart’s correspondents were with his questions.

The book was published in the fall of 1949.  After a few years of good sales, Random House decided to stop publication and return the rights to Stewart.  Almost immediately, one of the book’s strongest fans, Alan Ligda, contacted Stewart and asked to publish Earth Abides at his  Archive Press and Publications.  Stewart granted permission and the book quickly went into print.   Ligda’s publication sold out quickly.  Random House asked for the return of the rights, and the book returned to print with that major trade publishing house.

Thanks to Alan Ligda the novel has never been out of print.  Readers and scholars owe him a great debt.  Although he died poor and relatively young, Ligda played a major role in the story of Earth Abides.

Does Ish find his faith?  Does the Tribe survive?  Does Earth abide?  What adventures, literary and intellectual, are found along the way?  To find out, read the book.

Earth Abides has had an extraordinary literary and intellectual life.  Never out of print in the 65 years since publication, now in an audio version as well as a print version, and in 20 languages,  the book and its ideas have swept across the Earth.

The next post will discuss how the book has affected some of the finest literary minds, and how the book has influenced art, science, and thought.