Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is about to exit Montana via Plentywood, and we're riding along with him wondering about the irony of a town named Plentywood with no trees. Before we get into North Dakota, I'll stop for a minute to examine irony in relation to place. Ironically, it will be fun. I promise. To see where Plentywood is located, and maybe find some other ironically named places, here's your passage to the map.
"US 2 followed the Missouri River for miles. At the High-line town of Culbertson I turned north toward treeless Plentywood, Montana, then went east again down forsaken blue highway 5, a road virtually on the forty-ninth parallel, which is the Canadian border in North Dakota."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7
Culbertson and Plentywood, Montana
The quote today from Blue Highways got me thinking about the concept of irony. What is irony, you may ask, as opposed to humor or sarcasm. Let's check the definition. According to Merriam-Webster Online, irony is:
1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony
2 a : the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c: an ironic expression or utterance
3 a (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity b : incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony
Definitions 1 and 3 don't really fit into what I'm going to discuss in this post, except for maybe the idea of incongruity. Definition 2 though really fits, especially when one examines place names which seem out of character with the actual physical reality of the place.
Some place names are simply named in honor of someone. Culbertson, for example, was named in honor of Major Alexander Culburtson, who headed Fort Union in Montana for the American Fur Company. Other place names are indicative of settlers' desires - their hope for beauty, tranquility, solace, etc. Sometimes place names come from natural features of the area.
However, some place names, either by design or by accident, are truly ironic. Plentywood is a prime example, and LHM points it out in the book by calling it "treeless Plentywood." According to Plentywood's Wikipedia entry, the name was meant to be ironic. It was established when, on this treeless plain of Montana, a chuck wagon cook was unsuccessfully trying to build a fire out of wet buffalo dung, to the frustration of the hungry cowboys. One finally one told him to go 2 miles up the creek where he'd find plenty wood.
The ironic nature of the name got me thinking about whether there were other ironic names for towns and cities, and I decided to do a little Googling. I found two things. Yes, there are ironic names for places in America, and there are many people who don't understand the concept of irony.
For example, this website asked people to contribute ironic names for places. One ironic place mentioned was Nowhere, Oklahoma (which is really somewhere, obviously). How interesting to find out, truthfully, that Sutherland is the second northernmost county in Great Britain. Or that Great Britain has other interesting and ironic place names, such as No Place, or perhaps Pity Me, which to me would be ironic unless the townspeople are really miserable. I keep seeing references to Who'd A Thought It, Alabama, though I can't find it in Google Earth or on Wikipedia, which would make for a double irony. It would be ironic if it existed because obviously, somebody thought it, but if it didn't exist even though there's numerous references to it, then there's obvious irony because nobody a thought it! There is evidently an area in Cape May, New Jersey that is known ironically as Poverty Beach because it now sits near mansions for the well-heeled.
However, this same site also showed that people don't quite understand irony. Some wrote about place names that were simply funny or strange. Like Why, Arizona - though you could make the argument that somebody thought "because" and established the town. Somebody very pruriently suggested Beaver Slide, Montana, because, they added with great color and imagery, it was filled with unsavory people who "couldn't get laid in a monkey whore house with a bagful of bananas." However, that irony is based on assumption, not fact. Ironically, Beaver Slide doesn't seem to exist, though I'm sure people would manage to have sex in Beaver Slide - just very ironic sex. Others named places I couldn't find. One just had to add Fucking, Austria (pronounced foo-king) because...well, obviously. But just because a town in Austria is named Fucking doesn't make it ironic, though I would suppose it would be if the town was full of celibates.
There was a nice column by a guy who went to a place in Virginia called Dulles Town Center, only to find there was no town to have a center in - simply a shopping center and subdivision. He used the column to look a little more in depth about how places are named, and discovered that subdivisions and developments are often named ironically. I started thinking about it, and my wife's parents live in one such development called The Meadows in Sarasota, Florida. It was built by an English development company that basically cleared a bunch of wetlands, put in grass, houses and condos, and a golf course, and gave everything English-style names. For example, her parents live in the section called Heronmere. What was swamp ironically became The Meadows. With alligators.
So, when you drive past subdivisions with names like Quail Hills, you might wonder if there really are quail. Or if you in the vicinity of a place called Paradise Park, is there really a park? Names like Valley Heights are kind of ironic in that they don't make any sense. If you want to have some fun, make your own subdivision name here. Or, for even more fun, you can generate positive or negative subdivision names at this site.
Do you ever notice that when something's right in front of your nose, you often don't see it. It was almost like a smack upside my head, after I started writing this post, when I realized that I grew up in an ironically named place! Fort Bragg, California sounds like a military establishment. It is not. There is a true military base called Fort Bragg in North Carolina. But Fort Bragg, California has no fort. The original fort for which the town got its name existed for about 10 years from 1857 to 1867 to maintain control on the now long disbanded Mendocino Indian Reservation. Over the years, the town has been mistaken for the military base. I don't know how many times I've had to disabuse people of the notion that their father/brother/uncle had served there. A teacher of mine drew a popular cartoon put on local t-shirts with a tourist on it wondering "Where's the Fort?" I even heard a story about a draftee in World War II from San Francisco who was elated when he found out he was being sent to Fort Bragg because it was close to home and he would get to see his family. He took the bus up, got off, looked around, and became more and more confused until finally somebody asked what was wrong. He was gently told that he was supposed to go to North Carolina because there was no fort in Fort Bragg. I believe the story related that he was given leniency for the mix-up.
So, in this post about ironically named places, I almost forgot all about the town where I grew up. Now isn't that ironic?
Alanis Morrissette explains irony beautifully in her song Ironic. "It's like rain on your wedding day. It's a free ride when you've already paid. It's like good advice you just didn't take. Who would have thought? It figures."
If you want to know more about Culbertson and Plentywood
Next up: A radar station in western North Dakota