William Least-Heat Moon sets out in his Ford Econoline van, which he has named Ghost Dancing, on a 13,000 mile trip around America. We are following along, right to High Hill, Missouri. Click on the map to follow our progress. And, Littourati, comments are always welcome if you have things to share.
"At High Hill, two boys were flying gaudy butterfly kites that pulled hard against their leashes. No strings, no flight. A town of surprising flatness on a single main street of turn-of-the-century buildings paralleling the interstate, High Hill sat golden in a piece of sunlight that broke through. No one moved along the street, and things held so still and old, the town looked like a museum diorama."
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 4
High Hill, Missouri
I like town names that are descriptive, like High Hill. I can't decide whether it shows a lack of imagination to name a town based on its feature, or whether the description is essential to the place, but there's something in a descriptive name that says something to me more than a name like Lincoln, or another place that is named for someone. My hometown, Fort Bragg, gives absolutely no clue as to its features, and is even misleading. There isn't even a fort there (there used to be) and because of that we often get mistaken for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which is an actual military base.
The exception to this is exotic names. Jack Kerouac traveled through Salome, Arizona and I find that exotic, mysterious and almost dangerous. But you don't find many exotic names of towns or cities around America. We either have named our towns and cities after older models in Europe (New York, New Orleans, etc.), after people in our history, or after physical features in the area around.
And it sounds like, from the description in the quote, that High Hill is misleading too, as it has "surprising" flatness. The image of kite-flying boys is very evocative of my failed Cub Scout years. I shouldn't say "failed" but I only got to Webelos, which was a step up from Cub Scout but not quite to Boy Scout. In hindsight, I can't say that I lose much sleep about it, as I think my values today and those of the Scouts are not quite in synch. But I remember one activity, a kite flying contest for Scouts from all over the region, that I participated in. We had to make and fly our own kites. Mine didn't work very well, and we couldn't really get it in the air. My dad was probably more frustrated than I was, because he spent a good amount of time making the kite. The contest took place in a grassy meadow along the bluffs overlooking the ocean in Mendocino, California. A few people got their kites way up in the air, and I think they got some kind of badge or something for it. Mine just wouldn't go.
I grew up in a town like High Hill (not on flat plains but next to the ocean), and I associate them with these types of activities -- kite flying, kids riding bikes everywhere, hanging out in nature and exploring the natural wonder. All the businesses in such towns seem to be small businesses catering specifically and personally to the needs of the townspeople. At night, the town sits empty and quiet after business hours are over and people are at home. It's a romantic vision, and one that ignores the alcoholism, the drug use, and the dysfunction that I also experienced in my home town and which often occurs in these isolated pockets of America. But sometimes, I need such bucolic memories.
If you want to know more about High Hill
It's a really small town, so there's not many links to share.
Next up: St. Louis, Missouri