The Power of Place Names

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 15, 2010 6

Are the snows of “Yellowstone National Park” any more beautiful than … ©Henry Holdsworth

William Least Heat-Moon, author of such American travel books as Blue Highways (1982), River Horse: A Voyage Across America (1999), and Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey (2008), is one of my favorite writers. His backdoor journeys to our country’s small and unknown locales are often instigated because of one factor: Least Heat-Moon has a penchant for place names. For him, the more odd, descriptive and unusual the designation, the more compelled he feels to go there. On his pages, I’ve stopped at little towns with colorful monikers such as Smackover, Hog Jaw, Possum Grape, Humptulips, Haydraw, Windhorst and Circle Back (five miles from Needmore). For a writer, names like those reek of an engaging story, and Least Heat-Moon heeds “the call.”

For the rest of us, other terms or phrases often inspire us to visit a certain area. If a place has “national park” in its title, or “spa” or “resort,” for example, we quickly jot it down on our mental list of gotta-go-theres. We may not otherwise be familiar with the spot or even have seen photos of it, but yet it just sounds like a destination we need to see.

One Horse Hill

… the snows of northern Wisconsin, on a lake with no name? ©John T. Andrews

I live in Wisconsin, among the rolling croplands adjacent to Interstate 94. It’s a road I travel almost daily. On one of the farms next to the highway, there’s a small hill with a lone tree. Its surrounding pastures support a dairy herd. Almost every day for several years now, I’ve seen a horse standing on that hill in the morning, watching the comings and goings of “her” cows. In my head, I’ve come to call that little spot “One Horse Hill.” As far as I know, I’m the only one who calls it that.

In one of my favorite daydreams, I see myself parking my car next to the interstate and walking to the top of One Horse Hill. I stroke a long, equine nose and sit down under the tree. That horse and I watch the herd together, as if we had all the time in the world.

However, I wonder if I would entertain the same fantasy if I knew the farm family’s actual name, the numbers in its street address or the name of that hill—in the unlikely event that there is one. If that mound were called, say, “See-Beef-Before-Being-Butchered Hill” or “Just-About-to-Go-Under Acres,” would I still dream about lingering there?

If my small spot had a “real” name, would my experience there of nature’s rhythms be somehow better? ©John T. Andrews

Everyone knows my name

And if my small spot with a horse were designated “One Horse Hill National Park,” would others who drive by every day as I do suddenly also start longing to visit? Would the hill’s significance somehow grow in my heart and in the minds of my neighbors and the world? Would my experience of nature’s rhythms from that vantage point be somehow better, as that horse and I spent our hours looking out upon the black earth, Black Angus and black-and-white Holsteins of Wisconsin?

Have you ever signed on for a tour because of the words in its title, such as “national park”? Have you ever wanted to visit a place just because of its name?

For me—and I suspect for William Least Heat-Moon—a little speck on the planet named for a singular pony would fit the bill.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. NineQuietLessons February 24, 2010 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    I’ve never gone on a trip just because of a name, but I can see where a unique name might intrigue me enough to prompt a visit. That said, once you discover a place for yourself, the name probably ceases to matter as much.

  2. N. D. February 18, 2010 at 10:56 am - Reply

    I love odd place names, too!

  3. Travis February 17, 2010 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    I once went to a clearing in the woods of Santa Cruz known as the Mystery Spot. Turns out, it was just a clearing in the woods. Turns out, I probably wouldn’t have gone to a place called “clearing in the woods.”

  4. Jack February 17, 2010 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    I’ve once eaten in a Quaker Steak and Lube restaurant. The food was somewhere on the quality scale between Shaky’s Buffet and TGIFridays. The name is stupid. But I indulged in the stupid name and spent money there for no good reason.

  5. Chris G. February 16, 2010 at 8:32 am - Reply

    I would go to Mystery, Alaska.

  6. JAK February 15, 2010 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    To quote William Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Beauty is wherever you find it, no matter the name. JAK

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