TOWNSFOLK

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I have some close friends who decided to name their first child Sedona. People tend to ask why they named her after a city in Arizona — albeit one of the more breathtaking spots in the country, as evidenced by this photo. Our friends reply that no, actually, the city is named after a woman. Her name was Sedona Miller Schnebly. It’s a beautiful first name (a heckuva lot better than Schnebly).

But this gets me thinking: Do folks in Sedona even know where the name came from? Do the denizens of Charles Town, West Virginia, know that they live in a place named for George Washington’s younger brother? Do Tyringham residents realize they live in the only town in Massachusetts named after a woman (first name: Jane)?

Every time we used to watch Johnny Carson “live from Burbank, California,” was any of us aware that David Burbank was a local dentist? Thomaston, Connecticut? Seth Thomas was a clockmaker. Ebensburg, Pennsylvania? It’s named after a little boy, Eben Lloyd, who died in childhood. Marysville, California? Mary Murphy Covillaud was one of the few survivors of the ill-fated Donner party.

A trip through the origins of place names is a fascinating excursion, and there can be poetry in the genesis of such places. Literally. There are towns in New York, Homer and Virgil, named for the Greek and Roman poets of yore. And Orinda, California, is named for a poet named Katherine Philips. Confused? Well, her nickname was “Matchless Orinda.”

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9/11 AND ONE

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Nearly every year on this date, I try to examine the tragedy of September 11th from a different angle. In fact, I wrote a book about a decade ago that essentially did just that. Part of what I attempted in my American travel memoir, Small World, was to explore the reactions to the horrors of 9/11 from various points of view. And I came to realize that, actually, the view was much the same everywhere. I found that, no matter where people lived—from Prague (Nebraska) to Vienna (South Dakota), from Congo (Ohio) to Calcutta (West Virginia) — they felt a kinship with victims of that day, whether they knew them or not.

I’d say this is evident in the myriad 9/11 memorials that now populate the landscape. Solemn remembrances (often in the form of remnants of the World Trade Center) can be found in Austin (Texas), Lansing (Michigan), Carmel (California), Windermere (Florida), Havelock (North Carolina) South Bend (Indiana), Parsippany (New Jersey), Dodge City (Kansas)—and literally hundreds more places.

But about 12 months ago, I discovered a place where you can get that regional perspective of a national tragedy simply by visiting one place — the Newseum in Washington, D.C. For me, the most riveting exhibit in this remarkable museum was the 9/11 Gallery. Its centerpiece was a mangled communications antenna that once topped the North Tower. There was a damaged piece of the Pentagon, too. And, this being a museum about the First Amendment and the press, the exhibit told the story of the only photojournalist killed in the attacks.

But it was the wall of front pages that took my breath away. There were, I believe, 136 of them — from all over the country. Indeed, all over the world. They were all from September 12th. Every one of them, in probably the boldest headlines since Pearl Harbor, offered a regional take on the tragedy. What photo did the editors choose? What headline? The choices convey perspective, emotion, shock.

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LITTLE BIG CITIES

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Anyone remember Little Big Man, the comic novel by Thomas Berger that debuted 50 years ago in 1964 and became a celebrated film starring Dustin Hoffman six years later. Well, this post is about Little Big Cities.

I’m not a city person. Although I’ve resided in two of the biggest (in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village), I prefer the wide open spaces. In fact, even the photo above wasn’t actually taken in a city. It’s a Lego skyscraper from Legoland in Carlsbad, California. That’s my preferred pace.

I live in what many would describe as a small town on California’s Central Coast. I’ve written three travel memoirs, all of them about some of the tiniest dots on the map. A house on wheels has taken me to some of the more remote places in the country — from Promontory (Utah) to Plaquemines Parish (Louisiana). I like it that way.

It’s not that I stay away from cities, by any means. They still form the backbone of every summer trip for us—and this summer we went everywhere from New York to Philadelphia to Boston. But I always prefer a place where quiet is the rule, not the exception, and where the view isn’t obscured by concrete and glass.

That being the case, I think I’ve come up with a way to reference some of America’s most populous places without necessarily having to become part of the population. The following are nine communities with familiar names, but they’re in less familiar places. And there’s something worth seeing in each of them. Tour them in this order, and it could constitute a viable RV itinerary:

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SUMMARIZING A SUMMER

Looking back on an eight-week summer RV excursion through 15 states, the grand encounters aren’t necessarily what remain most vivid in my memory. To be sure, for the two of us over the course of two months, there were many of those. We marveled at our nation’s natural wonders (Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks, Niagara Falls). We embraced our inner child (the Crayola Experience, Hershey Chocolate World). We explored various subcultures (Amish villages, coal-mining hamlets, the streets of Manhattan, the mansions of Newport). We visited a few halls of fame (basketball, tennis, rock and roll). We saw Fenway Park and Saratoga Race Course and the Norman Rockwell Museum and the September 11th Memorial.

But mostly I’ll remember the moments. The little moments. The ones that encapsulate what the best of the RV experience is all about.

Like WONDER. We live in an absolutely wondrous part of the country—California’s Monterey Peninsula. We see seals and whales and dolphins, but we don’t get fireflies. So when we returned from a hard day tasting chocolate in Hershey (somebody has to do it), the most delicious moment was watching my young niece and nephew chase fireflies as night descended on a campground in Elizabethtown, PA. There were THOUSANDS of them, lighting up the dusk like twinkling stars. Travel’s wonders come in all sizes. Awesome.

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YUP, THE U.P.

Maybe the best way to start a summary of our visit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is to begin at the beginning. According to some anonymous scribe from the U.P. (and embracing local dialect and lingo), the following is “Da Creation of Da Upper Peninsula”:

In the beginning dere was nuttin’.

Den on da FIRST Day, God created da U.P. On da SECOND day, He created da partridge, da deer, da bear, da fish, and da ducks. On da THIRD day, He said, “Let dere by Yoopers to roam da Upper Peninsula.” 

On da FOURTH day, God created da udder world down below. On da FIFTH day, He said, “Let dere be trolls to live in da udder world down below.” On da SIXTH day, He created da bridge, so da trolls would have a way to get to heaven.

God saw it was good, and on da SEVENTH day, He went huntin’.

Well, here’s my troll’s version of a trip to the U.P. It started with a trip over that bridge, the remarkable, 5-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, with Lake Michigan on one side of us and Lake Huron on the other.

First stop: Sault Ste. Marie, the uppermost U.P., a stone’s throw from Canada, and famous for another man-made wonder—the Soo Locks. It’s one of the world’s busiest lock systems, operating 24 hours a day and seven days a week and completing over 7,000 lockages during the 42-week-long navigation season. More than 11,000 vessels carrying some 90 million tons of cargo pass through the locks each year, some of them as much as 1,000 feet long.

We happened to time our arrival perfectly—nearly matching the arrival of a massive Dutch cargo ship called the Fortunagracht. Along with scores of other viewers, we watched a fascinating marvel of engineering that allows vessels to traverse the 21-foot drop in elevation of the St. Marys River between Lake Superior and Lakes Michigan and Huron.

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