Friday, August 13, 2010
Mooyiinkweena – an early Indian name, got politely cleaned up by history and turned into Des Moines (from river “Of the Monks”). The 17th century Indians had a sense of humor. There’s the story of the tribe on the coast of what finally became Massachusetts, justifiably wary of the English traders who finally killed 9/10ths of them with smallpox—who used to keep them from landing from their “floating islands,” and traded by breeches buoy from shore. Despairing of an effective means of communicating their desire for the English not to land, but to hit the road, those gathered on shore “mooned” the sailors to make their point. Not to be outdone by their kin on the east coast we have the Miami word mooyiinkweena. The Indians describe the French and their town with a phrase meaning roaring fool-drunk: sloshed to the back teeth.
I do not intend to get roaring drunk in Des Moines. I’m on my way there to accompany Irish dancers on the fiddle; it’s my job. I’ve bracketed the trip with a pilgrimage to the Prairie Lights book store in Iowa City on the way there, and a visit with an old friend on the way home.
I was struck with the sense of history on the drive this morning, from Indiana to Illinois to Iowa; all three names of Native American derivation. (I’m supposed to be struck; I’m a historian.) All three states have their religious communes: New Harmony, Indiana; Nauvoo, Illinois; Amana, Iowa. All three states have towns reflecting the original beauty of the land: all three have a Bloomington, a New Haven. All three states have been home to Indians from prehistoric times and have hundreds of place names reflecting their continued presence in our history; all three had a France river culture dating from the 1600s. Interstate 80 will take you through all three states—and a good many more besides—but this trip it’s only three. All three states have some wry names for towns, too, showing that things were not always so captivating at first encounter. Indiana has Gnaw Bone (zip 47448 in case you don’t believe me) and French Lick. Hooker Corner is in the middle of a stretch of country on State Road 26. Depressed pioneers in Iowa memorialized their feelings in What Cheer, south of I-80 near North English. But happy travelers might want to stop in Loves Corner, Illinois, near Shawnee National Forest on the Ohio, or head for the ultimate, Garden of Eden (60954) on the Kankakee near Aroma Park.
This trip, Iowa has carried away the beauty prize, and not just because it’s less visited by me and fresher; but for a realization I had as I welcomed a lovely morning on the stretch between the Mississippi River and Iowa City: The roadside was clear of commercial billboards! Lady Bird Johnson, wife of president Lyndon, championed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and I remember from my youth when all those billboards came down and you could actually see the scenery again. I guess it stuck in Iowa, where they still have strong laws. The countryside, as a result, reminds even more of a Thomas Hart Benton painting—bit swatches of green and gold, beautiful old farms on rolling hills. I wish we could get back to that esthetic in Indiana and Illinois. There are beguiling things behind all those car dealership signs and service station advertisements, but it was only Iowa that reminded me why city founders named places Belle Plaine, Bloomington, and Springfield.