Places and names

The Sideling Hill Cut on I-68 in rural Maryland represents a monumental achievement in engineering, revealing a fascinating portrait of the geology of the Allegheny Mountains. And it looks like a gap. (PHOTO: Mariano Mantel, Flickr CC)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

When I was 12 my grandparents took me to southern Pennsylvania and western Maryland to meet my grandmother’s family. We toured the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside, including the Sideling Hill Cut near Hancock, Maryland.

Engineers gouged this 340-foot deep passageway through the heart of a sturdy Allegheny mountain more than 50 years ago to make way for Interstate Highway 68. Locals just call it “the cut.”

Except me, a punk kid from Northern Minnesota. I called it “the gap.”

It’s the cut, they said.

But it looks like a gap to me, I said. And it is, literally, a gap in the mountain.

Last year I received a news clipping from one of those relatives featuring the Sideling Hill Cut. The word “cut” was underlined. Certainly not the first of its kind over the past 28 years and probably not the last.

People are stubborn by nature, but especially stubborn when it comes to what we call the places and landmarks we see every day.

I was reminded of this in a recent letter to the editor published in the April 2, 2019 Duluth News Tribune. Aris Tomac of University Park, Illinois, wanted to set the record straight about Duluth’s geography.

He noted that what people called Duluth’s “east side” was actually to the north. Meantime, the more industrial, blue collar west side was actually south. Tomac argued that this made navigating by compass completely illogical.

“Isn’t it time for this error be corrected, not only for current citizens but for future generations?” writes Tomac.

“What does this teach the children of Duluth?” he continues. (These appear to be rhetorical questions). “It also doesn’t paint Duluth in a very favorable light compared to the rest of Minnesota, the U.S., and the world.”

Tomac’s concern is touching, if a touch overwrought, but his call to action is bound to cause problems.

“I hope action is taken soon to correct such glaring errors,” he writes.

The implication here, of course, is that an entire region should stop calling Duluth’s neighborhoods by names that have been in use for more than a century. The town should replace street signs and rename businesses. Residents must wholly alter the city’s consciousness, deliberately and all at once.

If you’re wondering about that odd sound blowing off Lake Superior, it’s about 86,000 guffaws rising from the diaphragms of incredulous Duluthians.

Of course, the truth is — like Duluth’s weather — this can all be blamed on Lake Superior. Most people arrived here by water. Because Duluth sits on what people call the North Shore, it seems logical that the city’s “left” side would be the west and it’s “right” side the east.

It seemed that way, so it got called that way, and now it is that way, even though it isn’t.

Similarly, Hibbing lies east northeast of Grand Rapids, but the folks there just call it north because Highway 169 is mostly a north/south highway.

When I was a kid, we lived in McDavitt Township in the Sax-Zim peat bog. My family referred to our grocery trips up to Virginia, Minnesota as “going up town.” Of course, “town” was literally “up” to us, at least if you consider north to be up.

But my friends, from other families located just slightly to the east, made fun of me for saying that. You’re going “to town,” they said, “not up town.”

I was not convinced. In my mind, town was the place to which you ascended from the bowels of the swamp. It still is, even though I now live north of the Laurentian Divide.

Words are not reality; they are symbols of reality, closely tied to our feelings and culture.

That means one may go up town to Duluth, cruise down to the west side and then drive due east to the South Shore of Lake Superior. Don’t bother with the geography lesson. We know where we’re going.

Yes, we’re stubborn about the names of our places. This remains true even though they’ve been around a lot longer than us, will outlast us, and will probably be called by new names some day. But it’s not about the world as it is. It’s about the world in our own minds, and the monumental lengths we’d go to defend it.

In this an open mind becomes a new continent, fresh with virgin timber and fertile loam. Most of us are too scared to make the trip. We don’t know the way.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 14, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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