I’ve become obsessed with tracking wildfires lately. Call it morbid, call it sad, call it what you will: that won’t stop me from checking the InciWeb maps every morning to monitor the slow and menacing progress of several hundred wildfires.
Checking the daily wildfire maps has me looking at maps for a good chunk of my morning, as I sip coffee and struggle against the harsh morning light.
And looking at maps of Oregon for a couple of hours every morning reveals all kinds of very fun place names.
You probably already know about Boring (Clackamas County) and Idiotville (Tillamook County). And maybe you know about Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain, just a nine-mile hike up from Government Camp (not to be confused with Government Island).
But I bet you’ve never heard of motherfucking Swastika Mountain.
Yup. At the southern reaches of Lane County, about eight miles south of Oakridge, sits goddamned Swastika Mountain, standing 4,197 feet above sea level.
Given Oregon’s abhorrent history on race relations, it’s easy to assume the worst about the origins of the name “Swastika Mountain.” Upon discovering the existence of the mountain during a slow morning at my job, I figured that some Oregon-based Nazis decided to get cute during atlas-writing time and slip in a reference to Der Fuhrer before anyone got wise.
Historical records say otherwise. Swastika Mountain took its name from a little town founded sometime around 1909, a few decades before the Nazis took power, when a post office was founded with a man named Clayton E. Burton in charge. Burton was a local cattle farmer who used a swastika brand on his herd – at the time, swastikas were still considered good luck charms from the Indian subcontinent, originating from svastika, or “well-being,” in Sanskrit.
Imagine driving down a rural road and coming across a pasture full of cows, just grazing away. You stop to look at them for a while, and some of them are near the fence separating the pasture from the road. Then, you look a little closer, and see a big-ass swastika branded on every cow’s hump.
That probably actually happened to someone in 1920s.
Then the Nazis came and fucked it all up, as they always do, and the word “swastika” became synonymous with fascism all over the West. I would like to believe that Clay Burton stopped branding his cows with swastikas, but, who can say?
But the name stuck, even after the post office and the town of Swastika died off and Nazi Germany rose and fell. So now, well over a century after its naming and nearly a century since the Nazis first popped up on the Munich street-fighting scene, there’s still a big old Swastika Mountain sitting in the middle of the Oregon Cascades.
But there doesn’t have to be! The name “Swastika Mountain” is completely arbitrary. Although I can’t find any record of what that particular mountain was called before white dudes with soon-to-be-problematic cattle brands showed up, I’m positive it wasn’t Swastika Mountain.
And it doesn’t have to bear that name now. We can just change the name. That’s arguably the best thing about names: they can be changed any time, for any reason. It’s not like anyone cares about this mountain! There’s probably very few people that know it even exists, and even fewer people who would argue against giving the mountain a name other than Swastika fuckin’ Mountain.
And anyone that might argue for keeping the name Swastika Mountain is probably not someone whose opinion is even worth its weight in salt.
So, we should absolutely get together and figure out what to re-name Swastika Mountain. I am open to suggestions, and so is the United States Board on Geographic Names.
But in the meantime, we can enjoy these other Oregon place names that are perfect as they are.
Shitepoke Creek – Lane County
A “shitepoke” is an old-timey Southern word for a heron, but specifically used by early pioneers to reference the blue and green herons that inhabited the riparian habitats of the Cascade foothills, which, as the pioneers noted, have a habit of shitting themselves after being startled.
I imagine that this short seven-mile creek just south of Oakridge was named after a settler colonist had an unfortunate incident with a big-ass bird.
Friend – Wasco County
The settlement of Friend, named after postmaster George Friend, is an old ghost town in that vast stretch of high desert between The Dalles and Bend. All that remains of the old railroad town is a cemetery, an old one-room schoolhouse, and The Friend Store.
There is no loneliness quite like working the counter at the Friend Store in a ghost town.
TNT Creek – Lane County
A couple miles south of Oakridge sits TNT Creek, supposedly named because a Forest Service Ranger’s mule rebelled during an excursion through the forest and bucked a load of dynamite into the then-unnamed creek. It is unclear what happened to the explosives, but I presume that the loss wasn’t too great, seeing as how the Forest Ranger was given the right to name a remote creek in the Willamette National Forest after this amusing anecdote.
For what it’s worth, they weren’t mad at the mule either; Burro Creek is the next mountain stream over.
Hole-in-the-Ground, Crack in the Ground, & Big Hole – Lake County
You know, sometimes you have to give people credit for not beating around the bush when it comes to naming places. There’s no need to label these volcanic fissures in Central Oregon anything they’re not. Sometimes, you come across a big hole, and all you can do is stand on the rim, whistle, and say to yourself “Damn, that’s a big hole.” And that feels pretty good, I bet, because not a single person on Earth can tell you you’re wrong.
It helps that these three volcanic holes in the ground are not far from a place called Fort Rock–which sounds like the world’s greatest rock opera about an Army platoon–and about seven miles north of Christmas Valley.
Twin Peaks – Wallowa County
This one is for all my David Lynch fans out there. Don’t let Washington state take all the credit for Twin Peaks.
Fun fact: Catherine Coulson, who played the Log Lady, is buried in Ashland.
Hehe Mountain – Lane County
I’m not sure how the name of this mountain is supposed to be said, but in my head, I assume it’s pronounced like the way Beavis and Butthead laugh. This is a mountain that mocks your attempts to scale its peak.
You can reach the top all you want, but all you’re going to hear is a faint and sarcastic chuckle in the back of your mind.
Democrat Gulch – Josephine County
A 1971 article in the Register-Guard claims that Democrat Gulch, on a ridge some five miles southeast of Cave Junction–itself an honorable mention for this list–was named because a majority of early gold prospectors happened to be aligned with the Democratic party.
This, of course, sends my imagination running after images of crusty old prospectors discussing the finer points of Grover Cleveland’s second run for the presidency while panning for gold.
Whorehouse Meadow – Harney County
Much like Hole-in-the-Ground, Whorehouse Meadow is a name that aims to cut out the bullshit. The meadow outside of the town Frenchglen once played host to a prosperous group of sex workers, who would set up tents where they could exchange their goods and services with local farmers and cattle ranchers.
In the 20th century, the Bureau of Land Management–being the no-fun sticklers and bureaucrats they are–changed the name of the meadow on their maps to “Naughty Girl Meadow,” which is somehow objectively worse. Everyone got mad at them for making what was once an amusing place name sound so creepy, so they changed it back a few years later. This, of course, would be the last time that the Bureau of Land Management had anyone get mad at them.
See! We can change place names at any time!
Tittie Butte – Wheeler County
I’m not laughing. You’re laughing.
Eightmile – Morrow County
Hawksy Walksy – Harney County
You’re never going to convince me that this flat plain on the Oregon-Nevada border wasn’t named after some drunk dude named “Hawk” who decided to walk across the border while babbling like an idiot.
“Hawk! Hey man, come back here, that there’s Nevada on the other side.”
“No way, José – Hawksy’s gonna Walksy right across that there dadgum invisible line in the sand. Just you wait.”
Whiskey Dick – Wasco County
Named, I presume, after a sexual encounter so unfortunate and embarrassing that it had no choice but to be immortalized forever in the records of the United States Geological Survey.
The lesson in all this is never trust a geographer. Seems like they can be real petty sometimes.