Paul Bunyan’s Potty … and Other Adventures in Naming

Names are important. I am talking about place names – where you live, where you vacation. Most place names are unremarkable or commonly, even universally, recognized. Rocky Mountain National Park is descriptive certainly, and for many, such as myself, its mention evokes fine memories and promise of further adventure. But the name is not really imaginative or unique. Similarly, there is no doubt for whom Mt. Lincoln, one of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, is named. All of us can think of similar examples.

However, throughout the American West there are place names which have a certain tone, suggest mystery or danger, touch a humorous note, or have fascinating origins. They may be stories in themselves, and their mention brings a reaction, or exclamation, a reflection, maybe a chuckle, or even a guffaw. These give flavor to our geography.

River of No Return Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho
Druid Arch Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Death Valley Death Valley National Park, California
Muley Twist Canyon Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Cohab (Cohabitation Canyon) Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Thor’s Hammer Bryce Canyon National Park
Paul Bunyan’s Potty A distinctively shaped arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Grand Tetons* Mountain Range and National Park in Wyoming

One of my favorites is Oh-Be-Joyful-Canyon, ten miles northwest of Crested Butte, Colorado.  It took an intense public campaign to realize its incorporation into the Raggeds Wilderness in 1993.  There must be some history explaining the derivation of the name – there usually is – though upon reflection I prefer scenarios of my own imagination.  Clearly there was an event or an experience – indeed, it must have been pretty special! – which someone, or some ones, definitely enjoyed.  So I prefer to think of Oh-Be-Joyful-Canyon and what may have happened in my own way – with a smile on my face….

Then there are places with an interesting story and an unusual twist. I am thinking of Zion National Park in Southwestern Utah – the spectacular canyon carved 3,000 feet deep through red sandstone. There is a charming story here. Three Mormon settlors, including the Behunin family, began ranching activities in upper Zion Canyon in the 1860s. The origin of the name is generally attributed to Isaac Behunin, a veteran of most, if not all, of the torment of the Latter Day Saints from New York, through Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, across the Great Plains and through the Rockies, to the remote and uncharted lands of Utah. Old father Behunin felt in Zion he had finally reached a place of safety and refuge, thus the biblically derived name implying refuge or resting place.

A few years later Brigham Young, on a tour through Mormon settlements in southern Utah, reached the town of Springdale in lower Zion Canyon. Historian Angus M. Woodbury picks up the story –

On one of Brigham Young’s visits to Springdale, probably in 1870, he was told of Zion. He inquired how it came to be so named. The explanation, it seems, was not satisfactory to the Mormon leader after a toilsome journey into the canyon and he questioned its propriety, saying that “it was not Zion.” Some of his more literal-minded followers thereafter called it “Not Zion.”

Of course the old pioneer eventually won out: Zion was designated as a national park, and has deservedly become a “must see” destination for millions of visitors – a scenic wonder, but also a refuge, if you will, from the crowds, tribulations and the turmoils of modern urban living.

No doubt readers have their own favorites, and their mention, or a fleeting thought in the midst of a busy day, triggers a recollection, a fond memory. I suspect this is particularly so for local, even relatively isolated places frequented by friends and families or the local community, which bring a comfortable and knowing nod. Maybe if a particularly fitting place name is not yet recognized by the U. S. Geological Survey or the applicable state geological office, but by general consensus of those in the know it should be, a telephone call or an email to the appropriate agency would be well received.

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* Grand Teton has famously been associated with the French words meaning “large teat,” but some historians dispute the derivation, saying instead that the name comes from the Teton Sioux tribe of Native Americans.