by JOHN H. LIENHARD
THE SOUL OF A CITY


The view from above Westheimer in Houston, Texas
The view from above Westheimer in Houston, Texas



I doubt that any of us can really know the city without spending time far outside the city. I did that in 1949, in the town of Loomis in north central Washington State. I worked with the Bureau of Public Roads, running a forest access road into the eastern Cascades. Loomis, then home to some 300 souls, had once been a turn-of-the-century gold rush town, home to thousands. Now it was twelve streets, a grocery store, a gas station, and a mechanic's shed.

On weekends we went up into the dank, abandoned mines in the hills behind the town. We explored the tunnels, prying out lumps of fool's gold. Our road’s still there; but none of the people, with their intertwined lives, remain. Mostly I remember Margaret, a middle-aged widow who made ends meet by feeding our road crew farm style, and providing sandwiches wrapped in wax paper for lunch.

The author in 1949This was an America few of us ever see: Barren beauty all around, rattlesnakes if you didn't step carefully, 110-degree heat in the high-altitude air — and quiet, soul-settling quiet, all around us. I did mathematics for recreation.

Now I have Dennis Kitchen's book, Our Smallest Towns. Kitchen crisscrossed America with a panoramic camera visiting tiny towns, rounding up the citizens and photographing them. Garrison Keillor's introduction calls these towns so small that "the bride has to sing at her own wedding." Only four are larger than my Loomis was. Most have fewer than a hundred people.

Some are novelties, like Hoot Owl, Oklahoma, with no people at all. But most are real towns, alone in the landscape. The photos show groups of twenty or a hundred people — old and young, ethnic mixtures, all looking proudly at the camera. Like Loomis, Ophir, Utah, population 22, is the remnant of a mining town. Ophir boasts a firehouse and a city hall. A man created Mustang, Texas, population 27, by building a trailer park when he needed a town before he could get a permit to build a dance hall.

Most are remnants of dreams. A highway moved, a railway abandoned, an ore vein run out. The people who remain are stubborn — not to be brushed aside. For the most part, they’ve figured out how to live close to one another's foibles.

I missed city life that summer in Loomis. Yet a part of my young psyche feasted on remoteness, on contact with Earth and sky, and reliance on inner resources. It all clicked one August day when two bearded men and four mules emerged from the mountains. They'd entered that huge forest near Bellingham in the spring, and spent all summer clearing a Forest Service trail with axes and machetes.

To be that alone — free and independent — seemed such a wonderful thing. Back in populated Loomis that evening, those men lay upon my mind. The lights winked out in the scattered houses and I dreamt about a night sky over the inaccessible reaches of the Cascade Mountains, far away from this suddenly crowded town. I guess it’s all a trick of perspective. For any us who’ve grown to love our city, two things have happened. We will have learned to find that kind of quiet and solitude within our city. But we’ll also hear ourselves telling others that it really feels like a small town. By that, we really mean that we’ve found its soul — that we know people and greet them in the grocery store. It means that we’ve become a part of our city’s neural structure.

We reach a point where we truly understand that we are the city, and that the city is us.


Sources:

D. Kitchen, Our Smallest Towns: Big Falls, Blue Eye, Bonanza & Beyond. (San Francisco: Chronicle books, 1995).

See Episode 1353.

Images: Dynamite photo property of John H. Lienhard. City of Houston image by John H. Lienhard.




Loomis, Washington via Google Street View
(internet connection required to view)





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