Editor's Note: Columnist Lee Benson is spending the week bicycling west to east across Utah, from the Nevada line to the Colorado line. His columns will reflect what he sees, hears and experiences along the way.
NEPHI AND MORONI There's one thing that does not easily escape your notice when traveling through the countryside at roughly the same speed as dial-up Internet:
The names of places.
For one thing, you realize that something actually exists between the "entering" and "leaving" signs. For another, you find yourself making assumptions about the people who settled the place by what they decided to call it.
Take Nephi and Moroni, for instance, two towns near each other here in central Utah. It seems pretty obvious a religious fervor gripped the early Mormon settlers, at least some of them, to prompt them to name their towns after the first book and the last book in the Book of Mormon, respectively.
You can get from Nephi to Moroni in 500 pages, or by traveling 22 miles up Highway 132.
Nephi and Moroni are not alone. Millard, Juab and Sanpete the three counties I have traversed so far on the way to the Colorado border are full of names linked to either the Book of Mormon or the Bible.
Mount Nebo, the area's tallest point at 11,928 feet, is named after the peak where Moses first got a view of the Promised Land. Ephraim, in Sanpete County, is named after the son of Joseph, while Manti, just down the street, is the name of a land, a city and a soldier in the Book of Mormon.
And yes, you can get a clear view of Ephraim from Mount Nebo.
There's even a Jerusalem. It was settled in the mid-1800s between the towns of Freedom and Fountain Green in Sanpete County, but for some reason it never made it. It's a ghost town now and in light of what's going on in the Middle East, how's that for irony? A Jerusalem nobody wants.
As near as I can tell, the people who live in towns named for religious people, places and things seem to be taking it in stride.
Alan Gibson, publisher of The Times-News in Nephi, just shrugged when I asked him about living in a place named after a Book of Mormon book. "We're used to it around here," he said. "The church people think, 'Oh it's wonderful;' a heathen like me thinks, 'Well, that's the way it is."'
I heard of no referendums for a name change.
At the Nephi library, Barbara Lovell, the head librarian and a native Nephite, said they'll change the name over her dead body and that's despite the fact that every salesman or out-of-towner who calls on the library pronounces the town name one of two ways: Nep-hi or Nef-ee.
But never Nee-fie.
"Those of us who have been here all our lives just laugh about it," said Barbara.
Same goes with the people in nearby Levan, a town with much murkier naming roots. Among the theories about the name's origin are these: 1. L-e-v-a-n is N-a-v-e-l spelled backwards which makes sense since the town is very close to being dead-center in the middle of Utah. 2. Brigham Young once passed through here in the old days and one of his wives, Ann, wanted to linger for another day. "Leave Ann," said Brigham, "and we'll pick her up on the way back." 3. A family from Pennsylvania named Levan first settled the town.
"Take your pick," said the woman I talked to at the town hall, who smiled and then added, "At least we're not named Nephi."
I relayed this bit of information to the librarian in Nephi.
"Well if that's the way they feel about it," said Barbara, "we'll charge them $50 to use our library instead of the $20 we've been charging them."
I'm sure she was just kidding.
But for all the unusual spiritual names in these parts, there are also plenty of mainstream names to balance them out.
According to data from the 2000 U.S. Census, Sanpete County has two of the most popular town names in America Fairview and Mount Pleasant and the two towns are only six miles apart. They are just up the road, as a matter of fact, from Nephi and Moroni.
The top 10: 1. Fairview, 2. Midway, 3. Oak Grove, 4. Franklin, 5. Riverside, 6. Centerville, 7. Mount Pleasant, 8. Georgetown, 9. Salem, 10. Greenwood. (Utah has seven of the 10, lacking only Franklin, Georgetown and Oak Grove although we do have a Francis, a St. George and an Oak City).
So Fairview is No. 1 and Mount Pleasant is No. 7.
And Nephi and Moroni did not make the list.
Weird, isn't it? Where else can you ride past Nephi and Moroni, two town names you're not going to find anywhere else, and then ride past Mount Pleasant and Fairview, two names you're going to find everywhere else? All within 40 miles of each other.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.