Distance and time in the country

Published 8:42 pm Tuesday, April 4, 2017

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Daniel Boone is reputed to have said that when he could see the smoke from his neighbor’s chimney, it was time to move on.

He probably did not say that, but it has always seemed like something he should have said even if he didn’t. The sentiment is pure rural American, where distance has always been an element of importance, and usually preference.

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Distance and time, often in combination, are integral parts of rural culture, and rural conversation, particularly in years past, was replete with references to both.

Any southern country boy could tell you that he had “looked all over hell’s half acre” for something without finding it — or, perhaps, before he did find it.

What he probably couldn’t tell you is that the phrase has been so widely used in American rural lore that the name was applied to a craggy, 320-acre gorge along the Powder River in Wyoming.

Not to be outdone, the founders of 19th century Fort Worth, Texas named the roughest section of the cow town “Hell’s Half Acre. It was known for its brothels, gambling parlors and hotel-saloons.

Back in the South, though, a Hell’s Half Acre is just a pretty big and frustrating search for something rather than a definable space.

Country folk also know that a person who turned something simple into something complicated by going “round their elbow to get to their thumb” — a long, circuitous and totally unnecessary route.

If they weren’t terribly interested in helping you find a place or person, they might just nod their head and tell you it or they were “over yonder” or “up the road a piece.” They might also suggest, kindly or not, that you “put your foot in the path” and move along.

Neighborhoods were often referred to warmly as “these parts,” and things that occurred in “these parts” were considered perfectly normal. Those not occurring here were often considered foreign — and not terribly welcome.

Other distance and travel expressions routinely heard in the rural South include:

“A country mile,” referring to something considerably more than a mile;

A road so bumpy it would “shake your gizzard.”

“As the crow flies,” referring to a straight line from point A to point B.

Southerners are thought to be never in a hurry, but that’s not so. They could move as fast or slow as anyone. They just might prefer slow to fast when given the option.

For example, country folk would “get in a swivet” if they were in a particular hurry. They might also skedaddle if they were running late.

Often, though, they might “get to it directly” or “by and by” if they really didn’t want to do a thing, and they were perfectly willing to describe a slow worker as “slower than molasses.”

Rare occurrences might not occur “in a month of Sundays” or more than “once in a blue moon.” (And, by the way, there is a lunar phenomenon known as a blue moon. It’s when there are two full moons within a calendar month.)