The transformation of North America from wilderness to marketable real estate needed flat land to farm and build towns on, and to make crossing the continent possible. One way to advertise land that could become farmland, a town site, or a roadbed was to name it Flat or Flats. Some flats point out the local vegetation: Cedar Flat, Oregon; Hickory Flat, Missouri; Yucca Flats, the Nevada nuclear test site; and Piney Flats, Tennessee. Some flats just locate the site: Yukon Flat in Alaska, Rail Road Flat in California, and Flatgap in Kentucky. Other flats are a problem: there are more than fifteen potentially unpleasant locations in the West named Alkali Flat or Flats. Then there’s a Dead Ox Flat in the aptly named Malheur County, Oregon. The term is evocative, however it’s used. Flat is one of the words with which writers quickly sketch the West, as in this scene from Zane Grey’s novel The Light of Western Stars: “Far below lay the cedar flat and the foothills. Far to the west the sky was still clear, with shafts of sunlight shooting down from behind the encroaching clouds.”

D. J. Waldie