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Well, it helps if you know ahead of time that the Great Dead Place, where John goes on his journey, is actually what's left of post-war New York City. This can be inferred from some of the things you've mentioned. The first clue is ou-dis-on. This is actually a distorted version of Hudson, as in the Hudson River, which runs through the heart of NYC.
The Great Burning likely refers to an explosion caused by some sort of bomb during a great war in the past. Additionally, ASHING is likely part of the name Washington, which John sees when looking at a statue of the famous first president.
It's really a fun story when you know what you're looking for. Best of luck with the rest of it. Just remember that even though John and his family seem very primative, they're actually in the future, far down the road from our present time.
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