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The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Rinker Buck. Simon and Schuster, New York. 2015. 450 pp.

In the summer of 2007 Rinker Buck, a journalist researching a story in the Black Hills, made a serendipitous detour to visit the Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express station, a way stop on Oregon Trail, now restored and maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society. It was there, reading a 1850 journal entry describing this Ranch by Margaret Frink, pioneer traveller on the Trail, that Buck caught the bug; like Frink, he too decided to travel west on the Oregon Trail. From April to October, 2008 Buck lives his dream, traveling two thousand miles from St. Joe, MO to Baker City OR, in a covered wagon, pulled by a team of three mules.

the-oregon-trail-9781451659160_lgThis book describes that momentous journey, the first of its kind in over one hundred years. Buck spends that winter voraciously reading, purchases a restored wagon and a team of three Amish mules, designs and has a “trail pup” (a two wheeled covered cart which tagged along carrying supplies) constructed. At some point his brother Nicholas (to whom the book is dedicated) invites himself along accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier Olive Oyl. This turns out to be a lucky turn of events; Nick is an expert mule team driver, (true!) who also can swear a blue streak and does, in almost every sentence he utters. He also seems capable of repairing anything, which turns out to be a necessity as along the way axles and wheels break as well as many other parts of their rig. A third “companion”, the ghost of their father who had taken them on another covered wagon expedition as children through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, “joins” them at various locations as the journey unspools.

This book chronicles the Bucks’ adventures and the (mostly) helpful people they meet along the way. It talks about breakdowns, the weather, where they camped, eating at roadside truck stops as well as at town parks, the fine art of mule handling and the daily push to make 25 miles between sunup and sundown. In the dreamy hours spent on the wagon seat, Buck reflects on the beauty of the remaining original Trail, and figures out how to get around places where the Trail has been paved into interstate, Buck also grapples with the role in his psyche his larger-than-life father continues to play.

The Oregon Trail is also an illuminating account of the Trail’s history through the personal histories of some of the people who travelled its length. He considers a kaleidoscope of stories the Trail holds: the Mormons, the broke farmers, the women and children, the wayside ranches, the Indians, even the shysters at the Missouri jumping off points, who are there selling second grade wheels and untrained mules as well as all sorts of goods the pioneers are often forced to abandon along the way.

Part memoir, part rousing history, part how-to drive a covered wagon and mule team, Buck offers a panorama of a part of history which seems to have been mislaid in the telling of the American story. And this may be the most important insight of them all:

“The exodus across the plains in the fifteen years before the Civil War, when more than 400.000 pioneers made the trek between the frontier at the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, is still regarded by scholars as the largest single land migration in history. It virtually defined the American character—our plucky determination in the face of physical adversity, the joining of two coasts into one powerful country, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the endless, fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Post Oregon Trail—with a big assist from the Civil War—America was a continental dynamo connected by railroads and the telegraph from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

“Seeing the elephant” was the phrase often used by pioneers to describe their Trail journeys. Buck’s trip, 127 years later, shows us what that elephant looks like today.

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Just Askin" thanks to Daily Kow

Just Askin”
thanks to Daily Kos

Here’s a Voter Lookup Site:

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This is a question I’ve been asking myself every since I arrived thirty years ago. I’ve finally gotten down to “I know it when I see it.”

Of course it’s partially flat out geography. West of the 100th meridian to the Pacific coast was John Wesley Powell’s idea in 1879, the 100th meridian being where there was no longer sufficient rainfall (>20 inches/year) to support large scale agriculture without irrigation. It slices North and South Dakota as well as Nebraska about in half, then heads through western Kansas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the coast from about San Francisco to the Canadian border gets a lot more than 20 inches of rain. Our own Port Orford averages 80. Still, the dividing line seems good enough to me because I know Seattle and Portland and Eureka are western towns (even though it’s generally raining).

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Patricia Limerick adds some of her own characteristics beyond mere geography in Something in the Soil. And the plot thickens. Here are her ten common characteristics, noting that not every place has them all but there is sufficient overlap to “give the whole some conceptual unity.” Here’s my interpretations of her top 10:

1. The West is arid to semi-arid. Still pioneers came from that back east riot of green, and wanted to reproduce it here. Thus massive irrigation and inter-basin water transfer projects.

2. The West has lots of Native Americans. There are sufficient large reservations (as well as casinos) to confirm the Indians haven’t vanished and their culture(s) continue to contribute to the Western mythos.

3. The West shares a border with Mexico (which she labels a third world country) and took a large part of this US region from the Mexicans in a war of conquest. A strong Hispanic strand remains in the culture.

4. The West abuts the Pacific Ocean, making the US a bi-coastal nation, open to influences both from Europe and Asia.

5. The West contains a large amount of public land, most of it administered by the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior (DOI).

6. Federal ownership, especially DOI, of vast western lands makes the federal government a central and critical player in regional governance and politics.

7. The West has had a long history of economic boom and bust from natural resource extraction industries.

8. The West has fed into its own myth of freedom and adventure. With that has come a heavy reliance on tourism as well as the need to meet mythic expectations.

9. The West serves as the nation’s dumping ground, for everything from toxic waste to troublesome groups of people (think Native Americans, Mormons etc.)

10. Putting all these factors together it’s clear the story of the West is hardly over., and the limits and results of past conquest of people and land continues to show on the landscape and the culture.

Overall while I’m not sure this is the list I would come up with, it seems to work pretty well overall. The underlining of the federal presence and role is a particularly valuable one.

But still I would have to say, simple geography works pretty well. As does, “I know it when I’m there.” It’s definitely “something in the soil.”

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Recently we picked up the 2000 book Something in the Soil by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick is leading historian of the “New West Movement”, a group who, in the 1990s, broke away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1890 paradigm that the frontier was closed (and so in essence, the West’s unique history had ended) to a much broader and more inclusive, as well as continuing, story. The New Western History presents a more nuanced vision based on different historical “truths”. Here are four.

275534The West, in fact, continued to be settled long after 1890. Western history was hardly complete if defined by white male pioneers from “back east” but needed to include the women and children who accompanied them as well as people moving north, west, and east—Mexicans, African Americans,  and Asians. [Author’s aside: as well as “back easterners” arriving by ships coming up the Pacific Coast as they did to my coastal Oregon town] And don’t forget the continued present of Native Americans. Western history should re-focus away from the romance evoked by the word “frontier” and its underlying implication of US exceptionalism and onto the global reality that taking over Western lands was no more than another example of conquest. Finally it’s necessary to abandon the myth of black hat/white hat style of clear-cut morality which permeates western lore to acknowledge that the West is populated by folks as human as everybody else. As Limerick suggests we’re really all “gray hats.”

Although this new Western history may sound fairly “old hat” in 2014 (ignoring race, ethnicity, environmental issues and that the “end of the frontier” hardly ended the conflicts that continue to play out in the West? Seriously?) it was received by many as cutting edge, unorthodox, and to some historians borderline heretical when it broke into the old “frontier” paradigm.

I have to admit as someone who grew up back east knowing the West only through John Ford movies like Stagecoach, and TV series like Gunsmoke, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro (at least it’s a nod to Old Hispanic California) it rattles my mythos. And still living here, choosing to live here for most of my adult life, it can’t be denied there is something unique “out here.” While all the “out heres” seem so different—New Mexico, Montana, SoCal and the Oregon Coast hardly feel exactly alike to me—they are definitely more related  geographically and culturally to each other than they are to the backeast regions of New England, the South or the Midwest.

I was drawn to the title Something in the Soil. It felt, even vaguely smelled, somehow exactly descriptive of the West. As she explains, in fact, it was a (very negative) reaction of a Bostonian to Limerick’s new history paradigm. As she concludes: “Of course, the West has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material and substantial—’something in the soil,’a set of actual places now holding layer upon layer of memory.”

WHERE MY WEST CAME FROM

 

 

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“As you set out…hope the voyage is a long one.” C.P. Cavafy

Union Station, Portland OR © SR Euston

When we booked our first overnight Amtrak ride recently, I envisioned an Orient Express experience: mysterious women in flowing silk dressing gowns disappearing into sleek sleeping cabins; fine dinners served on elegantly appointed tables by men in dinner jackets; the train’s rhythmic sway lulling me to sleep as we slipped through the velvet summer night. I imagined Romance! Luxury! Intrigue!

The trip began auspiciously enough. We left Portland’s Union Station on Amtrak’s Empire Builder headed for Chicago precisely on time at 4:45 pm, anticipating our scheduled arrival in Shelby, MT at 11:43 am the next day.

Along the Columbia River © SR Euston

Behind Bonneville Dam © SR Euston

Remembering the tart online discussions about the Empire Builder’s difficulties—one blogger even admonished “Get over it!”—I realized on-time arrival was unusual.

In the Lounge Car © SR Euston

Still I never dreamed we would spend five hours stopped dead on a siding near the Dalles and another two (I don’t even remember where) languishing. Granted a series of brushfires near the tracks stalled us up. Even so.

Out the Window: Grain Elevators © AME

Seven additional hours spent in a semi-upright position in a not-so-comfortable-for-sleeping coach seat with no dining car until Spokane did not make for the relaxed, re-vitalizing journey I had envisioned. By morning even the train staff were as cranky as the trapped passengers.

Yet, in retrospect, delay had its advantages. We saw sunrise over the Eastern Washington wheat fields. We could wander from car to car and get off at stations to stretch.

At Whitefish Station © SR Euston

We passed through some of the very best scenery in daylight, along the Kootenai River and later skirting Glacier National Park. We had two volunteer ranger/naturalists join us to point out the sights—a rare chance for them to describe locations mostly passed through in darkness. Even if (bedraggled, tired and hungry) we didn’t make Shelby until past 7:00 pm, it truly was an opportunity to slow down and look around. On balance, we had, not your standard high-anxiety airplane trip, but rather more a Cavafy-style voyage.

And we learned two important Amtrak lessons. Don’t expect to be (even remotely) on time. And always book a sleeper car.

(Part 2: The Return: Romance, Sleep and Dinner too!)

Greeting the Dawn © AME

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Rocks to me are akin to bones, bones of the earth, it’s skeletal frame that has been pressed and extruded and deposited. Rocks in one sense hold the meaning of life, because life has evolved in a medium of rocks dissolved, eroded, polished, blown, washed away, wore bare by human feet or by their chips and scrapes, cut into gigantic blocks of stone somehow put upright; rocks placed one on another to make shelter, to use as ornament, to defend the castle.

Rock photography is about solidity. Rocks are there, a bit like Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. And they are quiet. They encourage contemplative visualization. Rocks are the finest blending of natural history and visual power, oftentimes overlaid with intimations of the mythic and mystical – the spirit of the land at its most basic. To see them  – really see them – is a near Zen practice.  SRE

Petroglyph, Three Rivers, NM © SR Euston

Volcanic Rocks, Jemez Mts., NM © SR Euston

Volcanic Deposits, NM © SR Euston

Coastal Upthrust, Oregon Coast © SR Euston

Canyon Rocks, NM © SR Euston

"In Place", Blue Ridge Mts., VA © SR Euston

"Castle", Hovenweep National Monument, UT © SR Euston

Blue Rocks, Catwalk, SW NM © SR Euston

Shoreline Rocks, Cape Blanco OR © SR Euston

Shoreline Rocks, Cape Blanco OR © SR Euston

Lava Cones, Craters of the Moon Nat'l Monument, ID © SR Euston

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