Friday, September 30, 2011

Conestogas Westward Ho!

I’m frantically taking care of last-minute packing and myriad details before I can leave.  I’m excited.  I’m dreading the thousands of miles sitting in a bus.  But mostly I’m thrilled to be given this opportunity.

My neighbor is keeping an eye on my beloved house.  I will miss the rhythms of my life within it – get up, grind coffee, etc.  I will have every familiar rhythm disrupted every single day for the next six or seven weeks.  And my butt will be wore out.

When I complain, my friend Bill reminds me that the pioneers made this journey in Conestoga wagons.  No contoured foam on those seats.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Smell of Horse Barns

While journeying through America, starting Saturday morning, October 1, early, I will not be able to work on my quilt (machine pieced, hand quilted) for six weeks.  If the Passaic River floods like it did in early September, I will not be here to pump the water out of the basement before mushrooms start growing on the ceiling.

I will miss seeing my neighborhood in fall.  By leaving on October 1, I will not see the maple in front of my house turn gold, nor the hillside of the Watchung Mountain near my home turn shades of gold, red and bronze.  I will miss buying squash and local apples at my farmstand, a yearly ritual.  I will not be able to buy and roast locally grown parsnips, turnips, and beets.

But I will get to see farmland from here to Seattle as farmers settle it in for the winter.  I’ll see the Big Sky Country of Montana, the land that Lewis and Clark adventured through, in autumnal glory.  The great breadbasket of the Plains, the cornucopia filled with produce from farms, is neat to think about.  Many farms are struggling, but some are robust – like the ones in Wisconsin, where I just was last week.  When the wind came from a certain direction, the smell of cows (and the fertile fields where their manure is spread) was intense.  

My neighbor said yesterday she loved the smell of horse barns. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

An American Dream Broken, Killed, Buried and Never Resurrected

On Sunday I went to the Museum of Westward Expansion, underneath The Arch in St. Louis and run by the National Park Service.  One wall was devoted to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, another whole wall to the Native American experience during the expansion. 

President Jefferson – through Lewis and Clark, his ambassadors to Plains Indians – told the Indians he just wanted trade, not land.  Lewis and Clark left civilization, near St. Louis, on May 21, 1804.  But one week earlier the U.S. government had passed the Louisianna Territory Act.  It was the first official notice of the U.S. government’s intention to move the Indians east of the Mississippi River to the west of it.  

Lewis and Clark left the circle of the U.S. Post Office before word could reach them.  But I’m sure Jefferson knew this Act was afoot and didn’t tell Lewis and Clark that land west of the Mississippi was indeed going to be an issue.  And the government continued to be duplicitous in its relationship to the Indians, just as it had done in the East, mercilessly breaking treaties.

After the Euro-American settlers moved into the Great Plains and buffalo, elk, antelope and other abundant wild game became scarce, and after the plains were transformed within one generation into agricultural space, some tribes in desperation revived ancient traditions in the early 1890s.

Wovoka, a Paiute medicine man, helped to revive Ghost Dances.  He told Indians that, as a result of the dances, dead ancestors would return, game would be plentiful again, and the white man would disappear. 

The fervor of the Indians’ Ghost Dances brought out the Army.  On December 29, 1890, when the Seventh Cavalry arrived at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, not only scores of Indians, but also “a beautiful dream…died in the snow,” said Ben Black Bear, a Lakota Sioux.  The Park Service wrote, “It was a dream of recovering all that had been lost in the cultural collision with Euro-Americans.”

After Wounded Knee, very few Indians migrated freely across the plains, as they had done for thousands of years.

I think their American dream was broken, killed, buried, and never resurrected.

I think the Park Service was very fair in making the agony of the Indians vivid.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Huge, Unknown Continent

I’m reading “Undaunted Courage,” the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition by Stephen Ambrose.  My journey by bus will parallel their expedition's route as I go from Buffalo south to Chicago, then north to Minneapolis, Fargo and Bismark.  I’ll be practically tracing their path through Montana, Idaho and Washington State.

Ambrose writes that in 1803, people knew that the Pacific Coast lay 2,000 miles west of the Mississippi River, which at that time formed the westernmost boundary of America.   But people knew almost nothing of the territory within those 2,000 miles.   There was a suspicion of a mountain range, which the most scientific people of the day thought were as high as the Appalachians.   They knew of a river called the Colorado, and another, discovered by the British, called the Columbia.      Thomas Jefferson knew of the existence of the Missouri River, which empties into the Mississippi River at St. Louis.  But nobody knew where the Missouri River went, or if it was navigable, of if the land was suited to agriculture, or anything about the Native American tribes who lived along it.

Rivers were the highways of America in 1803.  Most roads were impassable to wagons and stagecoaches – goods moved most easily by water.  So finding out if the Missouri was navigable, and if it connected with the Pacific Ocean, was crucial information to President Jefferson.  His American dream was expansion to the Pacific Coast, even though the British, the French and the Spanish had claims on the unknown territory, forming obstacles to his dream.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were willing to risk everything in order to explore it.   Planning and packing for the trip took Lewis several years.   Once he crossed the Mississippi, he could not drop into a store and buy cough syrup if he needed it, as I will be able to do on my trip.  He had to carry everything that he could imagine might be necessary.  And he didn’t know all that might be necessary because he had never been in this territory before, nor had any other white man.  He was a long-time woodsman, frontiersman, and Army officer, however, so he had ideas -- but no sure knowledge -- of what he would need. 

One of his most important priorities, set by President Jefferson, was journaling about what he learned about soil conditions and rainfall (to know if the land was farmable), to map the Missouri River (to know if farm produce could be transported on it), and to write down what he learned about the customs, religions, and herbal knowledge of the Native Americans.

Ambrose said Lewis ran out of tobacco and whiskey and other items during the expedition.  But he returned with enough ink to have taken notes on a whole new, similar trip.  As a writer, I approve of Lewis’s priorities.

And I'll be reporting on a continent that is unknown to me.  I've flown across it twice, but going mile by mile in a bus will be completely different.  It will give me a sense of the size of America.  And as I talk to people in each town and city, I hope to know the size of its heart.

Friday, September 16, 2011

This Trip is Taking Me...

I am fearful and exhilarated as I think about this trip, which starts two weeks from tomorrow. I’ve decided to relax the pace, take six or seven weeks instead of four, in order to stay two nights in more places. That way I can get to the historical society and library, talk with more folks in each town. I’m fascinated with Fargo and Bismarck, North Dakota, and Billings and Helena, Montana. These towns are peopled with hardy, resourceful folks, I imagine. My ancestors wrested a living out of the harsh North Atlantic; their ancestors wrested it from flowing prairie, enduring harsh Arctic winters.

I’ve got to read several books before and during the trip: “Undaunted Courage,” about the Lewis and Clark expedition; “The Last American Man” was recommended to me yesterday as a description of the men who conquered the West.

And I think constantly of “Travels with Charley.” I re-read the introduction and found solace for my trepidation:

"Once a journey is designed, equipped and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us."

This trip is taking me already.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Science of Dreams

On the train back to New Jersey that day I met Peter, a science teacher in a New Jersey school.  He sat next to me and took out an e-book reader.  I told him about my book and asked him what he thought of my proposed title.  Would he pick up a book with the title “Heart’s Desire: A Journey to Find the New American Dream”?

He thought he might look at the flap or back cover to learn more about what the book covered. 

“Is ‘Heart’s Desire’ too feminine?  Would men shy away from it?”

“Could be.  How about ‘New Horizons’ or ‘Quest’? But I’m a teacher, I let students come up with it, I’ll leave it to you, the writer.”

I asked him how he defined the American dream.  “To raise a happy and healthy family, with enough money to enjoy life.”  I asked if his definition had changed.

“Growing up, we think it’s a given, that we’ll make all our dreams come true.  But very few people actually do.  What’s changed for me is learning how much hard work is involved in trying to procure your own American dream.”

He said investment bankers were most likely to make their American dream come true in today’s economy; but if you watch them, many of them seem to be squandering their money.

“Some of them are living the dream and don’t recognize it – they don’t appreciate what they have,” Peter said.

And then there are others, like the teacher in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” who feel they are a failure simply because they don’t realize the influence they’ve had.  “Maybe the dream is closer than we think,” Peter said.