Friday, September 3, 2010

History on the Move

I am finally getting around to posting this! This is a mix of my final paper for the class, an article I wrote for the BRW August Newsletter, and a few other additions.

“The American West” and “An Introduction to Public History” were led by the quirky Dr. Bob Carriker, his wife, Dawn, two children Ella (5), Leona (3), Dr. Mary Farmer-Kaiser, and her two children, Pete (8) and Irene (5).

What I experienced over the course of the trip would reinforce my beliefs about the majestic and distinctive American experience.

The first few days were marked with soulful reflection and sadness as we visited Dealey Plaza, the site of President Kennedy’s assassination, and the Oklahoma City Memorial. Our trip was marked with visits to many “firsts”; places where Americans experienced a new beginning; be it positive or devastating.

Dealey Plaza was an intense experience. Not our first Presidential assassination, but perhaps the most memorable in the minds of living Americans. Where were you? Everyone remembers when they heard. The most eerie thing about strolling across the grassy knoll is the realization that the street is still heavily used. Cars pass over the two x’s marking the shots fired upon the President. More than anything, for me, it is hard to imagine such a beloved politician. Sure, he is idolized, and it’s easy to do so years later, but to have such a love from a nation…well, I find it hard to fathom in this political climate.

The Oklahoma City Memorial sits between a block of the downtown; a garden, a landscape, a haunting testament to the destruction that occurred there. Where the building once sat, 168 chairs now sit, 19 of them smaller than the others. The sight of the children’s chairs made my eyes water, and when I turned away I found refuge under the Survivor Tree, which still bears the scorch marks of the blast and the fires that followed. The memorial seems almost frozen in time, locked between the 9:01 gate and the 9:03 gate, each facing each other on the opposite street. In between them lies the reflecting pool, echoing the empty chairs on one side of it – chairs that remain empty at each of those person’s family tables.
Quinter, Kansas, between a Tree and a Wheat Silo.

Stopping in Denver, passing up King Tut for the Denver Western Art Museum, we were told to throw all our previous images of the West –the Cowboy, the Indian, the romantic Frontier and all its associations – out the window. Our tour guides at the museum gave us a detailed view of contemporary and classic Western Art. The 19th century artists found beauty in the enchanting landscapes, political motivation in the Indian depictions, and a strong connection between the West and a new, burgeoning American Spirit; one of individualism, independence, and the strong will to survive.

We also toured the Bureau of Reclamation's Hydrology Lab, where they [who control most of the West's water] make to scale models of dams and test different things on them, like fish ladders and emergency situations.

In Casper, Wyoming, we had an interactive experience at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. Quite a mouthful, and sounding a bit boring, it was actually one of the coolest places we visited. Not quite a museum, it has a detailed and hands-on approach to telling the stories of the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails. This visit was on the heels of a hike up to see actual Oregon Trail ruts.
Trail ruts!

I gained a new appreciation for the journey and hardship the pioneers on those trails faced.
Yellowstone National Park

Cheyenne, Wyoming

Wyoming also gave us a hike to see Native American Petroglyphs, hope for a Harrison Ford sighting in Jackson Hole, and our first taste of the delicious huckleberry. We had a memorable sojourn in Yellowstone National Park, where our wake up times were later and our cabins overlooked Old Faithful.

Sulfur-ish area, Hot Spots, Yellowstone

We took quiet hikes to see sulfur spots and timid buffalo, and on one hike to an overlook of the great falls, I slid down the trail and off of the side of the switchback. After pulling myself back over the edge, I soon found my legs to be the first victim of an accident on the trip. I continued down to the overlook, took my pictures, and hiked back up to the car to dress my wounds.

If we still had accidents on a paved, manmade trail, my mind wondered in what sort of trouble the pioneers before us found themselves, not to mention, Indians!
A buffalo jump in Wyoming or Montana (?)

Through Montana we saw the industrious history of mining in Butte, America; toured an old brothel, saw the cringe-worthy Berkeley Pit, and ate at probably the worst Chinese restaurant in the West (and Dr. C could not live this down). And about this time, the older Dr. Robert Carriker and his wife, Eleanor joined us. “Papa C” as we came to call him, is very knowledgeable on Lewis and Clark, and Western History Expansion. As we caravanned through Montana and Idaho, his voice would rattle over the walkie talkies for twenty minutes at a time, just to introduce the next site to us. Because the Carrikers are from Spokane, their connections in the Northwest really came through for us: we had a behind the scenes tour of the Grand Coulee Dam (as well as the Bureau of Reclamation in Denver, which beforehand we named “B.O.R”, but soon found it was actually one of the most interesting stops we would make on the trip). We also spent a day on lake in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, rested in the dorms at Gonzaga University, and toured the grounds of the Cataldo Mission, where we discovered the older Dr. C was the principal historian of the site, and cited so in their introductory film.

Two days of the journey was spent on the Salmon River, rafting over 40 miles and camping on the river’s sandy beaches. The rafting company cooked us gourmet meals, provided tents, and though it seemed effortless, they chauffeured us through rapids and currents. On the first day, Dr. C made it his mission to pull me (the most experienced kayaker of the students) out of the raft first, though I would get my revenge the next day.

As we made our way to Seattle, our group was just about ready for the trip to be over. As much as we liked each other, we didn’t like each other after almost three weeks of nonstop contact. But we soon found ourselves re-energized with freedom to roam and explore in Seattle. We enjoyed an architectural tour of the city (given by Papa C), and a humorous but education Underground Tour. The one thing I had been looking forward to most: finding spots in the city that were featured in Sleepless in Seattle. After our food tour of Pike Place Market, a friend and I found the Athenian Inn. Here, Rob Reiner coaches Tom Hanks on the dating scene over steamed clams and beer. Here, my friend Sarah and I talked--almost about the same things--over steamed clams and wine.

Coming from the West, my varied images and expectations of it come from my experiences. I was born in California, lived in Nevada, Utah, Suburban Washington, D.C., and of course Southern Louisiana. I admit, my images of the West were narrow and, as I learned this past month, confined to certain classic Western ideals. Most of my family live on ranches, raise cattle, wear Wranglers, and rodeo. We’ve trudged over mountains, rain, sleet, snow, and shine, in little Hondas or towing a six horse trailer. I’ve hiked mountains, dug for geodes, braved the white water rapids of the Sevier River, and even encountered a rattle snake or two along the way. So setting out on History on the Move, I had a mind to think I knew what most of the trip would be like. And as far as “The West” was concerned, apart from the vast and expansive mountains of Montana, I thought I’d experienced all the awe one could feel for the geological splendors it had to offer. So what I expected was basically…more of the same.

The West – spotted with fast-paced, technological urban centers, but held together by the blood and sweat of the more rustic areas. That was how I viewed it. This was reinforced by the trip, and the contrast between the rural and the surrounding metropolises we saw in Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and even Washington: all a reminder of the bustling centers that arose to supply the pelt traders, the miners, and the frontiersmen. I suppose factoring pop culture into the equation, when I think of the West as more than a place, but an experience, a few other things come to mind. The West is hard. The West is Romantic. And in the corner of my mind, the West is a John Wayne movie. From films to reality, life on the “Western Frontier” has so many variables and difficulties; weather, geography, wildlife, other peoples, it has an untamed nature and an unpredictability that still sets it apart from the rest of America . What I experienced over the course of the trip would reinforce my beliefs about the majestic and distinctive American experience.

To start, following the journey of Lewis and Clark really opened my eyes to hardship of Western bound travel. Even today, the hikes and drives over the various mountains and hail-ridden plains are difficult.

Hail Storm in Yellowstone

With a large caravan of people, travel anywhere in the West is tedious and taxing. I gained a new respect for the monumental accomplishments of the Corps of Discovery, as well as the pioneers on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails. I thought I knew what to expect on such a long journey. Our trip, a mere three weeks, felt like an eternity. The routine –getting up every morning, packing, heading out, and staying on the move—was not what I expected and took a lot more energy than what I had originally anticipated. It’s hard to imagine it without cars, coffee, air conditioning, a daily shower, and the other modern marvels that kept me somewhat pampered and complacent. The fact that I picked up somewhere on the trip: the “$1 Bath; Fifty Cent 2nd Bath, and Twenty-Five Cent 3rd Bath” once a month, has stuck with me and made me reevaluate every Western-themed film I’ve ever seen and the cleanliness the characters exhibited. Even more so, when I think of other long Western journeys, I think of John Ford’s epic The Searchers, and the five year quest its characters embarked upon across the lower half of the Western expanse. The classic Western panoramas, the desert landscape, and the war with the Indians are all classic Western ideals, ideals we were told to rethink at the Denver Art Museum. It makes me think of the moral ambiguity of the unsettled West and the standard of ethics that evolved from that. As discussed in class, there is an attitude that most Westerners share; one of individualism, independence, and the strong will to survive, forged in the West and every bit a part of the American Spirit. Now, more than before, when my mind wanders over the term “The West”, I think of an ideal. Not so much the classic, romantic images of Western culture, but more of the great things the peoples of the West accomplished – and a much greater appreciation for them.

Of all the many landscapes we traversed, I thought I would love Yellowstone most of all. Admittedly, when I wasn’t falling off of cliffs, I was admiring the epic waterfalls and valleys, the timid bison, and on the insidious hunt for the illusive moose.
Timid Bison

Yellowstone has been building up in my mind for years as the greatest of our national parks, and while it was pretty magnificent (except for the gravelly switchbacks), I find myself more entranced with Glacier National Park.

Sarah V. and Me in Glacier

Set so much farther north, the ragged cliffs and icy waters tell the tale of hundreds of thousands of years of geologic history.

The cabins in which we stayed were positioned closer to the mountains, the number of visitors to the park seemed less than Yellowstone, and overall it felt more nature-oriented and less like a vacation spot.
Me, Sarah, Bre and Linzey in Glacier

The fact that there’s only one or two paved roads in the park, while the rest of it is filtered with hiking trails and campgrounds also gave me the same feeling of a natural experience. While we didn’t stray too far from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I wanted to experience more of the park. I suppose I felt a connection with it, and the traces of a few John Muir quotes rattled through my head; “Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean”. Before we even left the park, I was planning a trip back next summer, and silently making a checklist of all the things I’d need.

There’s an awe you feel when standing next to a skyscraper. I definitely felt it as we walked through the downtown streets of Seattle. But eventually the awe subsides as the skyward metal becomes a part of the everyday. The wonder that fills your entire body when you stand on the base of a mountain, or looking down from atop it is a totally different feeling all together. With hardly anyone else around you, the size and scope of the landscape shakes you up and reminds you how small you really are. The feeling never really leaves. One of the more striking feelings I had, not particularly in Glacier National Park though, was the uncertainty of the hikes. Like our predecessors of centuries past, we didn’t really have maps, and we didn’t know to a certain extent what we would come across the unknown terrain.

A much less natural landscape, the streets and surrounding mountains of Butte, America, will stay with me. The haunting downtown, in its emptiness, used to house over 100,000 people, and now teeters around 30,000, leaving behind the historic buildings and their histories. The Berkeley Pit and the surrounding mounds of earth were unnerving to say the least. Wrapping my head around the idea of capitalism and the patriotic need for copper, I understand why these things exist, but I can’t say I feel very good about them. The landscape of Butte seems frozen in time, a time where commerce and industry, hard work, and environmental naivety, were part of the day to day. It is easy to look back on a place like Butte, and what happened there, and criticize, but it is simply a living, working monument of the path to modern industrial practices. It is a step in American History.

All of the places we visited were steps in American History. From Dealey Plaza, to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, to the Museum of Flight, there is a chronicle of great (good and bad) American experiences across the West. Each shows the determination of the American Spirit, a frontier spirit that has the courage to go places where we have not gone before.

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