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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Seven

Updated on June 16, 2017

A Little Historical Perspective

By 1845, when this story takes place, the Oregon Trail was fairly-well established and easy to follow. The Platte River provided visual guidance for quite some distance, and then other landmarks and rivers did the same as they moved towards the Rockies and beyond. Getting lost was not a concern. Still today, some of the original wagon ruts can be seen along the preserved sections of the Trail.

My sense, from the reading I have done, is that those who crossed the trail did not battle fear daily as much as they battled boredom and weariness. The summer weather was unforgiving, each footstep was tiresome, and the land of the Great Plains seemed to stretch to infinity, giving one the impression of not making any progress from day to day.

That’s where our travelers are now, the Great Plains, where present-day Nebraska is, to be exact, one step in front of the other, really a metaphor for us all.

Sameness | Source

Life Along the Platte

The wind never seemed to stop in that great, flat land. It accompanied us each step of the way, the first sound we heard when we awoke at dawn’s break, and the last sound we heard as weariness overcame us at night, a low, mournful sound, as though the land itself had lost a loved one and we were on a funeral march. It was constant, uncaring, and unforgiving, blowing fine particles of dust into our faces, a cloud of dust following us, sprinkling our food, coating our drinking water, no escaping it for damned sure.

Every day began with the sound of birds along the great river, calling to us, telling us it was time to mark off another twelve, fifteen miles of the journey, eat a meal, gather our thoughts around campfires, listen to the coughing and muttered curses, half-hearted laughter, sometimes weeping, the smell of coffee and bacon prominent, pack up our bedrolls, water the livestock, and then westward we went, each day our strides a little shorter, our shoulders slumped just a little bit more, the wind, at times, I swear to God holding us up as we kept at it.

Those first few weeks there wasn’t much to break the monotony. The landscape never changed, making me wonder how that was possible, the weather never changed, the wind, the river, the footsteps, the dust. We didn’t see any other bison after that giant herd, not for a couple weeks, but their droppings were everywhere, as though they silently visited us at night, left their reminders, and snuck off into the darkness.

A hawk swooped down one afternoon, snatched a rabbit, and returned to the skies, the anguish cries of the hare giving us pause. Carcasses of antelope dotted the Platte shoreline, an occasional deer, bleached bones picked clean by coyotes and wolves, glaring white under the pale yellow sun, a marker at times, white cross and a mound of stones, the final resting place, dreams of a better life buried three feet below the surface, here lies Caleb or Marcus or Elizabeth, God bless their souls.

“It’s an unforgiving land, Joshua,” Laura said one morning as we looked west before setting out.

“It is that, Laura. Never seen anything like it and hope to God I never will again. The sameness saps the life out of you, leaves a man feeling bleached out like those bones behind us.” The dawn illuminated the western landscape for me, confirming my suspicions. “It’s hard to believe there’s mountains and an ocean beyond what we can see.”

More sameness
More sameness | Source

Storm Clouds From the West

That same day, I don’t remember the date of it, but May something, storm clouds rose in the southwest, a giant wall of darkness on a sunny, bright afternoon, like a physical barrier refusing us passage. The wind picked up in power and sound, spooking the horses, truth be known spooking men and women as well. From that wall rose a dark column, tens of thousands of feet straight up, and electricity could be felt in the air, hair standing straight up on heads, a strange smell in the air, the sky turning from black to bluish gray, a slight tint of green, otherworldly, as if God himself was painting the scene, and then the hail fell, rock-sized, pelting the ground, us all diving for cover under the wagon, the oxen strong and brave, not twitching a muscle. A good mile ahead of us a twisting column of air descended, and before a prayer could escape our lips trees could be seen being uprooted, rising into the air, soaring off as if the hand of God tossed them aside, and then in the blink of an eye it ended, the clouds and winds calmed, and the sun returned.

The guide, Jackson, rode the length of the train, checking on people, assessing the damage, and luckily no one was injured.

“Good God Almighty, Joshua!” was all Laura had to say.

We continued on then, as if nothing had happened, white balls of ice melting among the grasses, the wind, in fact, gentler at that moment, as if tired from the earlier ruckus.

Still more sameness
Still more sameness | Source

Approaching Civilization

The next day a wagon approached from the west, heading east, four horses pulling it, the man with the reins having a full beard, long hair, bandana across his face, whooping and hollerin’ as he approached us, his wagon heavy with bison skins. We all stopped our wagons as the strange man spoke to our leader, shook hands, pointed to the west, spoke some more and then departed. Not much after that Jackson came along slowly, speaking loud enough for us all to hear.

“One day out from Courthouse Rock, pilgrims! Something to look at, scratch your names in it, tell your grandkids about the great adventure!”

“Who was the man in the wagon, Jackson?” I asked him.

“Man by the name of Thompson, a skinner, hauler, travels from Fort Joe to Independence, back and forth, all year long. Skins to the city, supplies back to Fort Joe. Says we’re still a good two weeks out of the fort, which sounds about right. Pretty soon now we’ll be having a meal inside the fort’s walls, and then we’ll begin the slow climb out of the Plains and into God’s country, mountains so high you’ll swear you can hear the angels singing.”

There was shouting then, towards the rear of the train, folks pointing to the north. Following their fingers we could see ten, maybe twelve Indians on horseback, sitting on the top of a small rise, maybe five-hundred yards away, just watching us. There weren’t nothing threatening about them, just a small band of the locals watching as strangers entered their land. It was the second group of Indians we had seen since we left Elm Grove. Jackson rode out to talk to them, conversed for a half-hour or so, and then rode back to us.

“Don’t pay them no mind, pilgrims. They mean no harm. More curious than anything else. We’ll stop in a few hours and then invite them to join us for dinner. Maybe do a little trading, coffee and tobacco for fresh meat, a touch of civilization in this God-forsaken land.”

And so It Was

The Indians did, in fact, share a meal with us all, trading was completed, and a certain degree of understanding passed between us all. The Indians were mighty curious about our friend, George Atkins, he being a black man. They all approached him, touched him, looks of confusion on their faces, George finding it pretty amusing that he was the star attraction after years of quiet anonymity.

“It seems the Indians don’t have a problem with my color, Joshua,” George told me as the onrushing darkness signaled the end of another day.

“Seems they are good judges of character, George.”

That day ended with a feeling of hope. We were all looking forward to seeing Courthouse Rock, something different from the flatness, something signaling progress at last. As I closed my eyes that night, I wondered if George was experiencing that same feeling of hope.

2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)


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    • louise-barraco profile image

      Louise Barraco 6 days ago from Ontario

      Very interesting read :)

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 6 days ago from New York, New York

      I love how you are writing this from your readings and research over the years, because I do feel like I could close my eyes and be right there with them. That said very much enjoying and glad to see a new chapter here today. Happy Friday now, Bill!! :)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Janine! It is much easier to write about something I have passion for. You'll never see me writing about the Russian Revolution. LOL

      Happy Weekend, my friend!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Louise!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 6 days ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I was just fine with the boredom, monotony and weather. Then you just had to throw in that last part of people sharing food with strangers and basic human love ruling the day.

      I just had to be a jerk and notice that you said Nebraska as though it was a state.

      You know I love this journey.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Damn, Eric, I was being so careful about that Nebraska thing, and then I went and screwed up. I need to change that pronto. No jerk...helpful!

      Have a great weekend, buddy!

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 6 days ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, it's a shame you won't be turning this into a novel. You probably feel it's a story that's been told 101 times before. But darn it, you tell the story so well. I can see every face, feel the wind, taste the dust, sense the fear and weariness.

      You have a passion for this chapter in our Nation's history, you've done your research, and it shows. I wish I could have heard you teach this lesson to your students. I'll bet yours was their favorite class.

      Thank you again for taking us on this journey.

    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 6 days ago from India

      Very interesting story telling by you Bill ! Looking forward to read next episode.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you, Linda, for your kind remarks. My kids did enjoy this unit very much. I guess my passion showed when I taught it. :) I'm beaming over your kind words, so thank you again, and Happy Weekend to you.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you very much, Harishprasad. I appreciate it.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 6 days ago from Hyderabad, India

      A great description of the journey with pretty interesting and hair-raising events happening throughout it. Enjoying it a lot admiring your skills.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Venkatachari M. It is easy for me to write about a topic that fascinates me.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 6 days ago

      Still a great read, Bill. I felt right at home in the tornado. As soon as you mentioned the color of the sky, I knew what was coming. Loved the part about supper with the Indians and their reaction to George. I just love history and you can make it come alive. Thanks, my friend.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Aww, thanks, MizB! Since I've never experienced a tornado, I had to rely on the eyewitness accounts that I found online. I'm glad to hear it was fairly accurate.

      Have a great weekend!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'm continuing to enjoy the story, Bill. It's educational for me as well as interesting. What a difficult journey for the travelers in your story and for those who made the trip in real life.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 6 days ago from Hollister, MO

      Great set of descriptions. I really enjoyed your photos - I'm a person of the plains, for sure. Nice job...look forward to the next!! ;-)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 6 days ago from USA

      I wouldn't look forward to those mountains. Trouble is up ahead!

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 6 days ago from Pacific Northwest

      There is nothing worse than monotonous, unchanging landscape. I've made many a trip through miles and miles of the same landscape. Can't wait for next chapter.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 5 days ago from Oklahoma

      Reminds me of the Tom Petty song "Into the Great Wideopen."

      Always a pleasure to stop by:-)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Larry! Always a pleasure having you stop by.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 days ago from Olympia, WA

      So have I, Lori, and it is horrible,even in a car. I can't imagine walking fifteen miles per day and seeing the same thing for, oh, three months!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Oh, you can count on that, Flourish! Trouble with a capital T!

      Thanks for joining us on this leg of the trip.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Bill! I always feel better when I pass the test of those who live in an area I write about.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Linda, I can't help myself. I had to make it educational as well as entertaining. That's the teacher in me. :) Thank you!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 5 days ago from london

      Ha ha.

      A black girl I know says she had that experience in Russia, in the early 1980's. Every one was staring at her. Even now when I met my Ukranian friends, they see me differently. But they are a kind people, who love offering gifts and so when they warm to you, love to give small treats. I did pretty well, I'd say.

      A little more quiet, this one, but going well. Peace this weekend to all at home. Stay well!!

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 5 days ago

      After the tornado, maybe the sameness of every day is welcome. That kind of excitement is the kind you could do without, I think! What about those with teh stomach bug. I take it they recovered?

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 4 days ago from The Caribbean

      Leave it to nature to disturb the peace or they might soon be sleepwalking. Good day for George getting some recognition. Interesting story lines!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Dora! I suspect many of them, on many days, were almost sleepwalking. It was that monotonous!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 days ago from Olympia, WA

      We will revisit the sick ones soon, RoadMonkey! A good many of them died from cholera along the way, but many also recovered somehow.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 days ago from Olympia, WA

      I can't imagine what that is like, Manatita, having people stare at you because of color. I have a bad hair-day and I worry about people staring at me. LOL

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 4 days ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      I'm enjoying this all, the good, the frightening, the in-between. No!surely not the loss of life! Never..but the strength, resolve and hope fills me with awe.

      I am involved and engrossed. I like how I am effortlessly keeping up on the journey and dealing with the reality that I'm sitting here at home in 2017. This is the eye-opening effect you create. No way to deny the truth. I'd have fallen-out by now.

      Another superb chapter of a Holland Tale that keeps me moving!


    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 days ago from Olympia, WA

      Aww, thanks Sis! Your kind words mean a great deal to me, so thank you very much. I think it's the fact that I can identify so much with these characters, just normal people doing extraordinary things, which we see daily if we look hard enough.

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