- Politics and Social Issues
The Oregon Trail and the Blood That Flows Within Us: A Moment With Bill Reflection
BY THE NUMBERS
The numbers are inexact at best. During the mid-nineteenth century between 600,000 and one million settlers traveled the Oregon Trail, California Trail and Santa Fe Trail.
One step at a time, three miles per hour, twelve hours per day, covering nearly 2,000 miles of distance, the intrepid Americans marched westward in search of a better life. Death was their constant companion, taking the form of cholera, drownings, food poisoning, crushed bodies, gunshot wounds and yes, Indian attacks. The weather was their constant nemesis, whether it be scorching temperatures, tornadoes or torrential downpours and flooding.
Their destination was “the west,” that nebulous concept filled with hopeful dreams and the shaky promise of better offerings. They left their homes, their families and most of their possessions for a future that was at best a new start and at worst failure and possible death.
One step at a time, three miles per hour, twelve hours per day, aiming due west for a land they had not seen but only heard of, a land that would be their salvation or would be their ruination.
The west was vast. Leaving the Mississippi River they were immediately struck with the notion of endless, god-forsaken vistas seemingly barren of the trees they had always known. Weeks would pass with the same flat, unforgiving view, the prairie grasses swaying in the constant wind, the dust swirling around them and always the concern that tomorrow may be their last day on this planet.
Time was always a factor. They had to reach the Rockies by late August to beat the first snows, for a Prairie Schooner sails not at all in five-foot drifts at ten thousand feet.
Farmers and businessmen, housewives and innkeepers, pushing forward….always forward….haunted and haunting.
THE PLAYERS IN OUR DRAMA
Who were these people who left their farms and city jobs to tackle the great unknown? What made them wake up one day and decide to enter a territory few men had seen? What possessed them to chuck it all and set figurative sail for a land described by some as Shangrila and by others as Hell?
In truth they were our ancestors. Through their veins flowed the same blood that flows through ours. They were one or two generations removed from the villages of England and the farms of France, and they carried names like O’Toole, McGregor, Johnson and Heinz. They were Americans, bastardized citizens of a bastardized nation, following a silent call just as their ancestors had done before them.
It has always been so for the inhabitants of this country. Always the desire to see distant lands…always the willingness to stretch the limits and face the unknown….and always the determination to face obstacles and not back down….their blood is in us now, pumping and flowing, a living legacy of courage, willpower and a refusal to concede defeat.
From the first pilgrims to step foot on our shorelines, to the trappers and mountain men and onward to the celestial bodies, one giant leap for mankind, they were always moving to the next challenge, the next vista, the next appointment with destiny.
Those were our ancestors and that was the torch passed on to us, the citizens of the 21st Century.
What, then, shall we do with that torch?
The story of Sam and Delores
Sam's Legacy....a story of love as timeless as the ages
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
I was fortunate as a child to live next door to Sam and Delores Conrad, two people who befriended a shy child and invited him into their home many times for cookies and tales of long ago. Sam and Delores both came to the state of Washington via the Oregon Trail as children. They told me of losing relatives on that soul-busting journey, of trailside funerals and tear stains in the dust. They told me of a sense of community on the trail, how every wagon group and every person understood that the survival of all depended on the survival of each member, that the weakest were helped so that the strongest could continue.
They told me of wagons breaking down and of strangers helping with the repairs. They told me of food supplies running short and of Iowa farmers helping Pennsylvania bankers in search of new food in that strange, frightening wilderness. They told me that the celebration of one was a celebration for all, and the loss of one was a reason for mourning by all. All wagon trains were linked by an invisible bond, as surely as if the members of each train had shared the same DNA….they were all family, and by God family looked out for each other.
What a strange and beautiful concept!
A great student video about the Oregon Trail
SO WHAT’S THE POINT?
I think there are several lessons to be learned.
Where has that sense of adventure gone in today’s society? Where has that sense of community gone, and where has that sense of exploration gone? When did we become an ego-driven society rather than a community-driven society?
We were once risk-takers. We were once willing to boldly go forth in search of new quests rather than shrinking behind our protected walls. We once understood the value of compassion and empathy for others, and we once believed, as a society, that united we stand and divided we fall.
Where has it all gone?
Of course times have changed and of course the world is not the same, but basic principles never change. Somehow, between the time our ancestors left St. Joseph, Missouri, and the time we woke up this morning, we….our society…lost its way. One moment we were following a clearly-defined path of wagon wheels left by our ancestors, and the next those same wheel tracks were paved over and plowed under in the name of progress, greed and self-interest.
Is it as simple as greed, or is there some other element at play here? Are we now motivated and yes, paralyzed, by fear? Are we afraid to leave our comfort zone? Are we afraid to trust others and are we afraid to show our compassion lest we pay a dear price?
Switch gears for a moment.
Have you ever looked out on a flock of sheep? They are such docile creatures; eager to please and reticent to break away from the safe confines of the group. They have a herd instinct, and they sway to the movements of the herd as seaweed sways to the ocean current. As long as they are provided food and their basic needs are met then they are quite satisfied. Of course, they are painfully unaware that there are those out there who covet mutton, and each summer they appear surprised that their handlers want to strip them of their wool, but all in all they are satisfied with their lot in life. For sheep, ignorance truly is bliss.
I am beginning to think that for Americans, ignorance is bliss as well, for if we flaunt our ignorance then complacency can be justified.
JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT
Here’s an idea: how about you and me breaking away from the flock? What say you and I jump that damn fence that has been holding us back for so very long, and what say we sprint into the open countryside looking for those wagon ruts of old?
I know….it’s scary out there! We won’t have the herd for protection, and we might have to start thinking for ourselves and providing for ourselves rather than our handlers doing it for us, but think about the unbridled joy of having open land and unlimited possibilities before us….wouldn’t that be breathtaking?
Instead of living a life of assimilation, how about living one of dissimilation? Instead of being told by Big Brother what is good for us, how about we start thinking for ourselves and telling Big Brother to find another sucker? Instead of being led around by the nose by corporations and Madison Avenue, how about we think of the common good?
I have a dream. I know, I know, poorly-disguised images of Martin Luther King Jr. waft across the screen, but bear with me a moment.
I dream that one day communities will identify serious problems and take care of them as a community rather than waiting for someone else to do it.
I dream that one day all citizens of this nation realize that we cannot survive as a nation as long as so many of our brothers and sisters are suffering.
I dream that one day a man will be judged by their actions rather than their false promises, and I dream that one day Americans will one day be represented by leaders who believe in the Constitution rather than the mission statement of special interest groups with bottomless bank accounts.
And my biggest dream I save for last; I dream that one day we remember where we came from, and we once again tap into the lifeblood of our ancestors, people who understood the value of hard work, fairness and strength of character.
Look over yonder….just past the fence….can you see them? Can you see the wagon tracks? Follow them with me, and together we will figuratively head west and rebuild that which should never have been destroyed.
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
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