Dec 5, 2013
John Mack Faragher on the ‘Hard Road West’
Posted on Nov 22, 2007
In the many decades since the great overland trek of American pioneers in the mid-19th century, hundreds of writers have been inspired to tell the story. Francis Parkman’s classic “The California and Oregon Trail” became a best-seller in 1849. A century later, A.B. Guthrie’s “The Way West” updated the epic for modern readers. In the past two decades, scholars have produced a new generation of histories, including modern classics such as J.S. Holiday’s “The World Rushed In” (1983) and Malcolm Rohrbaugh’s “Days of Gold” (1997). And in the 21st century the overland trail remains surprisingly familiar to the undergraduates in my course in the history of the American West, thanks to the computer game “The Oregon Trail,” which since its commercial release in 1985 has become the single most successful educational software title. The library at Yale University, where I teach, lists 1,411 titles under the subject heading “Overland Journeys to the Pacific.” “Hard Road West” is No. 1,411, the most recent addition to this crowded field. But it will find its audience because of Keith Meldahl’s original approach and his engaging style.
The human history of westering across the continent, Mehdahl tells us, was guided by the geological history of a continent itself drifting westward. For the past 200 million years, North America has been sliding west a few inches a year, which adds up to several thousand miles. Pushing against the tectonic plates of the Pacific generated the monumental forces that spawned the great North American Cordilleras, the mountain ranges that span the western third of the continent. Alternating processes of compression and expansion of the Earth’s crust produced the hard landscape that confronted the overland emigrants. Colliding plates created the land that would become California, and the maze of faults and fractures that made up the glue line, and hydrothermal expansion filled these gaps with dissolved silica and precious metals. They cooled to form the rich belt of gold-laden quartz, the Mother Lode, that meanders from north to south along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada (a line that can be traced today by following California Highway 49 through the many famous old Gold Rush towns).
Meldahl is skilled at offering understandable explanations of scientific concepts. He writes very well and, in the tradition of the best 19th century accounts, he does not hesitate to put himself in the story. Deep in the desert of Nevada, he drinks from an old well that saved the lives of many an emigrant. “The water tasted of salt and dish soap mixed with algae,” he writes. “It took a whole beer to take the flavor away—and then a second to toast the hapless souls who had to drink the stuff to survive—and then a third to toast the beauty of a cold beer on a hot day in the desert.” Here’s a book that not only informs but is fun to read.
John Mack Faragher teaches the history of the American West at Yale University and is director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders. His books include “Women and Men on the Overland Trail” and “Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer.”
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