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Arts and Culture

John Mack Faragher on the ‘Hard Road West’

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Posted on Nov 22, 2007
Hard Road West Cover

By John Mack Faragher

(Page 2)

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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By Hammo, November 26, 2007 at 11:28 am Link to this comment

I moved to the West over 30 years ago(the Southwest) after living the first 21 years of my life in the Ohio River Valley region of southern Ohio. Back east has it’s own history, as does the Midwest and West.

The history of North America before there was a nation called the United States, as well as U.S. history and westward expansion since that time, is worth considering now.

It not only gives us perspective, but helps us get to our “roots” and “down to Earth” in important ways.

Thoughts on this in the articles ...

“July 4, 1776 and July 4 today: Winds of change”

http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/viewArticle.asp?articleID=11081

-  -  -

“George Washington’s whiskey distillery rebuilt; first president also grew hemp at Mount Vernon”

http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/viewArticle.asp?articleID=14731

-  -  -

“Who is a Cherokee? Many Americans have Indians in the family tree”

http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/viewArticle.asp?articleID=21743

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By Outraged, November 25, 2007 at 11:43 pm Link to this comment

I love the west.  It’s certainly a different animal than other places I’ve been.  I seem to have a penchant for Wyoming and Montana.  Although I found Colorado and New Mexico phenomenal also.  I’ve seen the wagon ruts and it’s very much as the author describes. I’m not sure if it’s because of the stories we’ve read or been told or what, but when you see them you do feel this uncanny connection to the people who went before you, through this place to wherever they were going - way out there in the middle of nowhere, and many of the ruts are STILL in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE.  I homesteaded in Wyoming, bought some land and tried to make a go of it, it didn’t work out but trying was everything.  I could go on and on but I’ll spare you.  I will definitely read this book.

BTW, geology does become an intregal part of just being there.  Without realizing it, you find yourself trying to figure it out, asking about it and researching it.  Yep, you also start collecting rocks and keeping them…well and OK…bringing them with you when you leave, even if your trip is 1200 miles.

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