Friday, December 28, 2007

Rambling West

The first inhabitants of this land understood. Rooted deep in their culture, their legends, their religion was the belief that Spirits kept a close guard of their world. These were strong Spirits, seen in the sun, the moon and the animals. They lived deep within the mountains and watched over the changing of the seasons. The return of the salmon each year to the rivers, the wanderings of the herds of buffalo across the open plains, all were guided by the benevolent wills of the Spirits. To the Spirits and the order over which they ruled, the Native Americans owed and derived their existence.

The early pathfinders understood. The spirit of the West indwelled each of them and called them back with an irresistible siren’s song. John Colter heard its notes and succumbed to its pull. As a member of the Corps of Discovery he had journeyed from St. Louis, west to the Pacific Ocean. Away from civilization for over two years, he and the rest of the expedition were nearly home when he asked his superiors, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark to be relieved of his duties. His request granted, Colter immediately turned back west. He eventually made his way to the Yellowstone country. When he finally did return to the east, he came back with such outrageous tales of entire valleys spewing steam, and geysers shooting hundreds of feet into the air, most thought him mad. The spirit of the West lead John Colter to what would become Yellowstone National Park.

The trailblazers understood. Men with names like Bridger and Bozeman became caught up in the western spirit of renewal. Here was a place where a man could start fresh and provide others a route so they could do likewise. This was a land of hope and promise, not bound with the rules and traditions of the east. Birthright meant nothing in a land governed only by the spirit of individual effort. Crowded off small farms or out of family businesses merely by the fact a man was born a younger child, it was the spirit of the West that gave him a chance to make something of himself.

The road builders understood. When Captain John Mullan was ordered to build a military road linking Fort Walla Walla in the Oregon Territory to Fort Benton in the Montana country, it was not wooden wagon wheels rolling west that occupied his mind, but flanged wheels of steel. All the while his men roughed out a crude road, Mullan set his mind to surveying routes for a northern transcontinental railroad. Driven by the spirit of challenge and of a vision commerce, men like Mullan, Judah, and in later years Bogue and Stevens, transits and barometers in hand located the routes that would push steel rails west through the untamed land. Forsaking the spirits long honored by the native tribes, it was the spirit of profit that pushed the railroad men onward and eventually conquered, if nothing else, a centuries old social structure that derived its order by being in tuned with the nature of the land.

The railroads complete, a sense of finality settled across the West. Those who refused to acquiesce to the forces of change were soon enough absorbed by the spirit of progress. Even the iron horse itself feel victim to this spirit of never ending change. Paved highways paralleled the iron roads with trucks hauling cargoes once the sole property of the trains. High above, the western skies became crisscrossed with the trails left by airliners carrying the passengers that once filled the opulent coaches of trains with names like the Oriental Limited, the North Coast Limited and the Olympian Hiawatha. It seemed the spirit of the West had finally been tamed.

But spirits have a way of lingering. Despite all of its civilization there are still places where the beckoning of the western spirit still lives, even flourishes. For the West is big. The West is where all the clich├ęs like, wide open spaces, never ending plains, and majestic mountains become reality.

The West, it is a place where cities sprawl across the landscape for miles, and yet the “intelligent design” has yet to be finalized.

The West, it is a place where the wills of men routinely battle the landforms that brand this region. It is a place where the railroad men came with the idea of subduing this land, but ultimately settled for working as best they could with the spirits that rule this part of the world. It is a battle that has yet end. The West is where steel and nature collide.

If the East is tall, the West is wide. To this day, when a person feels the need to stretch his legs and feel the spirit of challenge, he will pack his bags and travel towards the sunset. So follow the glistening rails reflecting the final rays of the sun, out towards the Pacific. Shed the confines of the day to day struggles that keep you corralled. Follow those ribbons of steel west, out to a place where the spirit has room to ramble.

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