Chasing Smallwood – 7. Back east

 

 

[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and
  • the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

.7. Back east

[December 22, 2005] 8:15 a.m. Back to Joseph, with a couple of complications. A friend emailed that no one could get eight miles an hour from a horse over several hours, day after day, without breaking down the horse’s health. Just the kind of factual error the prospect of which used to paralyze me. And then, it occurred to me all the stuff that was going on (though I don’t know how fast the news of it traveled) that he ought to have been aware of. Oregon statehood question, “54-40 or Fight,” the Mexican War – and no mention so far.

Plus – a very odd feeling – I try to imagine ahead of time what he’s going to say about his life after he came east and I can’t find it! Surely that ought to be reassuring? Well – onward, farther into the real wilderness. I’m not doing anything much different than Lewis and Clark, though in different kind of territory. I sure wish I knew what I was doing, though! (And I wish I knew internal agendas. Here I’ve spent the week mostly channeling Joseph and transcribing and sending – haven’t even looked at the guidance section of the book I’m supposedly writing – and yet I feel it is okay. I suppose this new access is part of that book, or part of the process, anyway.

Joseph, you’re on. I hope you’ve made up a convincing story, and an explanation or two.

Well, now, what happened to making it up as you went along and looking at it afterwards? If “you” are making all this up, of course you’re going to get things wrong. So don’t worry about it. But I know that your real fear is that I don’t exist, even when I give you things you later marvel about, because it isn’t something you’d ever think about. Tell your audience about commas and period inside quotation marks, as an example of silent influences.

[Although putting commas and periods inside close-quotes is correct American style, I always have to force myself to do it, as it looks and feels wrong. I have concluded that David, the Welsh journalist, prefers to do it the English way.]

All right. You read up on the Mexican War and the slavery dispute in [Woodrow] Wilson’s book [Division and Reunion, written 20 years before he became President, a very interesting little book] last night. With a little more faith you wouldn’t have needed to do that; with a little less faith you wouldn’t have dared to do that (to see if I got it right, after I’d said whatever I’d say). You really do balance on the rail.

When you investigate other lives – even if you do it as an historian, investigating someone’s life like Henry’s [Thoreau] – which would be a good project for you – it is important to remember that we don’t live our lives from high spot to high spot, sort of slurring the bits between. Your biographies tend to read that way – so do your history books for that matter – but just think of your own life! Looking back, you may say “I did this, then a few years later I was over here doing this.” Well, that slurred-over spot was just as important in holding your life together as the parts you like to think about or the parts you can talk about because they stand out. So, the years between my coming back from Oregon and being in the war weren’t just wasteland – closet space, as you say – but they weren’t easily compressed either. Nothing much to talk about in ordinary life.

Remember, I got back to St. Louis in 1848. I was 26 years old. I wasn’t a kid anymore – I’d been to Oregon and back, I spoke the Indian lingo – knowing the signing was as good as knowing every speech pattern, you see – and in general I wasn’t green anymore. Now you may think 26 is still pretty young, but I was a man, among men, I wasn’t a kid and I wasn’t taken as one.

You want to know why I came east. Well, it wasn’t so I could take part in the war against Mexico! Anybody couldn’t see that was a war for slavery was just blinded by the flag-waving. But I came home to a different country because of it.

Why did I return? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Didn’t then, don’t now. Just, something said it was time. Oh, there was excuses. We have always got excuses for anything we do. But it is generally the case that we could go wherever we want, do whatever we want, and we’d have reasons why we “ought to” go that way. There’s always excuses. Mine was that a friend of mine was heading back and wanted me to ride along with him. The idea was, we’d go to Independence or St. Joe and maybe join up as scouts or wagon men, taking some party back west. I said sure, thinking at least I’d get another ride across the prairie, and I’d be back in Oregon at the end of the year or maybe the year after.

Well, it didn’t work out that way. There was four of us, Jackie and me, and Bill and Tom, sort of rendezvoused at Bend and came back against the current, if you know what I mean. Four men together was a lot safer than one man alone, and we made better time although we sure didn’t have the time to burn, every day, that I had had on the way out. We’d be up early, and walk all day – the horses would, I mean. Your friend says you have to walk 10 minutes an hour or something to rest the horse and rest your own seat, but you don’t have any idea how touch our cow ponies were, or how tough we were, either! Sitting all day from early morning till we made our lunch camp, and then again from a couple hours later till we camped for the night were just nothing for us. We could live in the saddle, and the horses could take it. Now, she’s right, we didn’t average any eight miles an hour I guess, ’cause we sure didn’t trot ’em for very long – just enough to shake out the kinks every so often. But we rode slow and steady, good weather and bad, early and late with a long snooze in the middle while the horses grazed, and we did just fine. I don’t mean to insult anybody, but I’ll just tell you again: you don’t have any idea how soft you are next to what we were. You could bend boards sooner than cowboys. (No, we weren’t “cowboys” yet – that was in the south and didn’t get to the west for a while. But you know the word, so there’s no harm in my using it. Don’t worry so much.)

That ride back was different. It was fun in its way, because I fit in more. I wasn’t a kid any more, I didn’t talk so “eastern,” they knew I could sign with the Indians, I knew how to trade – I was close enough to one of them, you see. It wasn’t like going up the big river to the Mandans, back in ’43. (And you’re right, I still think of it as ’03 till I catch myself.) We could yarn as we went, and tell each other things we knew, and it was like a traveling school. Or we’d ride along, nobody saying a word, and that was good too. Jackie wasn’t any older than me, Bill and Tom were maybe a few years older, not enough to put a lot of real distance between us. It wasn’t like there was the kids and the grownups, you know.

The way we came wasn’t like the way I’d gone. We were farther south, one thing, and there were the damned ruts [made by the wagons on the Oregon Trail, which I am told are still there]. We tried to stay a little to the side but we couldn’t always do it. I think it was the ruts, stopped me from what I’d been thinking to do. We hadn’t even met a team coming out when I told Jackie I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t see coming back in dust and mud and crawling along away from everything. Jackie looked pretty glum but he reckoned he’d stay with his plan.

Take out your atlas, I want to show you something. [Traced out the rough course of the Oregon Trail, though I suppose I should have known it.] You see? No reason to rely on “hearing” alone when you can use tools. Wear the coat, like your brother says. [Interruption, as I had to make a fire.] So, we followed the trail backwards, and you can still see it, easy enough. Oregon east from Bend, Idaho across the south, Wyoming across the south, then the Platte River to Omaha and down to St. Joe.

Tom and Bill met up with a [wagon] train and signed on to go back with them, that was in Nebraska somewhere, so that left Jackie and me. We went on a bit and he got the idea he’d like to spend some time in “real cities,” so he figured to go down to St. Joe, sell his horse for what he could get for her, and see where his fancy took him. We parted company in Omaha, and I never did see him again. But then, come to think of it, I never saw any of those Oregon people again, bar one I met while I was in the army.

[And he’s saying that was the summer he met young John Muir, so I went to find out via google if that’s chronologically possible before I continue. I know that Muir spent a summer with a hired man called “the Yankee” who taught him Indian names for the various plants – but was it that summer of ’48? We’ll find out right now.]

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