In The Footsteps of Dinosaurs and Pioneers in the US
Perhaps the most appealing of all is the vastness of the country: the nothingness of the prairie for hours on end, the miles on end with nothing to see but more prairie, the rolling hills, eventually with scattered, oddly shaped rocks far, far away in the horizon; then the stately mountains clad in dozens of changing colors and the forests clinging to their sides; the canyons, the ruts and slopes, the deserts, the rivers…
To be able to imagine what it must have been like to travel the 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon, my wife and I traced the old Oregon Trail in 1994 - 151 years after the route was trod for the first time.
Now, sitting in an air-conditioned car isn’t at all the same thing as plodding alongside a prairie schooner; nevertheless, the feeling of going and going without really getting anywhere still got to us, and we almost cheered as the pioneers must have done before us when we saw Chimney Rock and later Jailhouse Rock rise in the distance.
The original trail is still there, and not only as vague impressions in the soil: deep ruts are found in several places, and standing in or near the ruts imagining the noise from the creaking wheels, the encouraging cries shouted at the oxen pulling the wagons, almost smelling the sweat and tasting the dry dust; even with eyes wide open it is easy to imagine the hustling and bustling at these bottleneck passages with more than a hundred wagons in the train.
Due to the 1993 celebrations of 150 years of passage the trail is well documented in numerous points of information along the way, and new multi-media museums have been built to commemorate the feat of the pioneers, all manned by people eager to help and explain.
But even though the trail has now been not only marked, but also in the course of time manned by trail drop-outs who have settled alongside it, there is still plenty of wild territory in between the markers. What a vast country! No wonder the immigrants thought they could take up as much land as they wanted.
Yet, they wouldn’t have survived without the help of the "locals", the Native Indian traders and scouts that lead them through some of the white spots on the map and whose descendants still live in these parts although many tribes have been moved to other locations by various administrations.
Like the plains Indians the Navajos further south in Arizona think of the land as their land and have a mythology that fit the landscape: "The First Mother created the boundaries for our world." But they seem to forget that before they came in the 1700s, another people had lived on the very same land - the Anasazi; and the 10,000-year-old Kennewick Man found in Washington State was probably "white," so who’s to say to whom the country really belongs? Not the first comers, for sure - where would all the rest of us have to go then?
As we drive on reminding each other of various gruesome massacres and broken treatises the thought also enters our minds: in hindsight things always seem simpler - indeed, the matter of land ought to have been settled without bloodshed - but this is probably more a thought of the 1900s. Back then fighting was the preferred option.
In the car we recite Carl Sandburg’s little poem (quoted from memory):
"Get off my land!
- How come, your land?
My father gave it to me.
- How did he get it?
He fought for it.
- Well, I’ll fight you for it!"
Today the idea of fighting for land seems absurd as expressed in the irony of the poem. But at the time of the original, first fight, it may not have seemed so absurd. What’s absurd today, is rather the idea of inheritance by which people feel entitled to keep what was gained by their forefathers by whatever means of exploitation, including land, businesses, wealth…
All of a sudden a sign says, "Dinosaur Footprints next left" and we are reeled back to prehistoric time with a turn of the steering wheel. Without the appropriate flora as a backdrop it’s hard to imagine a reptile towering above one’s head, but the find doesn’t really come as a surprise - why not? - there are so many amazing things to be seen in this cornucopia of nature that one half expects it.
Exotic, wild, dangerous - America has got it all: live rattlers lurking in the morning shadows; or a nearly empty gas tank in the desert, many miles from the nearest pump in this motherland of oil; or the deafening and deadening heat in the canyons; or the stunning, almost vulgar, blood-red sunsets; and the thunderstorms each afternoon at exactly 4 p.m. - all become an integral part of this total experience of "God’s own country" in which no kind of riches are spared.
A poor immigrant reared and trapped in feudal Europe must have felt this abundance of everything as being in close contact with the wonders of life and nature itself, a sense of being part of totality - no less.
John Steinbeck claimed that in his search for Paradise Man raped and ruined whatever land he conquered and laid past him from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Sad, but true - yet not totally true. Even today there is still plenty of scenery to be seen to convince everybody that this is a truly great country.
America The Beautiful. My country ‘tis of thee…
November 1999, Erik Moldrup