Friday, May 13, 2016

heroic following

In my earliest years I never gave it much thought.  I guess that I kind of had a "the world is flat" opinion that never really prompted a consideration for what lie to the West, beyond "the Great river" that split our country.  Sure I read the text books, saw the movies, studied American geography, played "Oregon Trail".  It wasn't until we made our cross country drive 16 years ago to take up residency on the West Coast that this nagging question "Why?" began to dominate my thoughts on travels back and forth on highways birthed from the wagon trails of old.
Every time I find myself heading back to the West on these same highways, I imagine life before these asphalt trails  and the unimaginable effort it took to navigate this treacherous and desolate terrain.  I attempt to imagine the unimaginable and it always leads to "Why?" in so many contexts.  Why would you leave the relative comfort of what you knew?  Why risk for something that you didn't need to risk for?  Why, when staring into the void of another endless plain, or another towering mountain range, would you continue on towards something that you had never seen?  Why continue on, after reaching the first, second, third, or thirtieth relatively safe and sustainable place, for weeks or months on end to find another?
I once asked this very question to a period actor at the High Desert Museum near Bend, Oregon who was stationed at a diorama depicting a westward traveling wagon family.  "That's easy" he offered without hesitation.  "It's because of the stories". he said like it was current day, which to him it was.  "Stories?, I wondered".  "The stories that came back from those who had gone on before and made it" he clarified.  It sounded like a simple and yet profound answer.  In fact it satisfied me for the next few years ... sort of.  I've begun to think a bit more deeply on the matter lately.  What kind of stories must they have been to lure those people on?  It sounds fairly heroic looking at it 150 years after the fact.  But what about back then, in the midst of it, on a day when the snows are coming, your family is sick and your wagon wheel disintegrates half way up a boulder laden, poor excuse of a trail?  How powerful did those stories have to be to get you to climb down into a nearly frozen mudhole to wrestle on a new one and continue on?  How many times did real suffering cause you to call BS on some story passed down about what may or may not lay beyond?  How many mornings did you wake up wondering whether or not to push on toward the "stories" of the West or turn back toward your experience of the East.  And what about those who were the actual story tellers? ... those who made the trails ... those who succeeded ... those who never made it but died trying?
My point, and I do have one, is simply this ....  We have been conditioned to only consider the story teller.  They are the ones with their names in the books.  They have the monuments, plaques, and festivals named after them.  They are heroes to be sure, I don't want to negate that.  But lets be honest, they were also anomalies ... the unusual few born with a few screws loose, some version of wanderlust, adult ADD and possibly even a death wish.  They blazed the trail, got bloodied and bruised in the quest to show us something beyond.  They and their kind are unquestionably necessary.  The real heroes though, in my opinion, were now and continue to be those who got up every morning and pushed on through the unimaginable to get to what could only be imagined.  It struck me one time as we stopped along the path of the Oregon Trail, to see the ruts of the old wagon trains still visible, that it wasn't the first wagon through that created the rut ... it was the successive wagons, one after another, all following stories, that eventually created a permanent trail to a new reality.  They were the heroes and the real changemakers.  It may be true that we need the ones to blaze the trail ... but without those who follow, the trail will soon only be a memory.

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