I always find it amazing how big it is out here. Even here in Vegas, it takes me 50 minutes to drive to my friend’s house across the valley, and it’s all still Las Vegas. Most picture the Strip as being Vegas, but the city sits in a gigantic valley surrounded by mountains, kind of like a bowl. Our condo sits part-way up the side of that “bowl,” with a view of the Strip and the entire valley. We are on the road that leads right into Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, beautiful country. It always amazes me how far I can see from the balcony of our condo – looking across the valley far beyond the Strip (which is about 20 miles from our condo, yet I can see all of it) – I realize that when I am looking all the way across the valley, it’s like standing at home in Coloma and “seeing” towns that are 20 to 40 miles away! That just doesn’t happen in hilly, tree-filled Michigan.
I mention all this because I can’t help thinking how such “big country” must have looked to the pioneers who first came west from the forested country back east. It had to be frightening, breathtaking, astounding – there are too many words that come to mind. When you are driving through Utah and Nevada, sometimes the road seems endless – hundreds and hundreds of miles of absolute beauty, yet nothingness. It’s hard to believe there is so much open and unused land in this heavily populated U.S.
Trudging through the vast west with its endless horizons must have sometimes made the original pioneers feel a little crazy with wonder if they would ever, ever reach their destination. You see the Rockies for hundreds of miles before you actually reach them, so when traveling slowly by wagon, it must have been so discouraging to travel all day long and feel as though you’re no closer than you were at the start of the day.
I have often said that I am really surprised that in all my research I’ve heard no stories about women shooting their husbands for dragging them away from mother and sister and the comforts of home to take them into the hardships and dangers of heading west. Treeless, rocky, endless hard earth, salt flats in places – let alone coming up against the Rockies and realizing you have to get over those mountains – then more treeless, rocky land and (if going to California) yet another barrier – the Sierras – which are even more intimidating than the Rockies – and through it all it’s nothing but constant, constant climbing, climbing, climbing. Animals and people alike - I don’t know how they managed to make it. Hundreds of thousands of animals must have been lost pulling that weight over two thousand miles of barren land as well as mountains. And the pioneers themselves walked most of it in order to save weight in the wagons. No, they didn’t sit up on those seats and drive the mules and oxen with reins – they walked, and they led the animals on foot. And this in the days when there were no fancy, fitted tennis shoes, no 7-11’s, no hospitals along the way, and no guarantee of water – and constant danger from Indians and the elements.
Movies from the 50’s often made the trek look easy, the women wearing lovely, fitted dresses, their hair looking great, eye makeup, lipstick. Check out pictures from the “real” pioneer journeys. You seldom see the women smiling, and they sure didn’t wear nice dresses and fancy hair and makeup. Even the children don’t look very happy, and they all look pretty ragged.
Back to the purpose of this blog - our pioneers who braved the American West. Today when driving through this big country, we complain of sore butts from sitting too long in our soft car seats, or complain that there wasn’t a McDonald’s at the last town where we wanted to get off the highway and eat, or we complain about gas prices, groan and moan as we lug our belongings into an air-conditioned motel room with a nice bathroom, TV and coffee maker.
Oh, how spoiled we are today. Oh, what the pioneers would have given for McDonalds and TV’s and – oh, what heaven! – cell phones!! Just imagine if they could have called all the way back home and talked to those precious parents and siblings they had to leave behind, usually never to be seen again. Instead, they wrote letters that took five or six months to reach each other – if they reached them at all. They buried children and loved ones along the way, never to see their graves again. They suffered from illnesses and pain we’d never have to worry about today because we can always find help in this modern day.
This is why I write about American history and especially pioneers. I do my little, tiny part in trying to remind readers what our ancestors went through to settle this country. I try to “teach” a little history in an entertaining way while getting my fictitious characters involved in true events. Sometimes I wonder just how “fictitious” my characters really are, because I get so involved in their lives they become real to me – and often readers write to me wanting to know if they really did exist!
I will never get over the wonder of how our pioneers braved new settlement. Even in the east, when the “West” was the Ohio Valley and the Smoky Mountains, heading in that direction meant incredible dangers from animals and the elements and, of course, the Native Americans, who were not happy with any of us intruding into what they considered their land, and I don’t blame them one bit. That’s the food for many of my books also.
So here we are today, able to get in an airplane and go from New York to California in only about 4 -5 hours, and even driving it, you can make the same trip in 4-5 days, compared to close to six months or more by wagon. Coming out here every year always refreshes my memory and my writing skills when it comes to the kind of books I write. You have to see this country to truly appreciate what it took to get out here a hundred and fifty years ago. There are places along the Oregon Trail where there are still ruts from the thousands and thousands of wagons that plodded their way west, people filled with dreams of their own land, dreams of gold, dreams of a better life, dreams of even more freedom than what they already had back east. Dreams are what this country was built on – as well as freedom. I hope today’s generation doesn’t let all of that slip away.