Thinking West: Mining Life in California (1857)

There seems scarcely a limit to the future production of gold in California. Despite the confident predictions of unsuccessful adventurers that the mines would soon be exhausted, the exact opposite seems to be the case; for deposits are now being reached by the new processes of exploration which stagger all calculations. There is no good reason why the gold region of California should not continue to produce its $50,000,000 per annum at least during the present century, and most probably for a much longer period….” (Harper’s Weekly, 3 October 1857)

Thinking West: Code of the West

The Code of the West was a gentleman’s agreement to certain rules of conduct. It was never written into the statutes, but it was respected everywhere on the range.” Ramon F. Adams (quoted in The Quotable Cowboy)

A few guidelines from the Code of the West (taken from LegendsofAmerica.com):

  • Don’t inquire into a person’s past. Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
  • Never steal another man’s horse. A horse thief pays with his life.
  • Defend yourself whenever necessary.
  • Look out for your own.
  • Remove your guns before sitting at the dining table.
  • Never order anything weaker than whiskey.

More on the Code of the West here.

Thinking West: Llano Estacado

Llano Estacado, Caprock Image byLeaflet (CC BY-SA 3.0). Found on Wikimedia Commons.
Llano Estacado, Caprock
Image by Leaflet (CC BY-SA 3.0). Found on Wikimedia Commons.

When we were upon the high tablelands, a view presented itself as boundless as the ocean. Not a tree, shrub, or any other object, either animate or inanimate, relieved the dreary monotony of the prospect; it was a vast illimitable expanse of desert prairie–the dreaded Llano Estacado of New Mexico; or, in other words, the great Zahara of North America.” (Quoted in Reports of explorations and surveys: to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, Volume 3)

 

Thinking West: Tolkein’s The Return of the King

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Thinking West: Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain

Yucca brevifolia in the Mojave Desert — southwestern Nevada (by Amateria1121, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Yucca brevifolia in the Mojave Desert — southwestern Nevada (by Amateria1121, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.

Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian’s is the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitten and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.

This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snowline. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked with ash drift and black, unweathered lava flows. After rains water accumulates in the hollows of small closed valleys, and, evaporating, leaves hard dry levels of pure desertness that get the local name of dry lakes. Where the mountains are steep and the rains heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter, rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits. A thin crust of it lies along the marsh over the vegetating area, which has neither beauty nor freshness. In the broad wastes open to the wind the sand drifts in hummocks about the stubby shrubs, and between them the soil shows saline traces. The sculpture of the hills here is more wind than water work, though the quick storms do sometimes scar them past many a year’s redeeming. In all the Western desert edges there are essays in miniature at the famed, terrible Grand Canon, to which, if you keep on long enough in this country, you will come at last.

Since this is a hill country one expects to find springs, but not to depend upon them; for when found they are often brackish and unwholesome, or maddening, slow dribbles in a thirsty soil. Here you find the hot sink of Death Valley, or high rolling districts where the air has always a tang of frost. Here are the long heavy winds and breathless calms on the tilted mesas where dust devils dance, whirling up into a wide, pale sky. Here you have no rain when all the earth cries for it, or quick downpours called cloud-bursts for violence. A land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably. If it were not so there would be little told of it.”

Read more here….

Thinking West: Route 66

Route 66 (NPS.GOV)
Route 66 ran 2,448 miles. The iconic highway stretched between Chicago to Los Angeles (NPS.GOV)

There are few highways that have the iconic, near mythic status that Route 66 holds in American culture. Route 66 stretched some 2,500 miles between Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California. Route 66 became a symbol of the open road. It was America’s Pilgrims’ Road, where folks in the East or Middle-West could escape to the western reaches of the United States. In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 offered Okies a way out of a state ravaged by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Jack Kerouac mentions the iconic highway in On the Road. Large swaths of Route 66 have since been absorbed by five Interstate Highways (55, 44, 40, 15, and 10). Although Route 66 is no longer with us, its legacy still lingers in the West.

Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (Chapter 12):

HIGHWAY 66 IS THE main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

Thinking (or Going) West

10416639_245650108960724_2950671783786338079_n[To] go west: 1) If something goes west, it is lost, damaged, destroyed, or spoiled in some way; and 2) (British & Australian, old-fashioned) if someone goes west, they die.*

The West has become synonymous with ruggedness, adventure, desert climates, and shootouts amongst outlaws and lawmen. In American society, the West is where the nation must meet its foreordained destiny, amongst the plains, deserts, and great, snow-capped mountains. This same thinking believes the West is a place where prosperity is found with prospector’s gold pan or farmer’s plow. However, throughout history the West has often been synonymous with death. The ancient Egyptians buried their dead on the western banks of the great Nile River. The West is where the blazing sun sets at the end of the day. More specifically, the West is where the sun goes to die at night. It is renewed the next day by rising from the East. During World War One, British and Australian soldiers might say their dead comrades went West. Although the West has been appropriated by the sweet words of progress, hope, and life, it is death that is familiar with and even comfortable in the West.

*Sources: Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary & Thesaurus and Free Dictionary

Thinking West with Terry Pratchett

Night poured over the desert. It came suddenly, in purple. In the clear air, the stars drilled down out of the sky, reminding any thoughtful watcher that it is in the deserts and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity over their heads they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way.” — Jingo (Discworld series)

Thinking West with Edward Abbey

Finally, in this discussion of water in the desert, I should make note of a distinctive human contribution, one which has become part of the Southwestern landscape no less typical than the giant cactus, the juniper growing out of solid rock or the red walls of a Navajo canyon. I refer to the tiny oasis formed by the drilled well, its windmill and storage tank. The windmill with its skeleton tower and creaking vanes is an object of beauty as significant in its way as the cottonwood tree, and the open tank at its foot, big enough to swim in, is a thing of joy to man and beast, no less worthy of praise than the desert spring.

Water, water, water…. There is no shortage of water in the desert by exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be. ” — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (p. 126)

Thinking West with Marc Reisner

In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money. And it literally does, as it leaps three thousand feet across the Tehachapi Mountains in gigantic siphons to slake the thirst of Los Angeles, as it is shoved a thousand feet out of Colorado River canyons to water Phoenix and Palm Springs and the irrigated lands around them. It goes 444 miles (the distance from Boston to Washington) by aqueduct from the Feather River to south of L.A. It goes in man-made rivers, in siphons, in tunnels. In a hundred years, actually less, God’s riverine handiwork in the West has been stood on its head. A number of rivers have been nearly dried up. One now flows backward. Some flow through mountains into other rivers’ beds. There are huge reservoirs where there was once desert; there is desert, or cropland, where there were once huge shallow swamps and lakes.” –Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (p. 12)