Westerns are unfashionable, that much I do know. Hollywood isn't filming them, and the story of thousands of mostly white Americans storming west, usurping land from Indians and Mexicans in the process, is a fraught one in these divided times. But, despite all this, as you may note from an earlier blog entry, I have become fascinated by those who traveled west, and especially those women who went with the Gold Rush migration. More than that, westward migration is too big, too resonant, too American for me to believe that it's a story without 21st century appeal. What was it like to be an immigrant risking your life to cross a vast desert, and to knowingly trespass on others' lands? Were you truly a resilient individual, facing a perilous journey alone, or did your community, and even the federal government, have your back? What happened when your American dream met disappointment and death?
My husband and I have come to Kansas City to follow the wagon trains, almost 200 years too late. We begin at Independence, MO, from which traders left for New Mexico (and returned) on the Santa Fe trail, and migrants prepared for their wagon journey to Oregon or California, most never to head "back east" again.
Our wagon is a rented Toyota Corolla. Our tent is a series of comfortable hotels. Our food is whatever we can forage on the trail from a succession of cheap restaurants, although we have stocked up with supplies for the journey here in Missouri: trail mix, sparkling water, and chocolate.
We started with high expectations, but like the migrants--like America itself--we quickly began to "see the elephant". The phrase was used by the 19th century migrants to mean getting terribly excited about an experience (in the migrants' case, going west) only to suffer a reality check in the form of disappointment and disaster.
After excitedly anticipating museums and original sites leading us west, our elephant immediately appeared to us in the Kansas City area.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com