166 years ago, a group of people known as “the Donner Party” were stranded for the winter at a lake in the Sierra Nevada as they were making their way to California from Missouri. 39 people died, and the survivors ate them. Today, we know that place as “Donner Lake.” We go there to fish and ski.
One year ago, I passed by Donner Lake on my own trip to California from Missouri. The entire journey took five days. Our tire blew out on I-80 coming down from Tahoe. It delayed us two hours. How horrifying.
What has become of the mighty and formidable West? – the one that took many precarious months to cross. When did it become so tame?
Where did the frontiersmen go? – oh, those mystical, wild adventurers seeking fortune and future, leading the caravans. It has been replaced by the fat couple in the minivan – the elderly couple in the RV. Today, the Grand Canyon – tomorrow, Yellowstone, all from the comfort of home. “Honey, did you remember to record Next Top Model?” “Of course, dear.”
What happened to the cowboy, out on the range atop a horse? Now he’s a country hick, and we make fun of him for being dumb and proud. He lives in a trailer you drove by once, commenting to your passenger on how shitty it must be to live in this nowhere town full of nothing. But do be kind, Reader – he’s but a lonely man. His self-proclaimed cowboy brethren are too busy commuting between suburbs and tech jobs in Dallas. I’m sorry, Mr. Country Hick, but your cowboy friends are cowboys-in-hat-only.
What happened to the trading post? It has become a Love’s Travel Stop. You get coffee there because the four extra hours to Albuquerque are too boring to stay awake. Too much land… endless land…
What about the brave lone traveler, entering towns as Man and leaving towns as Lore? – the one about which generations tell stories to their kids? He has been replaced by me – a spoiled, entitled man-child tossing around student loans, zipping around from Point A to Point B in an obnoxiously green sedan, staying long enough in each place for a quick photo and a cheap meal before heading off to some other random point in the map. No one tells stories about me. Why should they?
I drove across the Rio Grande Gorge today. It took about one minute. Then I drove back. Another minute. Every time I crossed it, I felt like I was pissing all over the trials and courage of those who came long before me. They were forced to climb down the rocky slopes and brave the rapids. Today, a fence keeps you from climbing down the rocky slopes, because we are too weak and feeble to handle the earth we have inherited. Pioneers once crossed the gorge. Now it’s crossed by tourists over a bridge.
I can’t blame us. It was the adventurers before us who tamed the West and passed it down to our generation. But what would they think if they knew they passed it on not to brave land-warriors of kindred spirit, but to lazy and entitled Route-66 tourist like myself?
I’m sorry, West. I’m sorry.