Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How The Wild West Was Won With Ray Mears

Ray Mears is that bloke who does survival things on telly who isn't Bear Grylls or the guy who got killed by a sting-ray. He is a lot posher than you might expect, or maybe I just muddled him up with Ray Winstone. I watched this interesting series on BBC4 as I have always had a fascination for the American pioneer spirit, and how it came into being. I spent a lot of time in the Rocky Mountains in my late teens and was always amazed by the hospitality offered to me by the families that I met. They were the sort of people that you would call in to see on an off-chance in the middle of the afternoon and suddenly find yourself invited for dinner, if not to stay the night. There was always food in their pantry to feed a wandering traveller. Or ten. And nothing was any trouble.
Going-To-The-Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana
I think my astonishment was partly because I was from a family who have always been terrible hosts. The first question my mother used to ask me whenever I went to visit home was "When are you leaving?". The second was "Can you peel some potatoes for dinner?" And the third thing she said was always a statement rather than a question, "You can wash up." My husband was not impressed when he discovered that in my family, guests are only welcome if they offer to help. And we have never offered a particularly comfortable environment to visitors, our houses being invariably messy and cold. My father is incapable of tidying up for anyone, least of all himself. The big giveaway that he had met someone new in his life after my mother died was that I could suddenly sit on his sofa without having to tip off a fortnight's worth of newspapers first. But I do still have to remind him that nowadays I am visiting with a three-year-old child and he therefore may wish to move the saw, hedgetrimmer and pile of carpet tacks that he has left in prime tripping position out in the hall. My father is a wonderful cook (though we won't mention the chaos that this unleashes), but how much he could make for someone arriving on his doorstep entirely unannounced and needing an evening meal out of what was in his cupboards, I am not sure. But then I suppose we Brits are used to having more corner shops than they do in the American wilderness.

And this was what Ray Mears was talking about. How thousands of people survived crossing from one side of America to the other on foot or by wagon, in completely inhospitable locations, facing seasonal extremes of temperature and dangerous animals and insects around every corner. To feed themselves, they had to either bring all their provisions with them, or kill something to eat en route.

The series began in the mountains. Three ranges need to be crossed by anyone traversing America from East to West: the Appalachians, Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Between the Appalachians and the Rockies are the great plains, with no trees on them at all. Whereas the Appalachians are so thickly forested that they once had sycamores with trunks wide enough to shelter 30 men inside them. Beyond the Rockies lie the deserts, where viciously spiky cacti hide the wood within, the terrain is surprisingly rugged and where most travellers were entirely unprepared for the temperature. Their water canteens were woefully small and the soles of their boots would fall off in the dry heat.

The Native Americans wore mocassins to protect their feet, stitched by needles and thread made from the spikes of the agave cactus. They had of course been surviving all of these harsh environmental forces for centuries. Some tribes, like the Cherokee, shared their knowlege with the invading settlers, but others, like the Apache, used it to fight them. And with good reason. Ray Mears skirted over the horrific treatment of Native Americans by the pioneers in the first two episodes of the series, but gave a more detailed account in the final programme. He described the brutal attempts to resettle the Navajo on to reservations hundreds of miles from where they lived, marching them across the desert, the exertion killing them in their thousands. (On the prairies, the Native Americans were nomadic, but in the desert they were farmers, living in mud dwellings called hogans.) Today, hundreds of people still die in the desert, many of them also migrants heading towards a new home, but this time running away from the one they had before.

Native American culture is matriarchal, with wisdom, stories and possessions being passed through the generations from mother to daughter. Too right. The invading settlers showed all too clearly just how stupid men could be, not just from their lack of preparation for the elements, but their ignorant treatment of what they found when they got there, whether it be person or animal. The animal that suffered the worst fate was the buffalo roaming the prairies. I once had an argument with a friend in a pub in Newcastle about just how many buffalo were killed in a tactical measure to starve the nomadic Native Americans on to reservations. I admit I may have got my numbers slightly skewed when it came to how many bison in total were left alive, but there is no doubt that millions were massacred. Thank goodness someone had the foresight to save the species from extinction. Just.

A bison could easily gore you to death if so minded. There were numerous other creatures across the American wilderness able and willing to kill or maim inattentive invading travellers - spiders, snakes, bears, and ticks carrying Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. These creatures suffered a less miserable fate than the buffalo and still thrive today. Being British and as clueless as the early pioneers must have been, I of course fell victim to them. In an earlier post, I mentioned the giardia parasite I picked up from splashing my face in a stream. Then I sat in some grass and got a spider bite the size of a tennis ball on my thigh. The proboscis of the mosquitoes in Glacier National Park could pierce clothing. And I stupidly asked when out on a hike in the Rockies why a river we were walking along was called Rattlesnake Creek.

There are warnings all over the National Parks telling people how to behave around bears, yet an extraordinary number of people ignore them completely, believing they are looking at a cuddly teddy called Yogi rather than a nine-foot tall slashing machine. I at least was paralysed with fear at the very thought of bears. Hiking along a path to Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park, I kept passing piles of steaming bear dung and spat-out shreds of bear grass, and I was a trembling wreck by the end of the trek. You're supposed to keep talking in a low voice as you walk so as not to startle any bear you come across - but what the hell can you think of to say when you're quaking in your boots? I resorted to singing a mantra - something along the lines of "Please don't kill me, please don't kill me, I don't think I'll remember to drop into a foetal position if you run at me, la la la la la". Thankfully the only Grizzly and Black Bears I saw were all from a safe distance or from a car.
Iceberg Lake
Transcontinental passages had to be timed so that the Sierra Nevada could be crossed before winter set in. But the gold found in their midst was what eventually spurred most of the pioneers on. Working conditions for the gold panners were appalling. Far better to be in a position where you could "mine the miners" - by setting up one of those corner shops the people were lacking, for example. Or to turn to lawlessness to get rich quick; shooting, stealing, smuggling and providing safe havens for bandits.

Eventually, the railroads were built, with the iron horse replacing the pioneers' wagons and the stagecoaches that had been bringing the mail across the country. The precious metal ran out, so the gold towns are now ghost towns. I have been to a couple of them in Montana - Garnet and Virginia City. The latter is quite touristy and has a two-storey outhouse as one of its main features. Still not quite sure how that worked. Garnet was more memorable, as it was accessed up a sheer scree track from the interstate; a road so rough, windy and steep it overheated the 1970s Volvo I was being driven in and somewhat stressed out the driver. I doubt there can be many other roads like it in the United States. Garnet was tucked away in a grassy dell in the hills, with abandoned wooden shacks and stores and rusting Ford Model Ts giving a sense of the community it had once housed. We had the place virtually to ourselves, which made it both eerie and magnificent. But we discovered to our annoyance when it was time to leave that there was, it turned out, another much safer and easier way home.

Virginia City

Two-storey outhouse

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