|Going-To-The-Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana|
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.
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.