O Pioneers!

(Originally posted Friday, May 3rd, 2013)

You might think from the title that you were about to encounter something relating to Willa Cather’s Great Plains trilogy, or something historic and educational. Or at least something about pioneers. But no. As usual, I’m going to talk about myself. I suppose technically I will be talking about pioneers, but I only intend to do so insofar as they relate to me.

As a kid I was fascinated with American pioneers and captivated by tales of their experiences. Traversing across this vast land of ours in search of opportunity, they seemed so strong. So ambitious. So determined. I would gobble up books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and imagine all the adventures I would have if I lived on the frontier. Okay, mostly I imagined how I would murder Nellie Oleson, avoid prosecution, escape from a frontier prison, suck up to Miss Beedle, or devise something better than a bag of straw to sleep on, but sometimes I actually pictured myself sewing, making soap, and finding a way to eat the same thing over and over again–or doing the same thing day after day–without losing my mind. It would not have been an easy life.

Later, after I had read My Antonia and Caddie Woodlawn, seen a few John Wayne films, and watched almost every episode of How the West Was Won, Grizzly Adams, and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, I realized something very important: I am not cut out to be a pioneer. Or a pilgrim. Or a settler. Basically, I’m not cut out for life in any time except the present. To belabor the point: When it comes to centuries, I prefer the 20th and the 21st.

Notwithstanding the fact that the entire continent of Europe would have had to have been on fire or sinking rapidly into the ocean for me to have boarded a boat that would take a month or more to reach its destination. And never mind the mice, fleas, rats, lice, seasickness, and food borne illness that would have passed for entertainment back then. Just imagining myself effectively stranded at sea with no hot shower, no microwave, no Kindle, and no computer to help me while away the days, I know I would never have survived. I know this because I know myself, and although I might have had a Bible, a hymnal, and even a wooden bench to bang my head against, there aren’t enough Bible verses, inspirational songs, or concussive head injuries to keep my mind occupied for three weeks or more. No. In less than fourteen days–I believe they called that period a fortnight–this gal either would have died of boredom, or staged a mutiny or committed suicide just for the sake of amusement.

Now let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that I was born in one of the colonies, and did not have to suffer that hellish journey across the Atlantic to settle somewhere in North America. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I was the wife of someone who wanted to go west. Wanderlust or not, I would have gotten about as far a the foothills of the Appalachians because I would have taken one look at the mountains–and our covered wagon filled with all our worldly possessions, and another two or three looks at the mountains, and four or five more looks at the covered wagon–and decided I was more of an East Coast sort of gal. Because even if I thought I had the mettle to climb those mountains or the time, energy and patience to find a short cut through them, all it would have taken was one glance DOWN the mountain, and I would have been paralyzed with fear. Not of falling, mind you. Of landing. Hard. At which point I likely would have decided I was more of an introvert than an explorer, and would have headed for the nearest cave or hollowed out tree to live on my own until I starved to death.

Now lets say, again for the sake of argument, that I was born in one of the colonies, and was transported through the mountains and across the rivers as, say a child or a fetus in the comfort of a horse-drawn wagon and/or uterus, and arrived safely in the big woods, or a prairie, or Kansas, or any other part of the Great Plains. Under those circumstances–and barring a catastrophic accident or an outbreak of tornadoes, measles, or small pox–I would have had a slightly better chance of surviving the experience since I would have grown up there and, owing to the fact that there were no books, movies, or web articles on the subject, I wouldn’t have known yet just how bad I had it.


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