By Blaney Pridgen
All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.
Numerous times, I have driven a car or ridden a motorcycle out west. Often, I camped, but not the RV or Holiday Inn Express kind of camping. If you are going to do that, you might as well stay home and watch the whole panorama on electrocuted plasma. But this is not a travelogue like too many boring slides in your uncle’s carousel projector. This is a specific reflection I ponder every time I move west of the Mississippi.
The pioneers and settlers of the American West were desperate people. The landscape of the west, even the placid plains, is sublimely foreboding. The land and Rockies seem to say, “Enter at your own risk.” Add to this wildly unpredictable weather, river crossings, and the threat of hostile natives and you have the makings of a do-or-die, last ditch, wretched situation. Imagining the wagon trains in the dust, I feel their desperation. Yes, they were brave, visionary, and hopeful but the hope must have been born out of desperation and despair over everything back east.
Out west, I cannot grasp the anguish they might have had in leaving the east. Not unlike the east coast settlers of a century before, the people said goodbye to family, friends, and a friendlier countryside they would never see again. What were the farewells like? Considering the near hopeless prospects of any future communication, their leave taking was a graveside adieu. And imagine scratching together the bare essentials and keepsakes you could take. This was not just starting over. This was desperation like emigrants and refugees feel. And the hostiles they faced were desperate too, desperate to save their land, economy, and cultures. In a strange way, I sense these desperations still lingering in the western air like the aftermath of a dust storm.
When the wagon master shouted, “Wagons…Ho-o-o,” certainly hopes were high for the future, but also hopes had died in the past. The Nineteenth Century was littered with economic failures. The aftermath of the Civil War bred the desperation of herd PTSD. The advent of industrialization rendered countless lives not worth living in dark factories and deep mines. A Gilded Age of ruthless, unbridled capitalism made the few rich richer and the masses of poor poorer, not unlike today. Inhumane economic practices and the politics of special interests fomented desperation and wild risks worth taking.
People become restless when they daily see their children suffering with little hope of betterment. People become angry when they cannot make a decent living no matter how hard they work. People start looking for places to go when the status quo offers a lot of empty promises and very little meaning. I suspect the pioneers of the west knew all about this.
We romanticize the heroic restlessness of the migration west with little consideration of what exactly made the pioneers move. They were in a sense blessed to have somewhere to go and grow, but were they? It was a journey of hopelessness behind and hardship ahead. In this regard, I consider today’s pioneers and settlers, emigrants crossing our borders in search of a better life. They face hostile natives too, angry white men fearful of new cultures and changing demographics. But as we say, these restless migrants have “no where to go but up.”
I am also reminded of my fore parents, the Pridgens and several other family trees that married into them, notably for me the Blaneys. They were not among the western sojourners. They mostly remained back east along the coast and flatland of North and South Carolina. A few escaped to Alabama and Georgia, but that’s hardly much of a wagon train adventure. Nonetheless, Nineteenth Century South had its own brand of wildness. Long ago in my own story, I had an opportunity to go west, but I chose not to take the latter-day Mayflower. Every now and then of a full moon, I wish I had, especially when the ramble leads me out of the magnolias.