Monday, June 23, 2008

Of Families and Frontiers

DW's family reunion last week was a success, as some of the gentle readers of this space can attest. None of the uncomfortable scenarios I feared materialized, and my blood pressure remained normal the entire time. I would like to send all good karma, positive energy, and prayers to the family of one gentle reader whose grandson was struck by a motorcycle shortly after the family returned home.

This was a reunion of DW's parents and siblings and of my FIL and his siblings. My FIL's family on both sides has been in Utah and Idaho since the 1840s. The earliest of those were genuine frontier settlers--ranchers and farmers, mostly--whether they intended to be (in the case of the Mormons) or not (one ancestor's family stopped in Almo, Idaho, on the way to California and just stayed there). Some of DW's relatives currently work the land, and my FIL is an agricultural economist, but DW and her siblings grew up in urbanized settings, with only occasional exposure to the arduous physical labor of ranchwork. When I was a kid in Oklahoma, our yard bordered on a cattle farm, but I knew absolutely nothing about the work that went on back there. Neither of my parents and none of my grandparents were involved with agriculture of livestock, so I have less of a connection to the land than does my DW.

The mythology of the Old West and the westward-shifting American frontier, of course, have always served as part and parcel of the definition of who and what white Americans are, realizing, of course, the violence and injustice in taking much of that frontier from its native inhabitants. Also, the ideal of the American small farmer has been a part of our politics since Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton disputed the nature of our country. The taciturn dirt farmers; the cattle ranchers; the oilmen; the gunsligners; the pious Mormons; the prospectors; the dreamers; the hustling preachers; the evil railroad and mining companies--these all form a part of our collective national self-image, I think, though clearly not part of the reality in the lives of most Americans of my generation. We are reminded of that past by the mythology of the West and by artifacts like the accordion that DW's grandfather took on the trail to pass the time while he tended sheep.

During the reunion of this family with its own roots in what was once a frontier region, and in the days subsequent to that reunion, I just happened to read two fabulous books that address boundaries and frontiers, albeit in very different ways. I liked Cormac McCarthy's The Road so much that I purchased his Border Trilogy, and I finished reading All The Pretty Horses (1992)yesterday. The plot has teenage ranching Texans running away into Mexico, then returning home, in the 1940s. In the Texas these boys knew, property transfers (in this case, horses) were effected with contracts and lawsuits, while in the Mexico they came to know, such transfers were effected with arms and official corruption. The northern Mexico of McCarthy's story somewhat resembles HBO's Deadwood, an outlaw encampment where might made right and life was cheap. All The Pretty Horses ends with our protagonist riding off into the sunset, into an uncertain future in a disappearing frontier.

At the Salt Lake airport, I spotted a copy of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (1997), a firsthand account of the May 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Ironically, perhaps, I began reading the book over the Wasatch Range and the High Uintahs--tall mountains, for sure--and got through about half of it while flying at an altitude only slightly higher than the summit of Everest. Krakauer--an adventure sports journalist--was a member of one of the ill-fated expeditions that climbed to the highest point on the planet on May 10, 1996. As a hypoxic Krakauer descended, an unexpected storm blew in from the South, stranding several climbers at altitudes where human beings are not naturally equipped to be. Krakauer and his fellow climbers found themselves at the frontier of human survival; there were nine deaths, including the leaders of both expeditions. The clouds, viewed from above, appeared innocent enough, but they brought a thunderstorm/blizzard with hurricane-force winds. A series of bad decisions delayed for several hours the final ascent of the two expedition parties at the center of the story, most notably the failure of the leaders of those parties to ensure that ropes were set up at a potential bottleneck very near the summit. The leaders also failed to set a firm turnaround time to ensure that climbers would not run out of supplemental oxygen, whether or not they reached the summit. However, a few climbers assumed a reasonable turnaround time, turned around short of the summit, and survived. The highest peak I've ever hiked is 10,000 feet, and, after reading this book, that may be the highest this lowlander ever hikes.


Anonymous said...

FWIW, All the Pretty Horses is the first recommendation I offer if solicited. All three of the trilogy are great.


Randy said...

I would place the novel up there with Huckleberry Finn as a tale of American restlessness.

It took a while for me to get used to McCarthy's writing style contrasting lengthy lush descriptions with terse diaglogue and without punctuation where I would ordinarily put it so that I'll pay more attention to those lengthy lush descriptions because I have to read those sentences instead of skimming them.