The Unknown Unknown

Island Life


I have not really felt like writing much of anything lately, mostly because I have been stuck pondering the question of “Why Bother?” This comes on the heels of contemplating the question of why we are here, any answer to which seems to leave me struggling in the ditch like the proverbial centipede who had just been asked how it manages to coordinate its legs into an orderly, forward type motion. I will admit that this flummoxed spiral has had its origins in places and thoughts that exist elsewhere and in other times. It is a state that persists, and can be said to be similar to the recognition that the words nowhere and now here are spelled the same but mean vastly different things because of a critical space inserted in between. Some might say I’m confused- some might be right.

A good deal of this confusion, I believe, may stem from my current contemplation of history and the historical record. A case in point would be my current semi-obsession with things related to Horace Greeley. Some will recall my journey into the semi-known last fall in pursuit of the trails followed by Mr. Greeley from May to September in 1859. A part of my self-appointed task in this regard was to attempt to approximate the specific route he took from New York to San Francisco, except that I intended to do it in reverse. This was not in anyway meant to pull a Ginger Rogers of sorts- as in doing everything that Fred Astaire did on the dance floor, except doing it backwards and in high heels. If I had wanted to do that I would have walked the whole way and brought our two cats along so that I could have something to herd. As it was, it just made more sense to start in San Francisco while reading Greeley’s Overland Journey account from back to front. And the cats would not have liked anything about that adventure, let alone being told where to go and when to go there.

There were a couple of realizations that struck me along the way. The first was, as I gazed out upon the landscape anywhere that wasn’t black top in front of or behind me, that it was truly amazing that people in basic carts and wagons had traversed those territories. A second thing was, and not in any particular order of importance, that it was somewhat strange that these travelers assumed that whatever they saw along the way in terms of land and resources could be theirs for the taking. A third thing was that even though they may have planned for and packed for what they thought they might need and encounter along the way, if the trail did not provide the two basics of grass and water, the entire adventure would be at peril of meeting an unfortunate ending, or suffer a delay that might have consequences further on down the trail.

After a point I came to question my entire original premise for being there- that it would be interesting and somehow important to find as many of the landmarks mentioned in the account of Greeley’s travels and record a kind of then and now tale that would show how things had changed, or even how they had stayed the same. I knew that there were groups of modern day people who actually went into the wilds to follow closely the trails of the westward migration and that that was not my purpose either. In some ways it seemed like a cool idea to take a replica of a covered wagon or a motorized, high clearance vehicle and follow the actual emigrant trails, but in other ways that made as much sense as reenacting a civil war battle or panning for gold from a trough set up somewhere as a roadside attraction. And did it really make any difference if I found the exact routes or not, other than in the end I could then say I had done just that? I got an answer of sorts at the Trails West conference I went to a few weeks back when I witnessed what had been a decades long battle between two ninety year old members who had been feuding over the exact location of where the Donner party trail had traversed that fabled pass. There was this ongoing dispute involving two potential locations that were within a few hundred yards of each other, the resolution of which would do nothing to help bring back any of the lost Donners, nor provide any clearer picture of what is already known about how they wound up in that dire situation to begin with.

And so it is that I find myself questioning reality. It doesn’t help that the current, so-called political reality is so unreal. It makes no sense that a former president could be impeached for not telling the truth about a sexual dalliance, while the current, so-called president can tell ten thousand lies, some of which were about multiple dalliances among other things and for the moment, seemingly skate away unscathed. All of this makes it easier to escape to another time where a reputation could be tarnished by a fable about a stagecoach ride in which, as a passenger, Mr. Greeley was characterized as being unable to keep his seat. Those were far simpler times.

In digging in to Greeley’s cross-country sojourn, it has become apparent that the most well known piece of that trip took place on a stagecoach ride from what was then the western edge of the Utah territory (two years later the Nevada territory) into California. Greeley’s own account of the trip has him passing through Genoa, which was then the largest town in the area and became the capital of the Nevada territory before being moved to Carson City. It is unclear from any of the accounts as to when Greeley climbed aboard the stagecoach driven by Hank Monk. Monk’s telling of the trip saw Greeley bouncing all around the back of the coach on the trip to Placerville. This version was embellished by writer Artemus Ward, who also added the part that at one point Monk turned around to see that, through all the jostling and bumping, Greeley’s head actually went through the roof. It was this version of the tale that got read into the Congressional Globe in 1866, which became the Congressional Record in 1873. It was a congressman Hulburd  from New York who did the reading as a mocking payback for something Greeley had written about him in an editorial in Greeley’s New York Tribune. Mark Twain got into the act as well, devoting an entire chapter to Greeley’s ride from Genoa to Placerville in his book ‘Roughing It’ which came out in 1870. Poet and playwright Joaquin Miller wrote a short play about Greeley and Monk titled ‘Tally Ho!’, which took even more liberties with the realities and details of the route.

I have been gathering materials to make an attempt at straightening out at least some of the details of the story. There was a short booklet that was published in 1973 titled Hank and Horace. It tells of a bunch of the stagecoach stories, and shows a street scene picture that supposedly was taken at the time Greeley was in Placerville. I got a copy from the El Dorado museum when I was there, and have been blowing it up and looking at some of the details to try and determine if it actually does have Monk and Greeley in there sitting on a stagecoach. As it is old and grainy, it is unclear as to whether or not they actually are a part of that scene. What the author also claims was a that part of the route Monk took on the way to Placerville was a section that, in reality, not been built yet, and I believe it was a different section that had been built two years before Greeley’s trip that was the actual grade that they climbed to get over the Sierras. On my way back from the Western Trails conference I stopped in Bend, Oregon to ask the High Desert Museum if I could get a copy of the documentation they have on the stagecoach in their lobby that states it was indeed the coach that belonged to Monk and actually did transport Greeley on that fateful ride. I have that in hand now. There a  few other things that I am working on that will all, hopefully, come together in a short piece about this most famous, or infamous, part of the trip.

But then there is that gnawing resonance in the back of my brain- so what and who cares? Does history really matter for anything these days when a majority of U.S. senators and about a third of the voting public are happy to see years of constructive legislation wiped from the books, legal precedent be dashed on the rocks and hypocrisy rule the day. What does it mean to make a factual, historical document that hopefully tells the truth, at least about something? I guess I won’t know till I finish it.