Scorched Earth

Island Life


I have been on the road for a week now. Just yesterday, somewhere between Modesto and Stockton I surpassed the 1500 mile mark- I am counting on many more miles between now and November. The idea is to follow history. We are not talking just any collection of events from the past. There is a book that has been in my possession now for 20 years that details a journey a certain individual undertook in 1859 with the specific purpose of helping to promote the completion of the transcontinental railroad. What I have found along the path of my journey so far is that when I mention the name Horace Greeley I am generally met with a blank stare or a polite look that suggests that the person I am talking to is thinking: “and… so?”. It is then that I launch into a variety of explanations- the he was the founder of the New York Tribune; that he owned a farm in the town I grew up in- Chappaqua, N.Y.; that in 1859 he made a trip from New York to San Francisco by wagon and stagecoach and horseback and wrote dispatches describing his travels back to the Tribune that became the basis for his book, ‘An Overland Journey- New York to San Francisco, the Summer of 1859’. As it usually happens though, the blank stares don’t even start to fade away until it is mentioned that, while he did not necessarily originate the quote, he is perhaps best known for being the person who regularly implored those who might listen (and those who didn’t) to “go west young man”.

Back in my youth, that quote and his statue and the local high school bearing his name were about the only thing I knew about Greeley. It wasn’t until I got a copy of Overland Journey back in 1998 that I started to see a bit more of what he was about. For a while now, I have had the idea that it would be interesting to retrace the route that Greeley took and maybe do a then and now kind of thing- at first it was a book that possibly could emerge from that endeavor- now I am adding a video record to that whim. What seemed like I good start was to use the descriptions in his book to find significant places along the way, visit them and record what is there now. As with most things, the idea was easier than the reality. What I have found over the last week or so is that sometimes a bit of email contact before the visit is helpful, sometimes it is not. It was originally a part of the concept that this would be a completely serendipitous voyage, arriving in places unannounced and expecting the winds of historical information fortune to happily blow my way. Then I started to panic a couple weeks before I was planning to head out to see what the giant roulette wheel had in store for me. I started to seek out the help of the tubes of the internets to see how far off my historical road fantasies might be out there standing in the field.

I started making inquiries about western stage coach routes from the people at Trails West, Inc., a group of volunteers and western historical enthusiasts who go out and locate and mark and travel on the remnants of the early wagon trails. I found that they have published a number of books with topographic maps and verbal descriptions of many of the trails, so I ordered some. At the time I also sent a message to the info section of the Trails West site just to report in on what I had planned just to see what response that might evoke. Within a day I had an email back from a Roger Gash, one of the founders of Trails West, who had just gotten back from an outing in a high clearance 4×4 on one of the trails outside Reno. He had also taken the opportunity to mention my project to a friend and fellow volunteer who has authored some books on western emigration, as well as calling another friend who has a restored stagecoach that had been driven by the legendary driver Hank Monk. I then of course had to do the google on Mr. Monk, not having heard of him before, as he was only referred to as “our driver” in Greeley’s description of what I came to learn was perhaps the most notable and embellished upon segment of Greeley’s journey.

As it turned out, along with the sight-seeing and railroad promoting aspect of this trip, Greeley was a cofounder of the Republican party- the party of Lincoln which has taken quite a different road these days. He was also an anti-slavery advocate and part of his quest on these travels was to speak on many topics as he passed through these newly opened territories, stumping for the cause of free versus slave state initiatives. As it was in this instance, Greeley was running late and went looking for a coach driver to get him to Placerville from Genoa, Nevada, and he was directed to Mr. Monk. Greeley’s description of the trip was rather tame compared to a rendition of it writ large across the West by Samuel Clemens and/or Mark Twain in a section of his account of the wild west titled ‘Roughing It’. The tale is repeated verbatim a number of times in Chapter 20 of Twain’s book, and he suggests that that is the way he had it told to him hundreds of times by every type of person. It has also been mentioned that this tale was read into the congressional record in an attempt to make a mockery of Greeley for something less than favorable he had written about a congressman in his paper, the result being that this reading and its subsequent notoriety may have cost Greeley a political election he was running for.

All of a sudden, this relative non-event as recounted in An Overland Journey seemingly became perhaps the most significant event of this trip, and so I dialed up the stagecoach owner and talked with him a bit about Monk and Greeley. He told me that he did not think his coach was the actual vehicle described in the tale, but he had seen one 20 or so years before in Corvallis with a Monk pedigree, supposedly in a museum display that had been housed underneath the Beaver football stadium at OSU. So once again I ventured into googletown and found a reference to a newly formed museum nearby there that sounded like  it might be promising, and again typed words into their info page. A few days later I heard back that their research people had found a notation about a Hank Monk stagecoach that was currently in the possession of the High Desert Museum outside of Bend. Another email and response to them confirmed that they did have the Monk stagecoach and it was in their lobby, and yes I could certainly come down and see it, so I did.

The trip so far has not always been as fortuitous as this previous exchange and discovery. I got lucky to start with it seems, and perhaps a bit spoiled by that experience. My time in San Francisco turned into a bit of a bust to start with, and in the end I had to completely revise what I had thought might be my plan of action there. Plus, as it turns out, there is a place that has traffic much worse than Seattle, and it is called San Francisco. While I was sitting in traffic pretty much everywhere there I had a lot of time to look at the local flora, or rather street flora. What I was seeing was that for the most part, all the plants looked stressed and hammered by what I understood to be an obvious wanting for water. Even the many eucalypts around the area did not look happy at all. What had looked even less happy were the smoldering remains of a forest on either side of I-5 between Weed and Redding in what I believe was a part of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. While I did not see and flames, wisps and clouds of smoke were everywhere, as were multitudes of firefighters and their equipment. It went on for miles and it looked beyond apocalyptic, and that was without any active flames.

Driving to Yosemite yesterday, the scars of wildfires were everywhere in evidence. And going into the park the ravaged hillsides seemed newly browned from an extensive burning event. There was also evidence of recent burn-overs that were now being “cleaned and trimmed” inside the park. Neatly stacked log pyramids populated many areas of the park where dead trees had been cut down and stacked, I assume for controlled slash burns in wetter times. I heard talk of how some of the burning in the park had been set as a controlled burn, but it did not make for pleasant viewing. As the wildfires continue to rage year after year out here, it would seem that this is the new norm- that even in the parks where one would expect to see untouched growth and lushness, the plants just looked stressed and sick. In driving into Mariposa the other day, I noted that out in the amber foothills the population of live oaks seemed to be the healthiest looking trees I had seen so far. All of the leaves were a deep rich green without a bit of brown or yellow. This seemed as it should be- these were the natives and this is how they responded to drought. And then I began to see the occasional live oak where every leaf on them was a sickly gray green. This phenomenon began to multiply as I drove on, with stands of live oaks showing both rich green and grayish leaves- living trees standing next to the dead or dying.

And hadn’t thought of it for years, but back in nursery times I had heard about the concern for a then new tree disease in Oregon and California- sudden oak death- and I began to wonder if that was perhaps what this was I was seeing. It was odd though that there were live trees next to dead ones, and I had understood that sudden oak death spread by contact and sharing of mold spores. Upon visiting the history museum in Mariposa, seeking more possible information of Greeley’s visit to this area to see Yosemite, the big trees and Col. Fremont’s mines, I asked one of the volunteers there about the trees and he said that sudden oak death had only been a small problem- what they were seeing now with the live oaks and some of the pines was actually being caused by the extended drought. There had also been an issue with the pine beetle, but pretty much all of the dead and dying now was happening because of a lack of water- so much for the resilience and resistance of natives.

Check out time is fast approaching. I am off to see if the Stockton museum has any information on when Mr. Greeley boarded a steamboat here bound for San Francisco, and then I will be off to Placerville where I know a museum there has a photograph of Greeley speaking to a crowd from the front porch of a hotel that apparently has been restored there in town. Then we will look a bit more into the Monk story, and then head on to see what we can see.