On the trail
By Ken Root
Last weekend I was encouraged to make a 10-mile bike ride to the farmers market in downtown Des Moines. The challenge, other than the physical exertion of the ride, was navigating trails across the landscape that required crossing under bridges and taking detours due to road construction. We made it, in an hour and a half, with a great deal of satisfaction in accomplishing this feat of orienteering and endurance. It made me think of what a real trek across uncharted territory was like for our ancestors and the price paid for a failed attempt.
Looking at this continent and the pattern of settlement, it showed that the first people to build communities did so in close proximity to water and a retreat back to a more known environment. Interior settlements were along major rivers with little advancement into dry and rugged areas for generations. Daniel Boone became a legend by crossing the Appalachian Mountains and blazing a trail into what became Kentucky. He may have been faced with hostile natives, but most likely the challenge was to be able to find food and water and navigate across an unending wilderness.
The generation that entered the Plains had less risk from hostility but a longer distance to advance to find land suitable for farms or ranches. The wooded eastern area of the country became a grassland that was equally featureless and went on for a thousand miles. Those who set out on horseback, or on foot, were brave souls, but it is in the human spirit to explore and expand settlement. It is almost comical to think that European settlers were the first to do so. The travels of Lewis and Clark (1803 to 1806) revealed Native American tribes dotting the countryside all the way from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of years before them had come a people who walked across land and ice to get onto this continent. What we have done is really nothing in comparison. Still, it is our era, and our ancestry, that changed this continent from forest and grasslands to farms and pastures.
The concept of surveying came from Europe but no one had ever had a blank slate as big as the Louisiana Purchase to lay out roads and property lines. As one who has lived on the east coast and traveled in Europe, I can tell you that a grid of straight roads, laid out with equal spacing, is not the norm around the world.
This nation made a lot of calculated moves to expand the population into the interior. It had to tempt immigrants and settlers with free land and had to show promise of a better life if they would leave their hometown or homeland and come here. Transportation has always been a prerequisite to expansion. The first railroads were heavily subsidized. Making rivers navigable came from public and private expenditures and the Eisenhower Interstate System, at government expense, is an underappreciated marvel of the modern age.
But it would have been impossible without people who had courage and hope. Maybe it also took desperation but I go with the former as the reason why a family in a covered wagon headed west. We know only those who survived. We are too far removed to feel the pain of those who failed.
Several years ago, I heard a retired TWA pilot speak at a meeting. He described an situation from 1954. His new Boeing 707 was sitting at the gate in San Francisco when the chief stewardess informed him that an elderly lady would not board until she spoke to him. As the captain, he donned his jacket and hat and made his way from the cockpit to the door. The lady said, “Young man, is this plane safe?” He replied, “Yes ma’am, it is the newest jet technology and we will leave here and fly directly to St. Louis at 500 miles per hour and arrive in two hours and 45 minutes.” He continued, “I have checked the plane, as has the ground crew, and I will be at the controls for the flight.” “All right,” she said, “I’ve only made this trip one other time and that was in a covered wagon.”
I imagine the progress in one lifetime to make a journey that took six months of hard travel and then to cover the same distance in a soft seat while having drinks and dinner. We can say the same about past versus present train trips, car trips and even walking down a sidewalk compared to hiking through swamps and over hills.
Still, for mankind, the journey has to be more important than the destination. As a species, we have to keep moving. We are invasive. We seek out every unknown place. We plot and plan to reach the top of mountains, the bottom of dark caverns and the far reaches of space. Those who fail disappoint us little, but those who succeed excite us greatly, and their names are enshrined for generations.
So, as I start my car, turn on the GPS and pull onto an Interstate highway, I take a moment to appreciate those who came here before me and blazed the trail that I traverse so easily.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.