Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Living in the North American “flyover country” as it is patronizing called by the bi-coastals who think there is nothing on the prairies, is an exercise in ambiguity.  Neither here-nor-there, it has been seen that way since the first Easterners arrived on the steamboats and it persists today.  It was said, in the joking style that helped people tolerate both the limits and the tragedies of the settling by a people not suited or accustomed, that the water in the Missouri was too thick to drink and too thin to walk on.  One of the clergy, an eloquent sort of person who was in one of the circuit-riding occupations along with drummers, theatrical performers and gamblers, advised that a person arriving from more civilized climes, would be well-advised to have a good set of teeth, not for biting but for straining out foreign objects.

I have especially tender feelings for the chapter of “Whoop-Up Country” called “Life on the Trail”, since for three years I lived in a F-150 Ford cargo van and circulated among four congregations: Great Falls, Missoula, Bozeman, and Helena.   Circuit-riding.  It was a classic thing to do though the leaders in Boston never understood why I would want to.  For them all spaces “between” were empty.

Bull Train

Four-horse coaches, 18-mule teams (as opposed to 18-wheel modern trucks) and bull trains capable of moving enormous loads very slowly, were reinforced by railroads.  Not the trans-continental federally-subsidized railroads, but short stretches between thicker populations or valuable commodities, like the spur line that serves the grain elevator in Valier.  (Currently, these short stretches are being torn up as not commercially viable.  The movement that has accompanied this is the creation of fashionable long walking parks, trails of a sort.)  Since clergy and missionaries circulated among towns, they spent a lot of time on railroads eating cinders and withstanding the grinding of steel on steel and the banshee wails of the warning steam whistle.  One could not be confident of access to meals so the journal-keeping religious people noted that they carried “dates” in their “wallets.”  (This practice served nomad bedouin rather well.  I always carried breakfast bars in my circulating parsonage.)

Concord Coach

The Concord coach was considered a major advance, since the passengers were jostled around without being directly exposed to the weather until they had to get out to walk uphill or even push.  They were treacherous, tippy vehicles that required special skills, experience and reckless attitudes to get the mail through -- maybe not on time.  Coaches were identified with particular drivers, who sat up high in the dust or snow -- whatever.  In winter they really needed the buffalo hide coats and Scotch caps.  In summer it was Stetson, bandanna and vest that counted.  

Their tongues were their whips.  This is also a persisting skill.  When I was an animal control officer, early on when I was the only woman, a stock truck full of horses went over the bank between the Portland Airport and the Columbia River.  In the pre-dawn dark it was a horrible scene of massacre with the horses trapped inside because the truck fell on the door.  The Really Big Wrecker arrived and the driver set to work attaching chains and so on.  He spewed a steady stream of mule-skinner oaths until he realized I was female.  Then he was rendered mute, but that meant he couldn’t work, so I tactfully left to get coffee.  Whisky and coffee are necessities on any trail, in any trial.

A Democrat 

The “Whoop-Up Trail” was international since it was between Fort Benton, Montana, and Fort Macleod, Alberta.  Some of the the travelers were English adventurers, like two young men who assumed the whole world was like the one they knew at home.  They left in a “Democrat.”  They let their horses escape in the night, but after they had been advised to picket them, nearly strangled the pair by tethering them close enough together to entangle the ropes.  They couldn’t start a fire because they didn’t know about kindling.  They were forced to admit that an Oxford education had limited relevance.  But other sophisticated travelers felt that the trail-life folks were surprisingly sophisticated about politics and so on.  They were Civil War survivors who had been displaced from small town life and did not care to go back.

Same place from the Alberta Side
That's Chief Mountain.

On the Canadian side, newcomers were advised that British standards of behavior were necessary.  However, the first version of Fort Macleod was a “house built on sand.”  Not only that, it was on the river floodplain and regularly flooded.  After ten years of this it was moved to safer ground.  Macleod House, run by Harry “Kamoose” Taylor (1824 - 1901), was a prominent feature, much like the Kipp boarding house in Blackfoot (the town) on the Blackfeet reservation.  Various “house rules” supposedly posted by “Kamoose” included things like removing spurs and spiked boots when going to bed, sleeping double if the management said so, and forbidding assaults on the cook.   More clever, and evoking English tavern signs, there was posted out front a large silhouette of the back of a man’s head with the words:  “No Jawbone.”  It meant no credit, just cash. 

“Kamoose” means “wife-stealer” according to Sharp and others, but I’ve had no occasion to learn the word, so I’m not sure he’s right.  The story is that he fell in love with a tribal woman, offered to buy her, was refused, and simply ran off with her.  More certainly, “Kamouse” had been clergy but turned to whiskey trading, rather like the contemporary Montana priest, John Bauer, who owned “Miss Kitty’s” X-rated book store named for his cat.  It’s more a coffee shop now, but still offers the same kind of books.  John is gone so it is owned by his female former manager and quite accepted by the town.  People find their comforts where they can and only the foolish turn them away.

Fort Macleod

This is also the time period when Jerry Potts earned his reputation as a guide for travel and John Healy was feuding with anyone who differed with him or interfered with his shipping.  But the legends had not grown yet and visitors from more civilized places were unimpressed.  One Brit said Fort Macleod was “a wide, muddy lane, with a row of dirty, half-finished, wooden shanties flanking each side.”  This sort of scene is archetypal now, immortalized in a thousand movies.  

An ecologist told a story about a newcomer to the West who was enchanted by the purple mist of blooming spotted knapweed, a notoriously invasive weed that even goats think twice before eating.  The ecologist’s comment was that the first sight of a place will forever afterward be the marker for “normal” and seem like the way it “ought” to be.  The West has always and will always have a steady stream of newcomers who divide their opinions between their homelands and this broad landscape that seems more eternal than it is.  The result is often stupid and transient construction, or a sudden impulse to build without thinking about maintenance or adapting to the future.  There’s no choice but to live in the “now,” but to deny the past and ignore the future is to build a ghost town.

Mounties with Empire standards

At least in “flyover country” we’re not likely to drown when the oceans rise, but what are we going to do with all the displaced coastal citizens on the road?  That’s also a rising tide.  My laundromat locks its customer bathroom to keep out “road people” who wash their children and hair in the small sink.  But maybe “Kamoose” would build a proper wash house along the highway to accommodate all the people living in their cars on the trail.  It would be a comfort.

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