The Great American Road Trip
Book: The Way West (1949) by A. B. (Bud) Guthrie, Jr.
(And be sure and click over to Music Road to get your recommendation for the perfect CD to listen to on the road in Montana).
The United States of America, a heady mixture of people from all over the world, has a distinct mix of restlessness and the contradictory desire to settle down and cultivate the land, personified by the mountain men and the farmers who settled the West.
The tension between exploring and settling plays out in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Way West as Conestoga wagons bump over rough and dusty paths. Dick Summers, the mountain man, becomes uneasy with civilized ways while Lije Evans, the farmer looking for new expanses of fertile fields, shows a penchant for organizing and civilizing the awesomely raw land over the Rockies.
I have to confess to cheating a little here, because this book is not exclusively set in Montana, nor does it exclusively portray the landscape of Montana, although journalist and author Bud Guthrie lived most all his life in that state. My excuse is that no book I have read has done a better job of portraying the far western United States. This book covers many states with a story that I believe is important and essential.
Ken and I have road tripped through the glorious state of Montana (see a paean from now part-time resident Donna L. Hull.) There is a sense of “anything is possible” in those big skies and towering mountains. We headed for Glacier National Park on that trip.
We also took a road trip that followed the Oregon trail in Idaho and into eastern Oregon. We got out of the car and walked along ruts in the ground that were made 150 years ago by wagon wheels as settlers headed west. We looked out over the endless sweep of brown grassy hills under the big skies of the West and tried to imagine how thrilling–and intimidating–that sight would be to people who came from little towns with clapboard houses and general stores and genteel entertainment.
One of the most interesting museums I have ever visited stands on a high hill outside the small town of Baker City, Oregon. The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, shows dioramas, maps, and more that brings to life the experiences of families on the Conestoga Wagon road trip west.
I am particularly drawn to the history of these pioneer road trips because my great-great-grandfather Jesse Morgan left his mild life as a school teacher, not to mention his family, in Ohio and went west in search of gold.
In his recreation of the westward movement, Guthrie sensitively draws believable characters. For instance, the young boy Brownie shows the awkwardness of late teens when the boy ponders as he rides:
What a person wondered was, were other people like him underneath or, more likely, solider and properer and not moved by crazy notions?
Guthrie gets inside his women characters as truly as his men. He made me suddenly realize why the western states gave the vote to women before the East. Lije ponders the role of women on the trail:
They had a kind of toughness in them that you might not think, seeing them in a parlor. So, on a trail, women came to speak and men to listen almost as to other men….They’d never quite believe again a woman was to look at but not to listen to.
There was a lot of time for thought as the oxen plodded along, and Lije thought:
Each reach of trail had taken toll…And yet–and yet–the thing was worth the cost. No prize came easy. Free land still had its price. A chance at better living had somehow to be earned. A nation couldn’t grow unless somebody dared.
Guthrie did not like the 1967 movie based on The Way West, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark, or the movie based on his earlier book ,The Big Sky, either. He knew something about movies, having written the film script for the famous Shane (1953) and The Kentuckian (1955), always exploring that tension between settling and traveling on.
Do you have any ancestors who traveled on the Oregon/California Trails? Have you taken a road trip west to follow in their footsteps? If you enjoy this discussion, please share it on Twitter or Facebook, or tell a friend. Thanks!
(By the way, Ken and I took the pictures on this post. Please no reuse without permission.)
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