To the Wild West, Cell Phone in Hand

Our goal, at minimum is to establish the ride as an official BSA historic trail. But we have a larger purpose as well: There are currently two bills in committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, the former sponsored by Rep. Cole of Oklahoma, the latter by Sen. Hutchison of Texas, and both designed to give the Chisholm a National Historical Trail designation.

That this didn't happen long ago is astonishing. Few places enjoy such a vital role in the American imagination: The Chisholm is, after all, the wellspring of almost every image we have of cowboys and cattle drives, the source of a thousand movies, books and television episodes, and a crucial part of how we define ourselves.

But there is more to it than that. Familiar as the Chisholm Trail is in our collective memories, it still has many things to teach us -- as I've learned this week, after roping and branding cattle, driving a hundred longhorn cows, fording the Cimarron River on horseback, and meeting with a chief of the Cheyenne nation.

The first lesson is the profound distance between then and now, most of it wrought by the great technology revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries. Standing in the dugout cave, vivid as it is, only offers a partial glimpse of the sheer toughness of our ancestors. Two of the days we rode this week were among the hottest in Oklahoma in the 21st century -- 107 and 105 degrees. And it was sheer misery to be out there on horseback.

But we had water bladder backpacks on, and more bottles of water in our saddlebags -- and there was always the prospect at trail's end of iced drinks out of a generator-powered cooler. And if we slept on the ground through the miserably hot nights, we could at least spray ourselves with Deet and lie atop our expensive REI bags.

Unlike the little Hasbrook family, or the hundreds of cowboys riding the Chisholm Trail before them, we didn't have to spend the hottest days in the dust of a cattle drive or plowing, with the prospect that night of a meager, half-rotten meal in a stifling cave or endlessly facing the prospect of imminent, violent death.

It's only when you are out on the trail, dizzy with the heat, saddle sore from hour after hour of endless hoof beats, the insects screaming around you, and the sweat pouring of both you and your horse, can you really appreciate just how damn hard the pre-air conditioning, pre-electronic world was.

That lesson lies on the Chisholm Trail, as well at great historic sites: Every second is a lesson on just what it took to get us here. It is easy to dismiss our ancestors as primitives, but places like the Chisholm remind us that when it came to courage, grit and sheer orneriness, we are children standing on the shoulders of giants.

A second lesson is reminder of just how isolated our ancestors were. Out there on the prairie, Charlie Hasbrook perhaps read a newspaper once per month. He may have voted in a presidential election. But that was about the sum of his engagement with the larger world.

We Californians may have been something of a parody of our culture -- from expecting our cooks to provide vegetarian burgers in the beef capital of America to our endless conversations about video games to our sheer incompetence at traditional skills such as horsemanship … but one thing about us for which I didn't feel the least self-conscious was our profound connectedness.

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