Two Aspects of Western Landscape: Migration Trail and Landmarks
Low, Denise, The Midwest Quarterly
My own family--that is, forbears of three of my grandparents--emigrated onto the Great Plains from Appalachia and rural New Jersey just after the Civil War. By the time I grew up, in the 1950s and 1960s, the eastern places of origin were remote. Kansas surroundings seemed timeless to me, and as far as anyone could remember, we had always been there. The trails crossing alongside highways and the landmarks--rivers, buttes, and reservoirs--were permanent features. Loren Eiseley, the Nebraska-bred science writer, emphasizes the impact of these old trails in his memoir: "One of the most vivid memories I retain from my young manhood is of the wagon ruts of the Oregon trail still visible on the unplowed short-grass prairie" (24). When my siblings and I watched Gunsmoke and other westerns on television, we saw a mythic reality as fantastic to us as urban viewers. These trails suggested a road we could step on at any time and travel either to the past or west to California.
Migration to, or "discovery" of, new territory is an especially American trope. It parallels the trajectory from the Garden of Eden to arrival at the New City of Jerusalem. In the North American paradigm, the West is the final Promised Land. Migration to the Frontier, or Frontera to use Gloria Anzaldua's term, resonates throughout popular culture. Pioneer treks to new homelands still persist in the works of contemporary story spinners, including Hollywood script writers who re-work myths in The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven, Ride with the Devil, Open Range, and Alamo. Road trips, mini-versions of migrations, abound in Great Plains literature, as devices to set plot in motion, so narrative movement parallels geographic paths. Perhaps one reason for persistence of the cowboy story simply is the facility with which it advances an Aristotelian structure of clear beginning, middle, and conclusion.
In the frontier mythos, whether old-style John Ford movies or Clint Eastwood revisions, the Old Country, as my own parents still called Europe, is left behind for the promise of hope-filled change. Migration from familiar to new landscape also suggests the lure of the Other, the unknown. Exotic flora and fauna embellish the romantic expectations of "explorers" like Lewis and Clark and the mountain men. Such narratives are a variation of travelogue, a venerable type of literature since Odysseus ventured beyond Ithaca. But Odysseus returned home, while migration stories are one-way trips. They typify ingress into American homelands, for both Indigenous and European peoples.
But now, seven generations after the journey to the Wild West, Conestoga wagons are curios in antique stores. "Ever after" has become the present, the new site for literature. Stories to commemorate definitive migration journeys appear generations after settlement in a new place. In hindsight, then, the route of the ancestors was a culture-defining, unique migration. What happens next is identification of landmarks and their textual elaborations through descriptions and stories. Only after arrival, and after time inhabiting the final destination, can the significance of a migration be put into a chronology. The sketchy traveler's itinerary becomes a deep mapping of culture and geography. Landmarks accumulate a density of meaning, as the frontier becomes a cultivated landscape. Both migration and landmark narratives are characteristic of writers of the American West, including authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Michael L. Johnson, Diane Glancy, Robert Day, William Stafford, Harley Elliott, Steven Hind, and Linda Hasselstrom; these are my own concerns as a poet, as well.
At the end of Huckleberry Finn, the hero lit out for the "territories"--or the "frontier"--occupied already by Indigenous peoples. When Huck completed his individual migration, he must have found that Indigenous peoples also had journey narratives. If he landed in New Mexico, he would find complex Pueblo accounts of travels through several other worlds before reaching this one. …