Two Aspects of Western Landscape: Migration Trail and Landmarks

By Low, Denise | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Two Aspects of Western Landscape: Migration Trail and Landmarks
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.