Bonus Post: Rivers and Oceans

An ocean of land

It’s too hot to wander around downtown Sidney today. Besides, I think I’ve seen everything I need to see. So I thought I’d catch up on a couple of things I had wanted to post about earlier. If I’ve posted some or all of these thoughtsalready, please forgive me. I’m trying to keep it all straight, but you know . . . 

Missouri: Wyndham Hill Muzak

Way back in St. Joe (remember St. Joe, where this all started?) I visited the Patee House Museum. As I may have mentioned, the hotel was the original eastern terminus of the Pony Express. Now it is three stories of artifacts from every stage of St. Joe’s history.

The point I want to preserve here though is the music. At some point I became aware of music filtering down from overhead and started to pay attention to it. And I realized the pieces were Americana songbook done on solo piano in the style of New Age music put out by Windham Hill. Songs like “Dixie,” and “Swannee River,” and “Oh, Susannah,” played as if by George Winston. Who does that? It was very weird.

Kansas: Creeks

You may remember my surprise and consternation at having to cross so many creeks in Kansas with their attendant steep climbs. In the back of my mind I kept seeing an Irene Paden quote. I finally found it, so I thought I’d pass it along:

To the chronically thirsty emigrant the most important landmarks were the creeks. Hills and dusty plains, they took in their daily march and forgot if they could. But a creek was a different matter whose delights were only partly counterbalanced by the tragic fact that the barrel containing the luster tea had got loose during the crossing and heaven only knew how much was broken, and that the wall-eyed mule had stepped into the Dutch oven with disastrous results to everything concerned. Indeed fatal accidents often occurred from less contributing causes than that, and very frequently they happened at the crossings. No—they never forgot the creeks.

Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner, p. 29

I’ve come across a few references to deaths at the creeks by accident and drownings in the bigger rivers. Nothing I really care to pass along though. But while we’re on the subject of creeks, here’s a quote by the eminent English snob Sir Richard Burton, who crossed the US by stagecoach in 1860 to stay in Salt Lake City and report on the Mormons, pretty much disparaging everything he saw along the way:

Beyond Kennekuk we crossed the first Grasshopper Creek. Creek, I must warn the English reader, is pronounced ‘crik,’ and in these lands, as in the jargon of Australia, means not ‘an arm of the sea,’ but a small stream of sweet water, a rivulet; the rivers of Europe, according to the Anglo-American of the West, are ‘criks.’ On our line there are many grasshopper creeks; they anastomose with, or debouch into, the Kansas River, and they reach the sea via the Missouri and the Mississippi.

Nebraska: Oceans of Grass
I’ve talked about the writings comparing the trackless Plains to the trackless ocean. I thought I’d add a couple of relevant quotes to that effect from the literature.

Much evidence of the immediate effects may be found in the reaction of men who came to the Plains. If we again visualize a migrating host suddenly emerging from the forests on an open and boundless plain, we are in position to understand the startled expressions of wonder which involuntarily escaped those who the first time beheld such scenes. The Anglo-American had in his experience no background to prepare him for such a far vision. His momentary surprise and wonder were what we might expect of a person fitted with powerful glasses which opened to him a new and hitherto unseen world. . . .

Such quotations could be increased to hundreds. They have these things in common: men expressed surprise, pleasure, and elation, and with one accord they compared the Plains to the sea. This comparison runs throughout the literature from Coronado on. In his Commerce of the Prairies Josiah Gregg speaks of the “grand prairie ocean,” of the caravans “making port”; he proposed a law based upon maritime law for control of the prairie caravan, and gave the wagons the name of “prairie schooners,” which they have borne ever since. Marcy described the Llano Estacado as an “ocean of desert prairie.” Van Tramp said of the prairies:

There is no describing them. They are like the ocean, in more than one particular; but in none more than in this: the utter impossibility of producing any just impression of them by description. They inspire feelings so unique, so distinct from anything else, so powerful, yet vague and indefinite, as to defy description, while they invite the attempt.”

Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains, p. 486-488

And from Bernard De Voto:

They [the Army of the West] left the high grass behind and timber with it . . . So many things were strange: jack rabbits, antelopes, and especially the buffalo, the great legend now gaped at by these rural youths, who tried to hunt it and some times succeeded. The country was unimaginable, plains on a scale they had not dreamed of diminishing one to a dot that seemed to travel on the bottom of a bowl, the vast heave of the swells that seemed like the swells of the ocean they had read about, many miles long.

And again, from Sir Richard:

Differing from the card-table surfaces of the formation in Illinois and the lands east of the Mississippi, the Western prairies are rarely flat ground. Their elevation above sea-level varies from 1000 to 2500 feet, and the plateau’s aspect impresses the eye with an exaggerated idea of elevation, there being no object of comparison mountain, hill, or sometimes even a tree to give a juster measure. Another peculiarity of the prairie is, in places, its seeming horizontality, whereas it is never level: on an open plain, apparently flat as a man’s palm, you cross a long groundswell which was not perceptible before, and on its farther incline you come upon a chasm wide and deep enough to contain a settlement. The aspect was by no means unprepossessing.

That’s all for now. Enjoy!

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    “There is no describing them. . . .” You are giving Webb et al a run for their money, Scott. Evocative and thrilling to read and compare impressions old and new. Thanks for the perspective.

  2. Anonymous

    Howdy from AG!! Gorgeous photos of the planes and prairies… Mesmerizing to read about the prairie schooner‘s so aptly named!

    AWESOME. That you gave a shout out to the Windham Hill artists… From December 1 until January 1 all I listen to is Christmas music most of it being from Windham Hill… Check out their Celtic Christmas series they rule! God bless safe travels

  3. Anonymous

    I’m caught up now. Just “marathoned” your last three posts. Most non-stop reading I’ve done in ages. Good stuff.

  4. Anonymous

    Huh. He’s a lot older than I thought.

  5. Anonymous

    I did like today’s post — great writing by you and those you quoted, even the eminent English snob. Keep writing like this and you’ll need another bottle of Woodinville Whiskey.

    1. Scott Alumbaugh

      “Need” is kind of a strong word. But I am looking forward to sampling some of Washington’s finest.

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