Mountain Neurosis

Like Narcissa and Eliza the women were casting the lines that emigrant wives were to follow – botanizing, collecting curious pebbles, gaping at the scenery, putting on their nightgowns and frantically scrubbing all their other clothes when they got a chance, growing used to buffalo chips for fuel, laboring to bake and roast and contrive variations on the staple diet. Thousands of wives to come find a voice when after a night in the rain the party reaches the Platte from the Blue and Myra Eells writes, ‘I am so strongly reminded of bygone days that I cannot refrain from weeping.’ From now on the Platte will be acquainted with women’s tears. Mary Walker put it more forcibly a month later: ‘I cried to think how comfortable father’s hogs were.’ The Pawnees, though they behaved unusually well, frightened the women and the fear of Indians, whose souls they were undertaking to save after all, was with them from then on. Everyone was exhausted all the time, the men from the management of the herd and awkwardness at prairie travel, the women mostly from sidesaddles. (Gray has sensibly recommended buckskin ‘drawers,’ which was more than Narcissa and Eliza had been favored with, but no one had courage or sense enough to tell the girls to admit their legs and fork their horses.) They were sick in rotation and in groups – colds, rheumatisms, the unspecified ‘fevers’ which medicine of the time took note of and differentiated from the ‘vapors’ which most of them were. For one must see here symptoms that would be widespread and constant as soon as the greenhorns began to come in force. There are dreads and melancholies specific to the tenderfoot in the plains and mountains, a true neurosis, usually mild but sometimes severe, and in fact a neurosis that sometimes, with the right pressure or the right inner weakness, becomes a psychosis. It is the effect on the ego of loneliness in infinite space, emptiness, barrenness, and the inescapable sun.