This morning I finished reading The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck. In 2007 he bought a Conestoga wagon and a pair of mules in Kansas and he and his brother followed the ruts of the Oregon Trail from St Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon. A four month trek of 2,100 miles.
I hadn’t realized that the Oregon Trail had been so crowded in the 19th century. One pioneer reported that on a day in June of 1849, 3,000 wagons were wobbling across the plains. In total, between 1845 and 1869, 500,000 settlers crossed North America; about half reached the Willamette Valley in Oregon. A woman would ride in the wagon, on a horse, or walk, deliver a baby one day and two days later, she and her family rejoined the unceasing procession west. Dust churned up and drifted to the horizon. With little protection from the sun, everyone’s faces and wrists toughened and turned buffalo brown.
To lighten the wagons, possessions were cast out along the wayside or left behind at a campsite. The trail became a shopper’s paradise; enterprising entrepreneurs gathered up the discarded furnishings and hastily set up stores stocked with flour, salt, coffee, lard, and what they had found.
As I read about the gritty men, women, and children who were willing to endure the heat, insects, dust, incessant wind, the uncertainties of moving west, I remembered another book, Trains and Lovers, in which Alexander MacCall Smith’s protagonist “began to understand what it was that held this new society (Australia) together. He appreciated the rough equality, the resolute cheerfulness, the attitude of dogged acceptance of the harshness of nature, of dust, of flies, of drought. (He thought) Scotland was soft and feminine; all greenery and diffused light. Australia was stark, the sun chiseling out hard contrasts of light and shade. Scotland was forgiving; Australia was uncompromising and yet everywhere here was a sense of being untrammeled, unconstrained. Nobody would tell you what to do in Australia. Nobody was better than the next man. Or so the official version went.”
What is the search for place, the exploring that urges us on? Is it that we are looking for place or self? Maybe place and self share a curious, compelling unity. Perhaps going out toward places unknown to us reconciles our sense of impermanency and the mysterious continuity we share and make and are, with all human life.
In a quiet way, we who have come to live at the senior residence of Friends House, have, like all pioneers, uprooted ourselves, discarded our possessions along the way, and have endeavored to find our selves in this place new to us. A few who have come here to live exclusively among the elderly have become depressed, even physically ill. They lose their appetite, can’t sleep, become fragile, and may be hospitalized for a while.
Not many. Yesterday I met a prospective resident who was touring Friends House and I asked her what she thought of the place. “I feel I’ve discovered a village,” she smiled.
“Perfect!” I said. “Apply! Move in! I had the same feeling when I first visited. You’ve found your community!”