Patience and Terror: An Oregon Trail Documentary

Imagine the walk west, each hand grown
heavy with what you can’t bear
to leave. What’s so important
you clench in fistfuls for two
thousand miles? Tools, first. Axe
and hammer heads. Augers. Pliers to twist,
to draw molars. Nails sifted from fire-
place ash. The slate of black family
Bible. Practical godliness thumbed each brace
strap that harnessed life
to wagon trails. Pens and ink

rode almost free.
The women’s diaries renamed trails
haunted by rotting animals and raw
excrement. They named what men ignored, or dared
not think. Dysentery, open graves, alkaline water,
wormy flour. Many men seemed lost
from the start, dazed by “gigantic and enormous
masses, a savage sublimity of naked
rock.” But women also proved vulnerable: “Disorder
surrounds us with a night picture of very wild
beauty.” Photos show the men’s

strain. Their eyes drag back with great effort
what they noticed drifting into heat
and distance. “A melancholy strange-looking country—
one of fracture, violence, and fire.” Add the mischief
of blown sand to everyday hazard,
or clouds burst with less warning than Indian
arrival. Only Cap’t Fremont’s indispensable
narrative remained unfazed: “The pleasure of breathing
mountain air makes a constant theme of the hunter’s praise
as if we had been drinking
exhilarating gas.” An ox team might walk

ten miles all day, that far on
bent shoulders. Were there fewer trees
than doctors? Compare bones to wheels,
axles, wagon tongues. Which broke louder
on ears honed to what mattered
most? “Our setbacks render the company
silent.” Soon other words appeared: “Full of ill-
will and little patience.” Or:
“I walked off from the main party
and waited for the return of my
patience.” Women did not walk

until their naiveté joined spinets
and virginals—failed furniture stacked
to daydream beside the trail. After childbirth
mothers learned to wander for moss
and prairie grass swaddling, for heirloom
shreds of meadowlark nest, guided by the quiet
animals of their enormous patience. “A stillness most
profound, and a terrible solitude” filled scenes
which children—their daughters and sons—
received as the new world’s breath-
taking promise. Indians grew

from tall grass shadows at the speed
of gooseflesh. Black Night. Bad Bull’s Tail—names
whose “wildness suited the character of people
who inhabit this country.” We long to learn how
Indian camps smelled, how each day
women felt their lives lose more
trace of home. The recognition each eye held
the day a savage caught her
glance. Tight-knuckled thought that wrenched
her breath, her inkling that this spot—here—
becomes home. Did she miss the balm

of Ohio lilac blossoms? Could she recall
their smell? Or the luxury of shaded
porches, the slow enchantment of picnic
afternoons? Could wagons—prairie camels!—help
with their tricks of hiding wheels to float
across streams, or sails spread to wander waves of grass
as prairie schooners? Once she gathered time
to think—her arms less numb from infant demands—
how did she bear her thought, grown almost
as full of wonder
as terror?

Quotations from Brevet Captain J.C. Fremont’s Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44 (known as the Homesteader’s Indispensable Guide), and from Lillian Schlissel’s Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, 1982).

—David Steingass, Madison, WI