google-site-verification: googlee20fcd946adc59a7.html Out of the Past: June 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Backtracking on the Oregon Trail

More than 160 years have passed since the first of some 300,000 emigrants started a massive migration across the heartland of North America to the continent's Pacific shores. Beginning in Independence, Missouri, and ending in Oregon City, Oregon, the "Oregon Trail" stretched for 2,000 miles across six states.

Tracks from this passage are still embedded in the Snake River Plain not far from here. I've walked in them several times, pressing my feet where wagon wheels and oxen and well-worn boots once tread, and it continues to astonish me that so many people would give up their homes back East and travel so far with so little assurance of a better life at the far end of their seven-month journey.

This was no pleasure cruise, nor a mere "Adventure in Moving," as U-Haul used to advertise its rental vans and trailers. The folks who followed the Oregon Trail met violent winds, quicksand, floods, buffalo stampedes, disease and Indian attacks. Nearly 10 percent, or roughly 30,000 of them, lost their lives on the trail. Of those that survived,
many suffered the loss of livestock, personal fortunes and prized belongings.

What's also hard to fathom is the fact that precious little of the land that the survivors laid claim to at the end of their arduous journeys remains with their ancestors today.

Truth is, a great number of those who followed the Oregon Trail to Oregon did not stay. Promoters failed to mention the rain and swindlers and privations associated with homesteading. Some folks moved on to California. Others returned to the homes they left behind, throwing themselves at the mercy of their relatives and friends.

"Settlers" is an inaccurate description of most who made these journeys; "unsettled" is a fairer adjective and "backtrackers" is what others on the trail called them. Some used the trail three or four times, following their dreams back and forth, back and forth.

Backtracking is so common among Americans, in fact, that it's almost a cultural trait. Nearly a third of us will change residences in the next two years and many others will feel they should have. In every move, there's one overriding reason like a better job or bad neighbors or a longing to return to someplace familiar or a pining for someplace new.

We get tired of the old haunts, but once we've moved we miss them. We run from the provincialism of rural life only to be repulsed later by what we find in the city or suburb.

Like young Huck Finn, we fear being "sivilized" by Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally and are determined to "light out for the Territory" if anyone starts making demands.

This is the urge that blazed the Oregon Trail, I believe. It prompted a goodly portion of 19th century Americans to leave their farms and friends and families for an uncertain future in the Territory. By its energy a continent was populated. Because of its endurance our souls remain unsettled.

Copyright © 2010. All rights reserved by Michael Hofferber

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Outgoing: Idaho Ghost Towns and Mining Camps

A quest for gold and silver inspired ambitious men and fearless women of more than a century ago to build the first towns in the high country of Idaho.

Many of these communities, barely more than encampments, sprouted overnight. Some thrived and died within a season, like the wildflowers that color alpine meadows in mid-summer. Others set the foundations for present-day Ketchum, Mackay, Hailey and Bellevue.

Of those that died, just a few shards of speculative zeal remain among the tumbled-down cabins and mine shafts. These include:

Sawtooth City
Vienna City
Boulder City

Copyright © 1993. All rights reserved by Michael Hofferber

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Acts of God

Terrible things happen. Chinese students slaughtered in Tianenman Square. Hurricane Katrina floods New Orlean. Oil spill washes ashore on the Gulf Coast. I know it's morbid to watch, to listen, to read reports of these things, but I do so anyway; we all do. Disasters fascinate.

In our vacuum-packed, industrialized, fragmented microchip society true surprise and awe is rare. Most days are calm. Perhaps there's an undercurrent of worry over money, the car, the kids, but these are the stresses of everyday life, not disasters. A disaster usually comes on sudden and unexpected. It is a calamitous, and often violent, diversion from an established course. It interrupts, destroys, redirects.

Disasters are not all the same, however. There are those that are natural, or "acts of God," and there are those events caused by the mistakes or misjudgments of man. It makes a difference which you get, both in how we view the event and in how we deal with the consequences. That's what psychologists claim.

Acts of God are easiest to excuse. God doesn't make mistakes, right? An earthquake is part of a natural mountain-building, continent-shaping process. Forest fires prepare the land for new growth. Hurricanes help cool the Earth's surface temperature.

With man-made disasters, though, it's much harder to find the benefit. Who profited from Exxon's spill in Prince William Sound or the BP catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico? How does a plane crash contribute to life? What did Chernobyl do for this planet?

I am drawn to the scene of natural disasters. I do not chase ambulances and feel little curiosity about the causes of car crashes and plane wrecks, but I'll travel far to see the effects of a volcano or to witness great storms. I want to see those places where the acts of God are recorded in the Earth like books of the Bible. I want to stand where the primal forces made themselves manifest. I want to remember supernatural power.

Mount St. Helens. Crater Lake. Yellowstone. Krakatoa. The Palouse. Meteor Crater. The dinosaur fossil beds of Utah and Montana and Colorado. These were the settings for awesome events, both wonderful and terrifying. They are like shrines to the forces that shaped this planet, that gave life to its continents and breath to its creatures. Here God performed.

Standing in the shadow of Mount Shasta, where the largest known volcanic debris avalanche swept through a dozen river valleys and out to sea, I am again amazed that the "seven wonders of the world" included not one natural feature.

The Alexandrine sight-seers were all agog over the temple of Artemis and the walls of Babylon. Why not Mount Vesuvius or the vast Sahara?

I find more fascination in the icy peaks of Glacier National Park than the pyramids of Egypt. How can a statute of Zeus compare with the Columbia River Gorge? The Colossus at Rhodes was no match for Old Faithful.

Perhaps in a world dominated by acts of God, when tempests arrived without warning and mysterious plagues beset innocent peoples, it must have been some comfort to see what wonders the hands of man could wrest from the jaws of nature.

How peculiar, then, that after a little more than two millennia the acts of man should be so prominent on this Earth, capable of diverting floods and preventing fires and splitting atoms. In a world of satellites and freeways and nuclear power plants it is now the acts of God that are some comfort, a proof that there are still powers beyond those of man.

Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved by Michael Hofferber

Artwork: Mount Shasta 3 by John K. Nakata

Thursday, June 10, 2010

In Deep Trouble, Once Again

As noted on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, see video below, there are strong parallels between the 1979 Ixtoc Gulf Oil Spill and the BP Oil Spill of 2010.

Both involved the failure of a blowout preventer device, and in both cases metal domes put over the well failed to stop the leaks.

In both cases, the only way to stop the spill is with relief wells dug horizontally through the seafloor, a process that takes months.

The BP Oil Spill is not something new. This has happened at least twice before, at Santa Barbara and in the Gulf of Mexico, and the remedies are no more sophisticated or effective as they were 30 and 40 years ago.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

1969 ~ Santa Barbara Oil Spill

On January 28, workers on Union Oil's Platform A in the Dos Cuadras Offshore Oil Field off the coast of Southern California were pulling a drilling tube out of one of the wells to replace a drill bit when disaster struck.

The pressure differential created by removing the tube was not adequately compensated for by pumping mud back down into the 3,500-ft-deep well, causing a drastic buildup of pressure and, quickly thereafter, a blowout. Natural gas, oil, and mud shot up the well and into the ocean. The pressure also caused breaks in the ocean floor surrounding the well, from which more gas and oil escaped.

The blowout caused an oil spill that lasted 10 days and gushed 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the channel and onto the beaches of Santa Barbara County.

The spill fouled the Southern California coastlinbe from Goleta to the Rincon and all four of the northern Channel Islands. Upwards of 10,000 birds as well as fish, sea lions, and other marine life were killed in the ecological disaster.

Many have viewed the disaster as a key event in the emergence of the modern environmental movement.

"The blowout was the spark that brought the environmental issue to the nation's attention," said Arent Schuyler, an environmental studies lecturer at the University of California at Santa Barbara in a 1989 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

"People could see very vividly that their communities could bear the brunt of industrial accidents. They began forming environmental groups to protect their communities and started fighting for legislation to protect the environment."

Copyright © 2010. All rights reserved by Michael Hofferber
Dead Bluebill Duck, Lying on Its Side, Eyes Open, in an Oil Spill from Greek Tanker Delian Apollon Photograph by George Silk