Much as I love my job, it can–as can any job dealing with the past, I suppose–get a bit morbid. I don’t mean so much the digital scans of grotesque medical texts from the 1700s, which while morbid tend to be more nauseating than emotionally upsetting. I mean the exposure to people of the past, and their way of looking at things, that is so very much extinct, especially when the things they looked at are nigh on extinct too.
In 1890, at the 23rd annual meeting of the Michigan Press Association, the collected editors of the various Michigan newspapers that made up that organization made a journey from Saginaw to Yellowstone National Park, complete with pictures and narrative. There would be no point to this kind of trip today (if newspapers still functioned in a lucrative fashion, even,) and I don’t know how they rationalized the trip in the first place. But their story was
“Of Saginaw’s Princely Hospitality on July 16th, 17th and 18th, followed by an Excursion to Cheboygan, Sault Ste. Marie, Iron Mountain, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Yellowstone National Park, Helena, Butte, Boise City, Ogden, Salt Lake City, Denver, Manitou, Kearney and Omaha, ending at Chicago August 15th, 1890.”
The Michigan section I understood as relevant to their cause: what better way to introduce and therefore partly unite the constituents of their state, after all, than by exposing them to the wonders of counties they had not yet crossed. (And which, frankly, they were unlikely to, toiling as they were in the fields and forests.) Maybe something of the same mindset informed the broader scope of their trip–maybe by showing people the Badlands and Yellowstone et. al., they hoped to instill in their readers a sense of national unity they found lacking. Their faith in the incorrigible goodness of this project makes me sad, but that’s not the whole of it. Consider the passion with which A.C. Glidden of Paw Paw wrote about the Badlands:
“For two hours we rode through this hoodoo valley–the strangest contortion of strata, which appears to be piled one one another in a delirium of chance. Cones and buttes and caverned hills in colored costumes compel the road to execute a curved dance around their bases. Hooded gnomes and giant elves are figured in colored dress and in various shapes…The soil seems to dissolve into a solution and run down stream, to discolor the waters until they are discharged into the sea. Here is a small area left, belated as it were, from the formation period of the continent. The elevated plains are being washed into the lower valleys. Nature, which is not limited for time, when it takes a contract for doing a piece of work, will eventually level off these standing columns, mix their solvents and enrich some lower level with the solution, to become fertile plains for a future race.”
From the Badlands they make their way to Livingston, MT, via the Northern Pacific RR, and “after a refreshing bath and a change of clothing, a not unimportant part of which is a comfortable flannel shirt,” enter the park via the Gardiner entrance, “on a branch of the Northern Pacific that runs southward in the midst of the Rockies a distance of fifty-one miles from the city of Livingston to the city of Cinnabar.” Robert Smith, ex-editor of the Ithaca Journal and then-present State Printer in Lansing, was mesmerized by this leg of the trip:
“The route winds along the valley of the Yellowstone river, which, being above its junction with the muddy Big Horn, is very beautiful. The road runs sometimes within a few feet of the stream, sometimes leaves it for a climb up high trellis works or tears suddenly through some dark mountain tunnel. Now we pass through the lower canyon with its beautiful valley thirty miles in length and ten miles in width, dotted here and there with ranches, herds of cattle and miner’s huts.”
The Association stays at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, the journey to which wooed F. Weller of the Muskegon Monitor into abandoning ship:
“The sun poured down upon us fellows perched on top [of the coach] so fiercely that we were glad to raise our umbrellas, though they reduced the limit of our vision, shutting out all but a small portion of the grand view. Somewhere, about two-thirds of the way, at the foot of a picturesque clift of jagged rocks on the left and standing well out to the front of them in bold relief, a needle shaped peak of rock rose to the height of some eighty feet, with the cliffs towering back above it. Upon the top of this peak an enterprising eagle had built her nest, and looking calmly down upon us from their airy house as we passed along say three young eaglets. This was to much for one of our stalwart enthusiasts, who grasped his Kodak, and quietly stole down from his perch above, and was seen no more, till three hours later those on the hotel front saw a dusty figure, with Kodak strung over his back, slowly approaching.”
These were all, from their pictures (which accompanied every leg of the journey) fairly seasoned writers. But the guy from Rockford had to have been younger even than me:
One isn’t surprised, then, when he writes of entering Pocatello by way of Dillon, MT and Beaver Creek, and of how (it is implied) he was the only one awake to try and see the city in the pitch-black. Think of this guy. He pens sentences like “This stretch of country is what was marked upon all the maps only a few years ago as ‘The Great American Desert,’ which will be familiarly recalled by many of our readers,” yet only a few years ago, this guy was probably dipping girls’ pigtails in inkpots. Given that the Rockford Register (renamed the Rockford Squire, so as not to conflict with the principle newspaper of Rockford, IL) was only founded in 1871, Mr. Cowdin is writing for a paper and a town roughly the same age as he is. Everything is so damn new to him, and to his readership. Canyons, mountains, red-streaked buttes…these people back home know none of this, and he gets to be the one to go out and explore and come back and tell them. This must have been the greatest thing that had yet happened to him in life.
Why, then, is any of this sad? Faced with such jubilant exploratory spirit, such an enthusiastic reception of new people and places and knowledge, how could anyone find this morbid? For three reasons:
1.) Most Americans, either in Michigan or elsewhere, are entirely unacquainted with these places, and don’t care to be.
2.) Most of the infrastructure that enabled this journey is gone.
3.) The kind of enthusiasm expressed in the collected writings of the Michigan editors is no longer kosher nor, often, possible.
People don’t go out West anymore. For some, it’s economically infeasible. For others, the nightmare of having to spend that long in close confines with one’s family members scares them out of even considering it. Whatever the reason, I’ve met more people from Japan who had seen the Rockies than I have Michiganders who have done so. For me even to express regret about this is not advisable, certainly not among the academic circles I frequent, because fondness for a[n American] place or a desire that other people go and experience and become fond of a place implies pride, that most perniciously anti-postmodern sentiment. And for all every other person’s paeans to the end of postmodernism, I have yet to meet the professor who can separate a place from its politics, or pride from imperialism.
I love that I stumbled onto this Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the Michigan Press Association. I love that the Union Pacific granted them, free of charge, the use of two Pullman cars—the “Rugby” and the “Novalis”–for the trip. I love that so many different people got to attend–consider for example the only female member of the group, below, whom The Literary Century describes as “small and slender, quick in movement, decisive in manner, with dark eyes and hair illuminating features attractive for their strength and precision. She is one of those women who can transact business with few words, and herein lies the secret of her success.” Native to Brooklyn, a small Michigan town west of Ann Arbor, she took over the local paper after her husband, who started it, died, and she proceeded to single-handedly run it (while raising three children) until her death.
What I do not love is that trips like this, and the people who took and would like to take them, are so few and far between. Or that I must temper my enthusiasm for the land and their words about it with the dour knowledge of the contemporary state of affairs. Mostly, though, I mourn that this whole affair has been long since forgotten, and that the dusty figure of the Muskegon Monitor editor returning grinning with photographs of eagles, or the giddiness of the young editor from Rockford hanging out of the Pullman car, straining to see a city in the night, are little more than a few blips of code in a digital library.
Quotes in this post reprinted from the Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the Michigan State Press Association, which is in the public domain. You can access it at http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000059063