“There are strange things done
in the midnight sun
by the men who moil for gold…”
The Old West. Oh, how easy it is to romanticize the Old West! Robert Service, the poet who has been dubbed the Bard of the Yukon, tried to romanticize—and, yes, humorize—the old west but was universally ridiculed for his efforts.
I read recently where someone said, “Man cannot live without a song.” I think that this is probably true. I also think that man cannot live without Romance.
In writing about turn of the century Colorado, I find myself battling the temptation to romanticize that dream at every turn. Songs have been sung about the West, stories written about it, movies with bigger than life actors enacting it.
Let’s face it—the Old West is pretty darn cool.
It has a poetry all its own.
The clang of iron, the hammering of nail into rough-sawn boards, the clop and slop of horses through pastern-high mud. Long rows of drafty tents through towns with names like Tin Cup and St. Elmo and Gothic.
I’m spending the month of November writing a novel about the mining days in Colorado. The setting of time and place have a mystique and a lure that captures my imagination—I’m sure as it must have captured the imaginations of adventurers in the late nineteenth century.
I do not for a moment profess that the writing I am or will accomplish this month will be a finished product. I’m just saying that I will get a lot of writing down on paper. That is the goal. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is all about putting words to paper. 50,000 words, to be exact. Getting the words down. Editing later. Just write. That is the aim. That is what I hope to accomplish.
E. L. Doctorow said that, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I plan to make that journey with whatever pathway the headlights illluminate for me. But resisting the romance of it all is my challenge.
I’m enamored with characters like Cannibal Will and Salt Lick McGee. Or some of the more colorful sportin’ gals with names like China Sally or Wishbone Jane.
There is a lyricism to this place and time…Men squatting along stream beds, high hopes coursing through their veins. Panning—for gold and for a future. Washing dust, a dust that could leave them penniless or offer up a fortune.
Oh yes, it is easy to find the Romance in it all. I’m literally humming a tune as I write.
But eventually before you get too carried away with poetry and song, you slap yourself back to reality and think of the winters of sub-zero temperatures, of drafty tents or of leaking cabins, of eating nothing for months at a time but beans, of using gunpowder as a substitute for coffee, of men cradling whiskey bottles in their arms in place of a woman, of the menace of frightened and resentful Indians attacking without warning, of thirteen-year-old kids who earned the right to carry dynamite into the bowels of the mountains. Of lost limbs. Of lost lives. Of lost dreams.
Of lost Romance.
When you realize that the men who worked these mines, who placed all of their hopes and dreams on this new world hailed from far off exotic locales like Slovenia and Croatia…
Well, somehow, the romance begins to fade.
They came by the thousands, these immigrants. They came in search of something better than what they had at home.
I’ve been to Slovenia and Croatia, and I can’t for the life of me understand how someone could choose to leave either of those paradisiacal environments.
—well, why on Earth would anyone want to leave that!
But I guess “back then” there was an economic and perhaps political incentive for young men to leave home and travel across an angry ocean to a new world and venture into high mountain camps that offered riches and a future they couldn’t find “back there.” They came, I’m sure, with dreams of gold and silver and a life richer than the ones they had known.
What they found instead was bitter cold and snow and fifteen hour days burrowing deep into mountain caves or working long toms and sluices until their hands bled and festered.
But there were others besides placer miners, too. There were freighters and missionaries and rail engineers and cowboys. There were saloon keepers and painted women and gamblers and gunslingers. There were bankers and cooks and lawyers and innkeepers. There were people like you and like me looking for money, for adventure, for a purpose, for a fresh start.
The miners who came to the mining camps from the States and from abroad were not the only ones to sacrifice. Bands of Ute Indians had hunted and fished and raised their young and worshiped their gods in Colorado Territory long before European explorers discovered our shores. In the early 1880s, the US government “removed” the Indians from their mountain homelands to the deserts of Utah.
In what could be referred to as irony or, perhaps, as sweet revenge, the Ute Indian reservation of Utah comprised a huge gas field that has brought its own financial bonanza to the people who unwillingly gave up their land for those who moiled for gold.
We often forget the sacrifices that have been made in search of riches from a land built on natural resources. We take the bounty for granted. Even today…
The quest goes on.
The challenge, it seems, lies in a delicate balancing act between that of conquest and desecration and that of consideration and responsibility.
Ah, but it’s easy to search for and find romance in the adventures and explorations, the battles and the thrills of man’s ever-reaching grasp for something better. Something more.
It provokes that fire in the belly. That thrill in the quest. That intoxication in the reach.
Man cannot live without a song. Or, I attest, without Romance.
The Arctic Trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of lake Lebarge.
I cremated Sam McGee.
I hear the poetry. I hear the notes. I hear a poet laureate putting quests and reaches into words. I hear dreams put to music.
Laying down history in a song. Invoking Romance.