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Sunday, 31 July 2011



Yesterday I started digging amongst my papers. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to doing while I’m out here is reading through the stack of journals from my western trips. I have various files, folders and notebooks dating from 1980, `91, `93, `94, 2001, `04, `05 and `06. Some of those were epic journeys, or seemed so at the time. There was the train ride from Detroit to L.A., a couple of 5000-mile road trips across the Plains and the Rockies, the bike ride across Nebraska – and the later journeys, which I’ve been thinking about this morning. They include a drive up the Hundredth Meridian from Laredo Texas to the Canadian border (and back), a four-week drive along the entire Lewis & Clark Trail from St Louis, Missouri, to Astoria on the Pacific coast (and back), and the several weeks I spent in 2006 following the veteran rodeo riders around Utah and Nevada.

The shocking thing is how little sense some of my notes make. There are passages I am having trouble actually reading. Some of them, I know, were written in the dark, or by a camp-fire, or on the road, many of them scribbled hurriedly while someone was talking to me. But there are also many passages which, even when I’ve deciphered the scrawl, seem to describe people or places, incidents or events of which I have no recollection. They make no sense. I’ll try to dig out some of those later on.

Still, there are some great stories, and a few hidden gems. I wish, for example, I’d spotted my note from the Museum of the Rockies, somewhere up in Montana, a little earlier. This was in 2005, when I was selling a number of travel pieces to American Cowboy. Like most of life’s lucky breaks it came about out of the blue. I was at home, scratching around for paying propositions. I’d just spent a five-month winter season working in the sugar-beet factory, and had followed that up with a four-month stint researching and writing the history of a businessmen’s club of some kind. And then I got an email from this travel editor up in Sheridan, Wyoming. She’d come across me on the Net and thought I might be just the kind of contributor they were looking for.

Yes, the gem… in the Museum of the Rockies. They had a temporary exhibit called Hope in Hard Times, about the work of the various Federal agencies during the New Deal period, and how it affected Montana’s ranchers and farmers. The Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River was just one of the government programs that brought relief – and work – to a region hard hit by economic depression and a devastating drought.

It was quite an exhibit. There were some  terrific photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, and written records of the hardships faced on the land, including a telegram sent by the Governor to Washington some time in the mid-1930s:

“THIS IS THE WORST CATASTROPHE THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED IN THIS PART OF MONTANA…. DROUGHT AND GRASSHOPPERS AND HEAT HAVE ELIMINATED ALL POSSIBILITY OF AGRICULTURAL INCOME HERE THIS YEAR, PEOPLE FACING ABSOLUTE DESTITUTION STOP.”

In among the exhibits was a photograph of a grasshopper trap. It was really quite simple, consisting of a metal barrier a foot high which ran along the bottom of  a fence forming a barrier to the insects’ progress. There was a picture of them piled up, many inches deep, ready to be sprayed with poison. I wish I’d come across this entry earlier. I might have run a little experiment down here.

I shall carry on with the journals. I have only skimmed through them so far. The parts that most interest me just now are the extensive interviews with representatives of Native peoples we met along the Lewis and Clark Trail in 2004. I made this trip with an old school-friend who lives in Ohio. We recorded conversations with leaders from a whole roster of tribes: the Ponca, the Lakota, the Mandan-Hidatsa, the Nez Perce, the Chinook, and got some provocative views on the meaning of the Lewis & Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase. In some ways these are no longer topical – the bicentennial is long past – but in other ways they are as relevant as ever.

So yesterday was quite a reflective day. It was also hot, getting up to 94 degrees, although late in the afternoon it looked very much as though a storm was brewing. It was, but it tracked eastwards of here.



I spent the better part of an hour up on the hill watching the clouds build, fade, build again and pass right on by. At one point I could even smell the rain. It was quite tantalising, but at least I had a strong wind to cool me. That was what kept me up there so long.



After I’d given up and come back down, a second cloud appeared, away to the south and east, but it didn’t amount to anything – not as far as this piece of real estate was concerned.



Well, it’s eight-thirty, and while I’ve been writing this the temperature has risen 15 degrees, to 80.4. It’s going to be another hot one.