Clover Creek, Idaho (riding the Oregon Trail)

We passed through Idaho on our travels down South to Salt Lake City. Our guide made a joke about most people never having visited this state and only knowing it as the country’s foremost producer of potatoes. This seems a little unfair to “The Gemstone State”, known to geologist for its fabulous star garnets, opals and agates and renowned for the beauty of its landscape up near the border with Canada. All the same, the Oregon Trail exhibit in Montpelier and the pioneer museum in the little town of Lava exhibited the sincerity that had been so sorely lacking in Jackson.

The volunteer staff at Montpellier (formerly known as Clover Creek) were dressed in homemade settler costumes and took us through a re-enactment of the great Westwards expansion. We learned about the ox-drawn wagons (not horses as so often shown in the movies), the detailed inventory of supplies which represented such a huge investment that people had to sell everything that they owned and the one-in-six death toll. Jimmy Stewart may be seen in countless films sitting atop his wagon with the reins in his hands but oxen have to lead and not driven and the real pioneers all walked. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century hundreds of thousands of people made a journey of more than two thousand miles to stake their claim to cheap land and a better life. How long did it take? Well, they set off in the Spring and if they didn’t make it before Winter – then they died.

One of the volunteers was a retired police chief and, as we chatted over the free coffee and cookies so thoughtfully offered to help us recover from our exhausting experience, we discussed the latest ambush shooting of police officers in Louisiana. Tensions between black people and police are escalating throughout the country, problems which originate in areas where relations have been poor for a long time such as South Side Chicago are spreading to other communities through the rapid use of social media and my companion was of the opinion that it wouldn’t take much more for the majority of police officers to “down guns” and walk off the job.

There are, without a doubt, some horrible abuses of authority going on in this country and a collective failure to take responsibility for the need to drastically change tactics but all is not necessarily as one sided as it seems on You Tube. I remember noticing last year that when two New York police officers were gunned down in a revenge attack for the death of a black man, one of the officers was Hispanic and the other the son of Chinese immigrants. Yes, I’m old and so was my interlocutor, maybe it’s true that we cannot possibly understand the tensions of today’s society but a bit more communication and a lot less guns must be a good place to start.

Before leaving Idaho we visited the little town of Lava Hot Springs, a local holiday destination famed for – yes you’ve guessed it. A cavernous old trading post has failed to keep up with the scented candle and salted chocolate trends in modern souvenirs and instead is stocked with such delightful pieces of Americana as dried rattlesnake heads, old snow shoes and cigar store Indians. The faded photographs and family memorabilia in the local museum turned those pioneer stories into real people. Of all the exhibits I was most taken with the simple patterned cotton shirtwaist; a loose dress with a half belt which could be fastened at the back during pregnancy and at the front during nursing. These women settlers took no rest from the endless cycle of child birth and farm work and their fortitude could not be more eloquently expressed than by this sad little homemade garment which they had to keep on washing  and wearing until it fell about them in rags.

Categories: North America

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