As I write this, it is a Tuesday in early April. I drove from Pine to Payson this morning, something I do once a week when I go shopping for groceries. All too often the drive into Payson is an unpleasant mess, requiring eyes on road, the weather, and some crazy drivers, but today the road was dry, the sun shining brightly, the morning temperature in the low 50s, and both road and drivers seemingly determined to make it a nice day.
Swelling buds decorated branch tips on trees. On either side of the road, above hills colored by new growth on juniper, cedar, pine and manzanita, a deep blue Rim Country sky swept from horizon to horizon, dotted with fair weather clouds. Ahead of me a mix of bright green shoots carpeted the soft shoulder, nodding their heads in the wake of a small white sedan that was obviously in no rush.
I came to the bridge over the East Verde at Verde Estates, the needle on my speedometer resting comfortably on 55. For once I was neither catching up with anyone, nor delaying anyone behind me. All in all, no Tuesday morning drive could have been easier or more relaxing, and I should have been looking around at the scenery and enjoying the drive.
As I crossed the bridge the oddest question was going through my mind, the result of some things I’ve been reading the past few months. “I wonder what Kit Carson would say if he were sitting over there in the passenger seat looking at the bridge?”
I know what you’re thinking — “What a nutty question!”
Yes it is — to you and me. But to the people of Kit Carson’s day and right up to the end of the 1800s, that small bridge across the East Verde, and the hundreds of thousands of other bridges spanning the streams of this vast nation, would have seemed like great blessings.
I’m willing to bet hard cash that you didn’t know that, but only because I didn’t have a clue about it myself until I started reading books I never, ever expected to read, like Henry Inman’s 1898 “Old Santa Fe Trail: Story of a Great Highway,” Charles Siringo’s 1885 “Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony,” Edmund Tuttle’s 1870 “Three Years on the Plains,” Randolph Barnes’ 1859 “Prairie Traveler,” Kit Carson’s 1858 “Life and Adventures,” Francis Parkman’s 1846, “Oregon Trail,” Washington Irving’s 1837 “Adventures of Captain Bonneville,” or the 1808 “Journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition.”
Books like that aren’t exactly found on the Popular New Reads shelf at the local library, are they? And just a few years ago they were either found nowhere at all, in some inaccessible university library, or — by a minor miracle — falling apart on a back shelf in a used book store.
But now? Not only are they easy to find; they’re free!
Here’s a link you can start with if you want to read about life as it actually was in the days of our forebears.
There are other places too. You’ll find them.
Why do I say that Kit Carson and his contemporaries would have looked with awe at the thousands upon thousands of small bridges we take for granted? Read this, taken from, “The Expedition of the Donner Party.”
“We were now in line with spring storms, which made us victims of frequent downpours and cyclonic winds. The roads were heavy, and the banks of streams so steep that often the wagons had to be lowered by aid of rope and chain. Fortunately our people were able to take these trying situations philosophically, and were ever ready to enjoy the novelties of intervening hours of calm and sunshine.”
Now be honest, Johnny, would you be “ever ready” to enjoy the “novelty” of NOT having to lower your car over the bank of a stream? Or would you be mad as hell about all the other ones?
And look at that title again. The Donner party? Though they didn’t know it, those folks were not headed for “calm and sunshine.” They were headed for the High Sierras in winter.
Here, read a bit of Fremont:
“There was the wagon up to the hub in mud, and visibly settling every instant. There was nothing for it but to unload; then to dig away the mud from before the wheels with a spade, and lay a causeway of bushes and branches. This agreeable labor accomplished, the wagon at last emerged; but if I mention that some interruption of this sort occurred at least four or five times a day for a fortnight, the reader will understand that our progress toward the Platte was not without its obstacles.”
Four or five times a day for two weeks? Are you kidding?
Tell me our forebears weren’t some hardy people.
And very fond of bridges.