Monday, February 18, 2013
Cannibalism and the California Spirit
California has always held a place of goodwill in my heart. My mother was born there, my grandparents were born there, and my great grandparents were born there. California was the home of the family ranch where I could eat home grown pomegranates, figs, almonds, and grapes. Sometime in the mid 1800s, my grandpa's grandparents bought a wagon and ditched Ohio for California. They never looked back, and probably thanked their lucky stars every morning, noon and night to be out of the land of migraines and allergies. My grandma's family moved there after the Great War from Canada. They tried Florida first but found it lacking. I don't much wonder why. But California proved to be all they had dreamt of. I am also a descendant of some very strong Swedish woman who came over the Oregon Trail with a wagon and a butter churn and lived to tell the tale. To be descended from Californians really meant something to us. It meant that you were a free spirit, with a long line of free spirits before you who left their families, friends, and everything they knew to strike out for a land that they had never seen before.
With such a family history it is little wonder that my sister and I were obsessed with the computer game. We were old pros at choosing the right professions and wagon sizes for our virtual wagon parties, and we took it as a personal affront if our little people didn't all get to the land of gold and sourdough safely. Unless, of course, it was close to dinner time. Then the object of the game was to kill everyone off and end the ill-fated journey as quickly as possible, because most of the fun of the game is the first part where you load up the wagon. My mom, capitalizing on our sudden historical mania, decided to make it even more educational by having us watch the classic made-for-TV movie The Donner Party, starring everyone's favorite TV mother Meredith Baxter. It was fascinating, even if they did eat each other in the snow. (I think this is when my love for arcane television movies that no one has ever heard of began. And it set me up for an obsession with true stories where people die in sea tragedies, of lead poisoning in the Arctic, or by the hands of cannibals.) Unfortunately watching this disturbing movie at age 7 made me rethink my love for the Oregon Trail, and in my research for alternate methods I came across Cape Horn.
Sailing around the Cape wasn't quite as popular as the Oregon Trail, and so people don't remember this little bit of history quite so vividly. It was every bit as dangerous and dramatic as the Oregon Trail because the Cape was a treacherous place where many ships went down to Davy Jones's Locker. This is probably part of the reason why they didn't make a computer game out of it. For most of the voyage you'd be concerned about the Cape and after you survived that it was just a quick zoom up the coast of South America to San Francisco. While you had a good chance of dying like many before you on the voyage, I feel that at least if you were smashed up on the rocks it would be less frightening than being scalped. Unless you were unfortunate enough to be placed in a lifeboat and then floated out to sea where it was your turn to be eaten, though my chances would have been less due to the 19th century sense of chivalry (the primary concern for women in this situation would be the psychological damage). Despite those real risks, there is still a certain romance in shipwrecks, and because I can't swim anyway I feel as if it would have been over much quicker and then I could have become the stuff of family legend.
Growing up with this great regard for the travails my ancestors experienced, you can imagine my disappointment when I found out it is a thing of the past for most. I first noticed this when I dated a Californian. He called me once to report that they had had three inches of snow and the trees were falling down from the weight of it. Growing up in the Midwest, I immediately asked what kind of tree couldn't hold a few inches of snow. Apparently the Californian trees that have been planted in the past fifty years can't. I didn't think much of this until I got a new roommate who also came from California. A first generation Californian, she was confused as to what shoes to wear during a snow dusting. I think my mouth fell open. I can't quite remember. When I run into tourists shivering and complaining about the Washington, D.C. cold or sweating profusely because they didn't realize that humidity is real, I always like to ask them if they are from California, and their looks of surprise and shock always make my heart happy. However did you know, they ask me, and I smile and say they just have that California air about them. Don't even get me started on the Floridians. That's a subject for another day.
Sometime in the last seventy years as Route 66 faded into a song and California became known for Hollywood movie stars, the pioneer spirit just disappeared. I think it happened sometime after the Okies migrated en masse. Anyone who moved there after the Depression never had to deal with the cold harsh realities of being scalped or not having any food to eat or losing all their oxen or having nothing to drink but breast milk. And this is a shame, because the Oregon Trail is the hallmark of American history. Americans took the hardships and tragedies life handed to them and made them into something beautiful. These people dragged their families across country none of them had ever before seen, hoping against hope that they wouldn't be scalped, lose their oxen, or die of malnourishment or exposure. They buried their children in unmarked graves so the Indians wouldn't dig them up. They hunted and fished and scavenged meals out of nothing for themselves. They walked miles and miles to help the poor oxen have an easier load. And this was all because they believed with all their heart that a better life could be had in a land they had only heard stories about. That is something to be proud of.