Cowboys and Interstates

Cowboy Trail

I love old Westerns. It’s mostly what I have on when I watch television, something I really don’t do that much.

It occurred to me out of the blue while in the middle of one such movie, or television episode, I can’t recall which, that we have relegated the enormous hardships of the old Western trails to a place far out of our collective memories.

They were the highways of their day. Cattle driving trails like the Chisholm Trail and the Great Western Trail that rolled from Texas to Kansas. Overland trails for homesteading pioneers like the Oregon Trail from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest and the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to the New Mexico territory.

We are, I would guess, far more familiar with Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1919 effort leading a motor vehicle convoy across America from East to West. His hardships on that horrible journey showed people what we needed, and his memory of it was a key factor in his push for an Interstate system when he started work in the White House.

But out in the Old West the roads were mostly non-existent. They were indeed trails. We ascribe to our pioneer folk tremendous grit and guts. They have become mythic in the American story. And among their primary hardships were the “roads” that served their home and work lives. Movies and television don’t do them justice. In the days before spaghetti western moonscapes filmmakers seemed to prefer landscapes that suited their equipment and their idea of what the public probably thought looked authentic.

I remember my first time in the West. Flying over it, then driving over it, my prime thought was just how hard it must have been to move over it in those old pioneer days.

When we disconnect from it our past can become something of a movie. We imagine it. We think we know what it must have been like. In the case of the Old West we people it with paper pioneers and images, emotions and sounds that fit our idea of it, an idea largely drawn, I would think, from movies. Next time you happen upon on an old Western (I’m one of the few people I know who goes looking for them) take a step back from the cameraman’s view and try to imagine just how hard travelling across America really was.[email protected]

Our road system really began to take shape after World War I. So not only cowboys and pioneers, but also American revolutionaries and Civil War soldiers and generations of ordinary folk had to work harder than we can imagine to get where they needed to be with what they needed.

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