The Mysterious Pedestrian of the Transcontinental

Frequently, I am asked if there are any instances that stand out to me as traces of my species. Often, I look to folklore or religion for such things, but there are others…if you know where to look.

Much is made of the suffragettes Helga and Clara Estby’s unescorted trek across the country in 1896. They had laid a wager to save their farm from foreclosure and at the time, for two women to walk alone across the country was considered a scandal and a triumph all at once.

However, they weren’t the first.

In 1874, the first of the Overland staff spotted a small person walking beside the tracks outside of Omaha, in the middle of nowhere. She was strangely attired, and gave no sign that she even cared about the train, though she kept out of its way. The conductors marked her presence. At refueling stops, stations, through trains crossing one another at passage points, her existence was spread up and down the rails. A timetable was even made of her journey, her progress tracked by the engineers who went back and forth across the transcontinental.

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Rumors began to spread and people turned up as she passed through their towns, never stopping, never speaking, and looking quite the sight. Hair a mess, face and arms weathered and coarse, coated in dirt and exposed to sunlight. Wearing baggy canvas trousers, a burlap sack for a shirt, and draped with a striped shawl, she carried very little and said even less, looking every bit like someone on a mission. Her pace was incredible, she averaged more than 30 miles per day over the peaks that stymied the wagon trains of only forty years previous, such that not a man could predict her movements by any reasonable reckoning.

Conductors began to offer free tickets, each time they came by her in a way station or round house. She politely and succinctly refused. When pressed, she reticently replied that she could not subject herself to the dangers of railroad travel. This confused them utterly and grew her legend. Dangers? What possible dangers could a woman face on board a train that are greater than being alone in the wilderness?

Finally, just as she came over the Sierras between Nevada and California in the spring, arriving a full 12 hours early through Truckee, she was chased down the track by an overeager reporter, who managed to pry from her that she had no occasion or cause than that she was seeking her husband. What became of that quest is unknown, as she vanished from the tracks very shortly thereafter and her story was largely forgotten.

But not by me.

My memory jogged by a newscaster’s comment made of suffragettes walking the country, I could not put it from mind. In 1874, I was much of the opinion that i was a solitary animal, and perhaps the only one of my species capable of certain things, but I know now that this was a narrow point of view. Now I look back and wonder if she adhered to my slippery mind because some part of me recognized her story all too easily.

What woman of the age does what she did, without care, dressed as she was? What woman refuses the speed and safety of the confining quarters of a train, in preference to the wide open wilderness? What did she have in her bag? How could she keep such a pace, even over the mountains, day in and day out? Where did she sleep? What did she eat?

No one knows, for she never was seen in any town purchasing supplies. She was never seen sitting. Never seen standing still. The Ghost of the Overland Route was a wanderer and kept her face to her boots, her tongue in her head.

I built that railroad and on my path westward. I built my face into the minds of men. I made a few myths and contended with others. Perhaps I cut into the land and gave her a path, cut into the minds and made things easier for her. Perhaps she exists still, somewhere near the Summit. I have reason to believe that she does…

But that is another story.

What will be the fate of that truant husband when she sets her hands fairly tucked into his hair is not difficult to conjecture. Better would it have been for him had he never been born. There will not be rocks nor mountains enough in California to cover him from her enraged sight. – Truckee Republican, June 4, 1874

Art by tumblr user @ain-individual

Time Waits for One Man

I have been thinking a great deal about the human concept of time. How warped it is, both to the microcosm of one individual and to the macrocosm of the species.

When a human undertakes a difficult and critical task – like a revolution or exploration, to some degree they are contemplating the entire length of earth’s timeline. They are positioning themselves and their task on an immense continuum of cause-and-effect. They’re seeing a larger picture, as it were.

But then in a few short years, most of the species – which did in fact benefit from that perspective – condenses the timeline back to their own era, their own sphere.

What I mean to suggest this, that one man can consider the world, while ALL men consider only themselves. I suppose to some degree this isn’t universal. Large scale building projects, wars and so forth, could be argued as many men coming together in an image of the future, but also such decisions usually come down to one man. One Pharaoh who wants a tomb. One emperor who fancies and arch. One leader who wants a war.

And yes, we can talk about the tremendous complexity of decisions and survival landscapes and so forth, but I don’t really care about that. The confusion of the universe has a tendency to average out unless a man gets involved.

Back when we were building the Transcontinental, there weren’t that many of us. A few thousand workers total. We would set up advance crews that would go out and speculate, appraise the land to determine the route that the road should take. Usually the path of least resistance. Across the Midwest, the great plains, the land was remarkably flat and even. The advance crews determined that the levelers would have very little to do! It would be easy, this massive construction. That was…until they disappeared. Inspectors and levlers, sometimes even the telegraph line workers would find these advance crews slaughtered, 10 or 20 at a time. The crews shrank in size. The work became a hazard. But not for long. The chief engineer of the UP was a former General, one Grenville M. Dodge.

The man was militaristic and vicious. And very very clever.

At first he posted guards with the advance teams, but that didn’t help when the men were outnumbered. He didn’t bother with discussion. He knew that the road was cutting straight through the Bison migratory path. The natives were just tracking their main food source. They were simply trying to live. And he knew that, but to him, it was a savage lifestyle. To him it was something not worth having. These people had no value, except as pawns.

Dodge got as far as asking who the enemy hated most. The Pawnee? Ah well, lets hire some of them. And so he went to that dwindling people, also trying to eke out an existence in their changing home, and bargained with their young men. Once the road was built, they could have free passage. Once it was built, they’d have a lovely little nest egg, and their people would be spared. Then he gave the railmen a simple command.

Shoot every bison.

I will never forget the sight. The train clicking through the tall grass at speeds I’d never moved before, nothing around us but the sea of nature. Great crowds of seething humps and snorting noses – majestic, enormous creatures that had eyes that were so soft…and the glee, the vengeful, hateful glee and greed on the faces around me as every one of them took aim and fired. Every herd we crossed. Every animal on the tracks. Hundreds. All left to rot on the ground.

It is the only time I have ever witnessed such large scale extinction efforts. And it astounded me. I will venture to say it was thoroughly traumatic. I had been pursuing these amazing tasks, the canal, the rails, and so on…as some kind of achievement! This was meant to be a new world that would perhaps look on me with a kinder eye. This was meant to be a new time, that forgot the old ways. But forgetting is costly.
Every week or so, we would park the train – a kind of rolling work barracks – at the end of the line. We’d make our little camp. Usually the men clumped together and lit fires. Sometimes Towns of canvas tents and lean-to’s would spring up around us with signs offering the customary revels human men enjoy. Sometimes there was a lag, which meant for quieter evenings. I always offered to be on guard. I preferred it, because it gave me the chance to move backward along the track, sometimes for miles, and take what I could from the carcasses. 

So many animals dead, and no way to tell the men who depended upon them to come and fetch what was left, to preserve it, to do it justice or the customary honors. Just a cloud of decomposition and flies.

One man and the few he convinced. One man, with one command, almost annihilated a species, and crushed the Sioux and Cheyenne into a remnant. One man could have done the opposite if he’d cared to. One man could have been flexible.

Impactful things are always done in smaller scale. Significant things (for good or ill) always begin with one man. One man sees a larger time scale, places his own actions in the continuum of humanity’s lifespan. One man seeks greatness. Dodge and the men who hired him, envisioned a land of industry and wealth. He saw a future that…well…largely came to be, because he acted on his vision.

Large groups move in tiny steps. To the tune of three miles of track a day, or five advance scouts, or ten years of marching, or fifty years of law suits, or a hundred years of tyranny.

I find this depressing, even though it can also make for positive results. One slave taking over a Confederate ship, rescuing his fellows, running a blockade in the dead of night, fighting for his freedom…becoming a senator. Even though that happens…it does not happen as often, because it requires that one man to fight the world. Dodge only had to kill. Robert Smalls had to live.

Time dilates for good, and for the good of all; human time opens its mouth and swallows righteousness. The Good Of All takes the longest. The villainy of one man is the easiest thing, the swiftest thing. Takes barely the breath to utter one sentence.

“Shoot them all.”