“West… The sound of a wish in a single word.” Linda Crew, A Heart for Any Fate

Orienting Note: I am part of an online, ten week cadre exploring digital storytelling through the lens of the genre of westerns. At the end of Week One, known as Blog Ridin’ Camp, we were asked to write a on the topic, “What do Westerns mean to you? Do a blog post about your familiarity or experience with the genre Western.”


 

“West… The sound of a wish in a single word.”

Linda Crew,  A Heart for Any Fate

“Sandy, what I remember most from when I was a little girl was living as a homesteading family in Princess, Saskatchewan. Even now when I am very old, my mind so often returns to that log cabin that Father built by the river, all my brothers and sisters still alive, and how we had nothing but we kept the blood lines so tight. I remember the old Conestoga wagon sat in the yard, and we played on it pretending we were in one of the great wagon trains my parents and my older siblings drove with across the Canadian prairie. When we left Princess in 1901, we went to Independence, Oregon by train.   Now, Princess doesn’t even exist on a map. When I die, even its memory will be gone.”

My Grandma Ellen used to tell me such stories, and I was so young that the stories often jumbled together in my brain. It took me a long time to realize she had been born in Princess and hadn’t herself been on the wagon train with, as I thought then, her blind mother and twelve siblings.

girlmeditating_Wenatchee
I used to sit in my favorite place high up on a steep sagebrush hill overlooking the Wenatchee River imagining a blind mother with all those kids–my great aunts and uncles–crossing the northern plains in a wagon train.

Later, as I began researching who exactly the blind relative was and so on, I realized I had conflated facts and details in my young mind, but that story, my version of it, got firmly lodged in my subconscious as part of my “Myth of Me as a Native Pacific Northwesterner.”

A view of my home town, Wenatchee, in Eastern Washington. The river seen here is Mighty Mother Columbia. The Wenatchee River, where my family lived, enters her at bottom right.
A view of my hometown, Wenatchee, in Eastern Washington. The river seen here is Mighty Mother Columbia. The Wenatchee River, where my family lived, enters her at bottom right.

We didn’t have TV when I was growing up. Rarely, I saw Lone Ranger at my cousin’s house on a tiny black and white TV. I preferred other kinds of Westerns: Fury, Lassie, and Sky King. Somewhere along the way, I picked up random episodes of Bonanza and The Big Valley, but maybe only four of five episodes each. I read as much Zane Grey as I could get my hands on; plucky real-life heroine Betty Zane was my childhood heroine.

Martins Ferry maintains two historical cemeteries. The older of the two, Walnut Grove Cemetery, is located at the end of North 4th Street just beyond East Ohio Regional Hospital. Dating back to 1795, the cemetery is the final resting place of Betty Zane, heroine of the last battle of Fort Henry (now Wheeling, West Virginia).  Visitors will see the statue of Betty Zane carrying gun powder at the cemetery’s entrance.
Martins Ferry maintains two historical cemeteries. The older of the two is Walnut Grove Cemetery. Dating back to 1795, the cemetery is the final resting place of Betty Zane, heroine of the last battle of Fort Henry (now Wheeling, West Virginia). Visitors will see the statue of Betty Zane carrying gunpowder at the cemetery’s entrance.

September 11, 1782, the Zane family was under siege in Fort Henry by American Indian allies of the British. During the siege, while Betty was loading a Kentucky rifle, her father was wounded and fell from the top of the fort right in front of her. The captain of the fort said, “We have lost two men, one Mr. Zane and another gentlemen, and we need black gunpowder.” The gunpowder was in another house outside the garrison and in full view of the attacking Indians. Betty volunteered and ran 40 to 50 yards to retrieve the gunpowder, then returned safely–because the Indians could see she was an unarmed woman.

THAT is the western genre I loved–real life stories of the westering women. I have never been entranced by the male western genre–never a fan of Western movies because they so violent and noisy. I’ve never actually seen a spaghetti Western from start to finish. I don’t care what iconic works of art they are, I just don’t care about male (or female) revenge fantasies. There’s no bell in me to resonate with that particular cultural chord.

I am much more interested in the mythos of the real West. I was born and raised here in a family that is going on six generations in the Pacific Northwest. I was raised on horseback. I go to rodeos.

The Barn at Finley National Wildlife Refuge, Corvallis, Oregon
The Barn at Finley National Wildlife Refuge, Corvallis, Oregon

I wander the outback visually in love with all the old barns and fences and windmill-in-the-sunset pictures I can find to take.

I love stories about the pioneering women like:

Called by locals "The Big House," The Charles Applegate House (1852) is on the National Register of Historic  Places
Called by locals “The Big House,” The Charles Applegate House (1852) is on the National Register of Historic Places

 

 

Called by locals "The Big House," The Charles Applegate House (1852) is on the National Register of Historic  Places
My extended family by marriage/divorce/modern blending is the sprawling Applegate family, whose immediate ancestors forged the famous Applegate Trail. Shannon Applegate’s book Skookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family’s History and Lore chronicles that fascinating family history, which all took place right here where I am now.
skinner2
Eugene Skinner first wanted to call Our Fair City of Eugene, Oregon, “Skinner’s Mudhole,” but the sun came out, and saner minds prevailed.

I live in the Willamette Valley, the promised Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail. My town is soaked in this 170 year old pioneer history. From the Pioneer Cemetery up on the University of Oregon campus, to the street names of pioneers, to the Eugene City founder’s little log cabin I pass everyday on my walk, the past is a permeable membrane to the present. Like this winter’s persistent (and much needed) rain, I am soaked in the western past and present, its tough reality, but, too, the very strong myth of westering held by the pioneers and their descendents, my neighbors to this day.

 

goldenpioneercloseup
On top of the Oregon State Capitol building is a gold man called the Oregon Pioneer. He’s not an empty shell–he still holds the drawing power of his namesake–from Eugene, known as a hotbed of tech innovation, to the sprawling ranches of Eastern Oregon, to the fertile wine country–
John Fremont
Contemporary history is careful not to romanticize the Old West and the Oregon Trail, but that can’t be totally excluded. Here is explorer John Fremont observing a wagon train at rest in the evening along the Trail, 1845.

 

Alfred Bierstadt Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German-born American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West. To paint the scenes, Bierstadt joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion. Though not the first artist to record these sites, Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the 19th century.
Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German-born American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West. To paint the scenes, Bierstadt joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion. Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the 19th century.

The dream of something better in Oregon is still a powerful archetype driving the state forward. The myth, the dream, and the reality live on and move through time.

Let us then be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate…

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Voices of the Night”

 

Sandy Brown Jensen

I am a retired writing instructor and faculty tech specialist from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. I still teach and am also a photographer, poet, blogger and digital storyteller (short videos).

View all posts

5 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Another epic post full of imagery and wit. Every time I read one of your personal posts, its just another layer of many new revealed stories. I really appreciate your family connection to where you live.

    I’ll admit my malformed knowledge, but despite the naming of the Oregon Trail, I never gave a lot of thought to Oregon as being the West (as opposed to the Northwest) but between Molly’s book you kindly sent (thank you so much, I am enjoying her sparse yet visual writing style), but coming across more in doing Daily Create Research like the Pendleton Roundup and the story of Bonnie McCaroll as an early 1900s bronco rider.

    I know there’s a lot more, so bring it on!

  • Thanks for pointing me to this, Sandy. It occurred to me while reading it that I had read quite a bit of Western writing (not necessarily noticing it was known e.g. Zane Grey as a name sounds familiar but i can’t remember much about it). I like how ur differentiating between the female and male perspectives on this.
    I also love your sharing of your own personal story.
    P.S. Lassie is a western? Isn’t it about this adorable dog?

  • Amazing post weaving all sorts.

    As we start to dip into aspects of westerns it becomes deeper, wider and more complex.

    Lassie! As I remember the 1st film was set in Scotland but according to Wikipedia, it was the North of England before the films headed across the atlantic.

Sandy Brown Jensen

I am a retired writing instructor and faculty tech specialist from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. I still teach and am also a photographer, poet, blogger and digital storyteller (short videos).

Latest videos

  • vlog_ad_300x250.jpg