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The rapid march of technological progress is masking the general lack of human progress, at least as people in Western nations have understood that phrase since the late 18th century and experienced it for much of the 19th and 20th.

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My goal today is to get better at sitting and typing even if I have nothing to say, hence the title of this post. Really, things could go either way. I could produce a placebo, or I could plumb some unknown depth.

The wrench is both a help and a hindrance to thieves.

Then I began looking for pictures, and wrenches seemed to predominate. So, they call the work plumbing, yet it involves a lot of wrenching. That seems fitting, somehow. But it doesn’t offer me any place to go. So, I will move to another interesting chapter in Tales of a Pathfinder, the 1920 memoir of highway pathfinder A.L. Westgard.

In this particular chapter, Westgard spills a great deal of ink describing the many languages he encounters in hamlets and towns across America. Here is his take on a Norwegian man, living in western Illinois, who spoke no English:

The wonder of it was that he had lived right on that land for forty-two years. As the country was settled almost exclusively by his countrymen, he had never learned English, though he had been a productive citizen for a generation and voted regularly at every election.

Westgard, an immigrant himself, was undoubtedly a sympathetic audience not given to flights of outrage over someone voting yet not being able to speak English. Ironically, however, Westgard’s work as a highway pathfinder helped connect those pockets of people speaking Norwegian, German, Italian and Spanish–no doubt ratcheting up pressure for everyone to learn English.

 

 

 

Here is yet another curious fact about A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, the book he published in 1920 to recount his experiences motoring across country in search of new highway routes. He rarely seems to encounter a horse and buggy (or a train, but we’ll leave that for another post).

This is curious because, supposedly, horses were the main method of transportation before the internal combustion engine came along. And Westgard was traveling mostly on existing trails, so somebody–or  some horse–must have been using them.

Buggies disappeared by the 1920s. Fringe stayed with us for another half-century.

When Westgard does finally encounter a horse, the poor animal is, of course, on death’s door. Westgard et al are winding their way up and through the Cascades in Washington state when they come upon this tableau:

an old man who was endeavoring to coax an emaciated old horse to exert another ounce of effort in attempting to drag a dilapidated buggy up the trail. The bony structure of the horse was so evident under its gray and mangy skin that he appeared more like a skeleton of a horse than one of flesh and blood.

Lest you wonder about what the horse was pulling, Westgard goes on:

The buggy was held together with generous applications and sundry bandages of baling wire. All in all, the whole outfit–man, horse and buggy–was about as nearly played out as any outfit I had ever seen in all my travels.

The man was apparently hoping to strike it rich in Canada (in case you thought he was hunting for cheaper prescription drugs). But instead, he served as a visible sign marking the end of the road for one technology and the birth of another.

Fittingly, the chapter ends not on a lament for the passing of the horse-and-buggy crowd, but on Westgard’s description of how the Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascades was eventually paved.

 

 

It is a short chapter in A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, and it doesn’t appear until page 83. But it’s an important one. It clearly seeks to establish his claim as the most-traveled pathfinder of his day.

The chapter is curiously titled “Deadly Figures.” Westgard begins by listing the top two questions he gets: What kinds of tires do you use, and how far have you driven? His answer to the second?

My answer is invariably that I do not know, though I have most likely traveled more different (note the different) miles on rubber tires than any man in the world. This I believe to be true.

In the old days, drivers had to affix their own odometers to the dash. While inconvenient, it was much easier to roll back--or forward, depending on whom you were trying to impress.

But to establish the truth, Westgard needs more than  belief. So he  proceeds to deconstruct the assertion of some “relatively” young man who told reporters he  had traveled 800,000 miles in 15 years. A little math from Westgard reveals that the man would have had to travel 141 miles a day,  every day. It’s possible, Westgard writes. But given the condition of roads in those days, it is “hardly within the range of probability.”

Let the record show that Westgard was not one to make idle boasts, nor one to tolerate them either. After demolishing the young man’s claim, Westgard reassures the reader that he limits himself to a simple proclamation, that he has made “more trips across the United States, East and West, North and South, than any other man, and that those trips were mostly over different routes.”

I’m still wondering what was so deadly about those figures. I’m also wondering about his tires. Surely he could have earned a little extra cash for in-book product placement.

We often romanticize the jobs displaced by technology, especially if the people who held those jobs are long dead. Consider the blacksmith, the milkman and the manufacturer of flint-lock muskets. But the people who helped kill off those jobs showed about as much remorse as we do today when obsolete jobs disappear.

Umbrellas are useful on flat boats, as there is usually very little shade.

The loss of the ferryman’s job was a sign of progress for our friend A.L. Westgard. The indications lie in his 1920 book, Tales of a Pathfinder, a collection of anecdotes from his many cross-country trips. In one chapter, a very short one, he describes the fate of motorists suffering from the strict hourly schedule of the man who operated a ferry across the Colorado River outside Yuma, Ariz. Motorists often had to sleep in their cars, the lights of Yuma blinking across the river, because the ferryman refused to work outside his normal day.

I suppose Westgard could have recommended adding another shift or two to ensure 24-hour ferry coverage, or at least late-evening rides for tardy motorists. But that would not have been progress. Instead he campaigned for a bridge, eventually spurring action by Arizona, California and the feds–“and the ferryman lost his job as he fully deserved,” in Westgard’s words (page 46, Tales). Nothing personal about progress, eh? Or to paraphrase: All progress is personal.

* Find the lyrics here!

Imagine a flood stranding you in some stranger’s house for 16 days in Montana or Wyoming. It’s the early 20th century and your goal–if you are A.L. Westgard–is to drive around America exploring the routes of future highways, but what makes your story interesting is not the dirt tracks you’re following. It’s the people, most of whom seem to be on the verge of death in one way or another.

Deserts are unforgiving places.

There’s the starving guy wandering around in the desert, the Kansas farmer tending crops laid waste by grasshoppers, and the Montana couple whose house is threatened by a rising river carrying trees, wagons and small houses. It’s enough to make you wonder about the people who settled this country.

But there is an even deeper mystery. Why did pathfinders like Westgard and William Warwick never bother to name their wives? Westgard even dedicates his book to his unnamed spouse:

To my wife, who has shared with me the hardships as well as the pleasures of the trail, ever a cheerful comrade and a trusty advisor.

I imagine Lewis had something similar to say about Clark, though I do wonder about those pleasures, especially in the days before hotel showers. It’s  not like Westgard denies his wife’s existence. He goes into some detail describing her reaction to the prairie dog meat served in the house where they were stranded for 16 days (Her facial expression indicated that she did not like it).

Names go down in history as heroic leaders of great movements bringing about social changes, political reforms and major infrastructure projects. Facial expressions, no matter how cheerful, crumble into dust. So I’ll end here on the name of Westgard’s wife: Helen.

 

My goal is to headline all posts with song titles from the Grateful Dead. Mission accomplished so far.

Yesterday I achieved a giant technological breakthrough: I read a downloaded PDF file on my Kindle. Yes, not much of a reveal, I know. But here’s the kicker.

It was a book by the guy to the right. His name is A.L. Westgard and he, like our buddy William Warwick, spent the early part of the 20th century criss-crossing the United States in an effort to find and map the best routes for future highways. He’s obviously progressive because, as Roland Barthes once noted, progressive thinkers look into the distance when photographed. He appears also to be looking into the sun.

Westgard’s book, Tales of a Pathfinder, published in 1920, is essentially a collection of anecdotes from his cross-country trips. The first anecdote involves his coming across a man nearly dying of hunger and thirst in the desert near Yuma. It’s a gripping start, and a fine way for Westgard to earn the reader’s respect as a good man and kind. But can he keep it for the next 240 pages? Stay tuned.

So here is what I learned yesterday about William Warwick, the man who drove with his wife across country in 1916 in a GMC truck: It was not his first trip. According to a 1915 article in the Aberdeen Daily-American (of South Dakota), he also drove across country in one of these, a Metz:

"Just for two" is legally binding advice from the manufacturer, as evidenced by the double quotation marks.

Perhaps Warwick was some kind of hired gun who drove across country testing the viability of various wheeled machines. If he did, it was in the service of some sinister organization called the “good roads movement.”

Maybe you think it was bankrolled by the cynical group “people who hate trains.” But think again. Support came from the fans of all things bicycle.

Obviously, we did get better roads somewhere along the line-except in Pennsylvania. But we didn’t get as many bikes as, I’m sure, the manufacturers hoped. Yet another victory for the unintended consequence.

I’m just going to start typing this year and see what happens. It’s the least I can do. A wise writer told me on New Year’s Eve that I shouldn’t wait for the right time, and I’ll add that I shouldn’t wait either for lightning flashes of inspiration.

Inspiration is a momentary shaft of light shining through some tiny crack in the walls we all erect around our true selves. The light is useful for the illumination it provides. But it doesn’t, in the end, tear down that wall. And that is the end goal, n’est-ce pas? That takes something more substantial, something more like work.

So here is what I want to work on this year: a story about a couple that drove across country in a GMC truck in 1916. It took them more than a year to get from Seattle to NYC and back again.I believe they kept a diary and that the diary is somewhere in Seattle. So, one of my first calls of 2011 will be to hunt that sucker down.

The writing teacher in me wanted to write “hunt down that sucker,” since you shouldn’t separate verb phrases. But what the heck. It’s a new year.

If zero-percent financing were a panacea, Detroit would be booming. Free money hasn’t helped the automakers. But maybe, just maybe it’ll save the economy.

My favorite quotes these days are from economists crowing about how the Fed is using every weapon at its disposal to prop up the economy. Trouble is, the Fed is kind of like Poland’s cavalry going up against Nazi tanks in September 1939.

last_cav

We know how well that turned out for the Poles. Not so good for the Nazis in the long run, either. But they managed to do a hell of a lot of damage in a few short years before anyone figured out how to overpower them.