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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 ┬ánot 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.

 

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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.

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