Monday, August 22, 2011

The Road to Worldcon

I traveled to my first Worldcon last week and got home yesterday. It was big, it was fun, I sold some books, gave away a lot of promos, talked to a lot of people and renewed acquaintances with friends. But it was the road trip that I enjoyed as much or more than the con itself, for reasons that go way back in my personal history.

I chose to drive the 800 miles to Reno rather than fly because a) I needed a road trip to clear out my head and b) I loathe TSA, boring layovers, and being stuffed into a flying sausage like a fourth-rate condiment. The Pacific Northwest offers some of the most beautiful and varied scenery on earth, and it had been a long time since I got to see parts of it. I drove on Tuesday morning, southwest into Oregon to run down the eastern side of the Cascades.

I avoided the main roads for the most part, because back roads are so much more interesting. I love all those little towns where the altitude is 10 times the population. I love the freewheeling names awarded by our pioneer ancestors or drawn from Native American words, and the myriad historical markers that deal in the best kind of trivia for this history major. All those isolated little farms and ranches out in the middle of nowhere remind me how tough my ancestors were...and how tough Americans still are, deep down.

My great-great-grandmother came across the Plains in a covered wagon in 1864, all the way from Iowa to Oregon, which meant she passed through some of the very same country I drove through on the way to Reno and on the return. I looked at all those rocky, rough hills of central and eastern Oregon, the unforgiving sagebrush flats, the dust and the hot, dry gullies the wagons had to cross, and I don't wonder why they could only make 10-12 miles a day. For the first wagon trains through, who broke trail and found the routes, it must have been one hellish frustration after another.

Much of the route I drove on the way home shows little to no sign of man's meddling on the landscape, so it was easy to imagine the country as she must have seen it. I passed Farewell Bend, where the wagons left the good water and lush grass along the Snake and turned northwestward again into the harsher going toward the Columbia and the float downriver to the Willamette Valley that was their destination. I passed the grave of Sacajawea's son, who was born during the Lewis and Clark expedition as his parents guided them west, and served as a symbol of peace to suspicious tribes along the way. He ended up traveling the world, only to die in the middle of nowhere on his way to a gold strike in Montana. Perhaps it was natural he had itchy feet, a born traveling man.

I appreciate my ancestors who built a country--a great country. I fervently wish they had not been so focused on their own goals that they eliminated the native cultures who came before, but people who condemn them conveniently forget that migration and upheaval are the true constants of history. The Ojibwa pushed the Sioux out of the Great Lakes onto the Plains; the Comanches practiced slavery and torture and themselves cut a swathe southward from Wyoming to Texas; the Crows made constant war on other tribes. No culture is perfect or free from human vices, so dare I be politically incorrect and salute the courage of people who simply wanted a better life, and had the gumption to endure hardship and uncertainty to get it? Their generation was horrified by the excesses of the Reformation from which their ancestors had fled, as ours is horrified by the pioneers' indifference to people they considered of less worth than themselves. Our grandchildren will be horrified by things we do routinely and thoughtlessly. It behooves us to quit imposing our values on people who never heard of them and simply accept our ancestors as they were.

I know that those landscapes will wend their way into my writing. The smell of sage and the lazy wind blowing dust along the horizon will populate my pages. The shy green in the bottom of a draw and the empty vastness of the sky catching the snowy heads of the Cascades will delight my memory. I hope my characters end up with the same fortitude and inner steel found in my great-great-grandmother's generation. Egad...I hope I do.

'Til next time.

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