Blast from the Past: Travel

Howdy, folks. I’m writing this at the tail end of a 12 hr shift, and looking at another six hours tomorrow (normally a day off). I’m a touch loopy at the moment. Sorry I couldn’t come up with anything, um, trendy and coherent. But this post was published four years ago, and on my blog rather than here, so I hope you enjoy it, and it gets you thinking about the many ways we get from here, to there, and the adventures we can write along the way. Oh, and as a side note… four years ago, I assumed we’d land on Mars in my grandchildren’s time, if that soon. Now? I’m thinking another four years may see it done. 

Or, if you prefer, there’s a thrilling (heh) new installment of Lab Gremlins up at my blog. 

As I’m driving along a nice, smooth, fast interstate, I know I will be thinking about what travel was like not that very long ago. Less than 200 years ago, it would have been near impossible for me to make this journey. And had I insisted (because the then-me would likely have been as stubborn as the now-me) it would have been a trip of weeks, if not months, and fraught with Perils.

I’m reminded of Celia Hayes’ excellent book To Truckee’s Trail, which I read last year. It’s a retelling of the voyage from East Coast to Clifornia via wagon train, which I have read many times over the years in different books, but this one is nicely researched and told well enough to be lively rather than dry.

When I moved to the Ohio River Valley over a year ago, I was reminded of the tales I’d read of the settling of this area, in old Western novels. I know I’d read about Dan’l Boone, and was delighted to find a tiny trapper cabin while visiting Kentucky that claimed to have housed him and friends during one rough winter in about 1789. I find there are a number of books available in public domain on that indomitable pioneer, I just picked one, I’ll let you find which is best…

Horses, wagons, mules, all very different from my four-wheeled gasoline-engined mount today. I can motor along in comfort, not worried about the muddy rutted roads featured in the beginning of Norman Borlaug’s biography as recent as the 1930’s that made travel treacherous and slow. I may get bored as I whiz along at ratesthey wouldn’t ahve dreamed of, but I have the radio, and my music gadget, and I can always set up my little bluetooth headset and call a friend to chat. Or simply pull over and nap, without worry of my animal wandering off.

My Great-Grandma Lily, born in 1893, saw the advent of motorcars, the interstate system, planes, and before she was gone, she rode the supersonic Concorde from one continent to another in a mere few hours. I don’t expect transport to zoom ahead so fast in my own lifetime  – in 30-odd years there has not been that much change at all – but perhaps we will be able to make that leap off the Earth into the solar system, and beyond. In my children’s time, if not mine. Humanity needs room for adventure.

Renfro Valley
Old-Time Kentucky farmhouse
Mud daub cabin
Standing in front of the ca 1789 trapper’s cabin where it is claimed Dan’l Boone himself wintered.
bullet in wall
One of the many bullets still embedded in the walls of the trapper’s cabin.


  1. One thing that strikes me about travel in the “good (?) old days”: the pioneers, trappers and settlers traveled light. Few owned more than one change of clothes; if you owned three, you were relatively wealthy. Many owned only a single pair of good leather shoes or boots, and made do with home-made moccasins at other times; some had only the latter. A lot of furniture was home-made once one got out of the cities, and much of it was made so that it could be disassembled relatively easily for transport by wagon. Foodstuffs were short on variety, and difficult to preserve; skills such as canning were an essential part of life, and if you didn’t get the vacuum seal just right, you and your family would die of food poisoning almost before you could realize your mistake. If you butchered an animal for meat while traveling, where you didn’t have any way to preserve it, you ate every scrap that you could – gorging yourself to bursting point – and left the rest for the scavengers.

    Contrast that to how we pack for even a short trip today; multiple changes of clothing, distractions to while away the idle hours on wheels or in the air, frills and fripperies. Compare, also, the relatively tiny houses our ancestors lived in (they didn’t need larger ones, partly because they didn’t have enough possessions to warrant them, partly because people were used to sharing rooms and didn’t insist on their own).

    We live in paradise compared to what our forefathers went through . . .

    1. And lest we forget, canning as we think of it was invented in the early 1800s. Before then, drying, salting, fermenting and “root cellars” were how you preserved food. If we go back further, it wasn’t until the 1400s the Dutch developed the idea of including legumes (clover) as a hay/grazing crop in a rotation. My great-grandmother would tell people “the good old days were miserable”.

      1. Not to mention the interesting aspects in that it took decades for them to invent the can opener.

  2. Thanks for the link! I had so much fun scribbling that book! Another reader once wrote that I should have subtitled it “Wagon Training for Dummies” because there was so much detail in it!

    1. One of my “if money fell from the sky” dreams would be a documentary on the Oregon Trail—filmed at each location at the time of year that people would be there. (Part of the money would go towards several of those time-lapse beautiful videos of wilderness, using as local talent as I could.) I’d include all the details that I could, using re-enactors for illustration. And lots of interviews.

      That partly came from a video I saw at The End of the Oregon Trail Center, which was incredibly light on details and big on feeling—my mom liked it, but I felt like it was fluff. It also came from the docents (who did a decent job) talking about the 2nd through 5th most common causes of death—but forgetting the 1st. (Transportation accidents; getting hit by a wagon wheel or kicked by a horse.)

  3. My maternal grandmother was born (1906) in a covered wagon as her family moved to East Texas. As late as the 1910s, people sere moving back and forth across Texas by wagon, and I’ve read several oral histories about people moving into the South Plains and Texas Panhandle in the 1920s in wagons. Horses could refuel wherever there was grass and water, unlike trucks, and the wagons didn’t require nice roads.

    On the other paw, once railroads got established in the 1880s, it was not uncommon for the ranchers from Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico to go to Ft. Worth and then travel to Chicago, “the Coast” or even Europe!

    1. Look at photos up through the mid 20’s of the “team” side of any major railroad freight house or at any warehouse in a busy port and like as not you’d still be seeing wagons and teams of horses mixed in among the trucks.

      1. My mother was born in AR in 1933. We have a picture of her sitting with her parents in their mule drawn wagon before going to town.

  4. If you choose to make the speed of common transportation your yardstick, so be it. I feel a more likely measure might be the speed of information, or communication. I can just as easily chat with a student in Colombia as my next door neighbor. More easily and less expensively than talking to relatives in Kansas City two decades ago. Don’t even get me started on having a library and supercomputer in my pocket.

    Closer to home, I would never have known Cedar Sanderson or have read any of her books even ten years ago. Would I rather have that or flying cars and 250 mph roadways and Mach 5 passenger jets? To ask the question is to answer it.

    Our generation should be proud of the advances we have made. Speed of movement? Like faulting an Olympic sprinter because he cannot break the sound barrier.

    1. Oh, sure, modern communications are fantastic!

      But the ability to pick up and go places, to see them with your own eyes and walk around them is so much better than pulling up a pictures on the computer.

      Even when most of one’s work and education is online, an occasional meetup is invaluable. I treasure the workshops and Cons I got to, mainly because I get to meet those people I’ve only known online.

      1. We are inarguably “meetspace” people. Our monkey-people ancestors made it so. Perhaps we can someday in the foreseeable future load our personas into the ether, and physically being in the same zipcode will become irrelevant? I’d guess we’re about halfway there.

        Cons and workshops are great, I suppose, (never been to either) but it ain’t an either/or choice. I can only attend so many, while I may this morning chat with a kid in Colombia, talk with an Israeli for lunch, and speak with a Ukrainian for dinner. Hard to do in person, and an irrefutable advantage for “virtual” encounters.

        Is it possible to fall in love online? I think yes, but that subtracts not one iota from the delight of seeing a loved one for the first time in “meetspace.” Methinks there is many a story yet to be written about these themes.

        1. Is it possible to fall in love online? The First Reader and I would say yes, but it wasn’t going to amount to much until we’d spent some time together in person and realized how deep our connection ran. Being able to travel cheaply was what let that happen…

    1. If I recall correctly, yes. This wasn’t a place people were living, though, it was a collection of historic houses and buildings that had been moved to this little hollow and was being redone to be used as an event location, they were planning to host weddings and reunions and such. Some of the houses were being renovated to be able to accommodate guests.

      1. The Voices just threw up a scene of some guests at one of the rustic cabins shuffling out to the outhouse… and finding a modern Japanese toilet with a keyboard and display… all in Japanese.

        I am *not* responsible for the Voices.

        1. Ooh. I may take that for something I have rattling around.

          Thank your voices for me.

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