I grew up watching westerns with my Uncle Jack. I loved all of those shows about the old west but perhaps my favorite was Bonanza with its stories about the Cartwright family. Hoss and Adam and Little Joe were heroes to me and I loved the tales of their adventures. On many an episode they wandered into Virginia City to take care of business or meet up with friends. I was fascinated by the lifestyle of those long ago towns where folks endured hardship in search of gold or silver or some better way of life. Imagine my delight when our recent travels took us to the real historic Virginia City in Nevada just outside of that state’s capitol, Carson City.
This was once the site of a booming gold rush town. The decaying remnants of the old mines still litter the hillsides in a haunting way. They serve as a reminder of the ebb and flow of booms and busts in the story of mankind. Once they were alive with frantic activity designed to pull riches out of the earth. Now there is little more left than worthless mine trailings and rusty tin walls.
The road into Virginia City climbs through the hills along a paved highway that was no doubt a muddy dirt trail that people from across the globe traveled in the latter half of the nineteenth century in search of opportunity. Most of the buildings in the town date back to the glory days after the 1849 discovery of gold. An old school house tells of the families that came and a saloon is evidence of a different way to create wealth through a more insidious form of entertainment. The buildings are alive with history and seem to be whispering that if one only tarry for a time the secrets that are buried there might be revealed.
As we drove along the main street of Virginia City I found myself feeling the spirit of its settlers of old, people hoping against all hope of finding the mother lode or earning enough to survive by providing services of one kind or another. “Who were the folks who traveled here?” I wondered. What motivated them to leave everything they had ever known to travel to this desert like place where there were no guarantees that their efforts might be rewarded? What dangers lurked? How many if them left broke or forever changed?
We like to romanticize the old west but it was truly a harsh existence. There were many dangers not the least of which was being broken by the challenges. Somehow the folks who came here never thought that perhaps the land they were invading might already belong to Native Americans whose roots were hundreds of years old. They somehow assumed that they had a right to make claims of ownership without compensating those that they displaced. I truly wonder how they could not have known that there was something a bit wrong with their thinking, but then I wasn’t there. Humankind’s journey has been fraught with battles between opposing groups claiming ownership of land since the beginning of time.
Virginia City is a place where time seems to have stopped. It is a tangible piece of history that tells us a story of folks desperate to make something more of their lives. Fortunes were made and lost there. Lives were treated to elation and great disappointment. We have romanticized those tales and made them part of the tradition of the hero’s journey when perhaps they were little more than ordinary efforts to survive. Maybe back then it took great courage just to eke out a living from one day to the next, but there was probably very little glamor in any corner of places like Virginia City.
My paternal ancestors never ventured very far from the land east of the Mississippi River. It was my maternal grandparents eventually found their way to Houston, Texas from Austria Hungary. They had heard stories of a new kind of black gold, oil. While they never engaged in the search for the goo that gushed from the earth they understood that other kinds of services might be needed and they were willing to work long hours cleaning other people’s messes to provide a decent living for themselves. I suspect that their story is mirrored in the lives of those who set out to tackle the old west. Many never became rich but they found ways to work and enjoy a better lifestyle than they might otherwise have had. I suppose this is what people everywhere have always done.
We now debate whether or not this decision or that choice of our ancestors was right and just without ever knowing what peoples’ real motivations were. It is in reality a kind of self righteous judgement on our parts for we will never be able to truly understand what life was like or how the thinking of the past influenced people. Until we are able to walk in a person’s shoes we are only conjecturing as to their thinking and there is something rather presumptuous about that.
I am fascinated by the old west and all of history. Our human imperfections are in full view in the chronicles of the human story. The people who came before us made mistakes just as each of us does even now no matter how well intentioned we might be. We can never judge the actions of others without demonstrating some of our own imperfections. Perhaps it is best just to learn from them and to change our own ways rather than judging whether are not they were worthy of our respect. What happened happened in a world far different from our own. For now it’s just fun to visit the places where people once did their best to make life just a bit better for themselves and their families. It’s really cool to see vestiges of how they lived and to realize the scope of human efforts through the evolution of time.