Story type: Essay
The system of building railroads into the wilderness, and then allowing the wilderness to develop afterward, has knocked the essential joy out of the life of the pioneer. At one time the hardy hewer of wood and drawer of water gave his lifetime willingly that his son might ride in the “varnished cars.” Now the Pullman palace car takes the New Yorker to the threshold of the sea, or to the boundary line between the United States and the British possessions.
It has driven out the long handled frying pan and the flapjack of twenty years ago, and introduced the condensed milk and canned fruit of commerce. Along the highways, where once the hopeful hundreds marched with long handled shovel and pick and pan, cooking by the way thin salt pork and flapjacks and slumgullion, now the road is lined with empty beer bottles and peach cans that have outlived their usefulness. No landscape can be picturesque with an empty peach can in the foreground any more than a lion would look grand in a red monogram horse blanket and false teeth.
The modern camp is not the camp of the wilderness. It wears the half-civilized and shabby genteel garments of a sawed-off town. You know that if you ride a day you will be where you can get the daily papers and read them under the electric light. That robs the old canyons of their solemn isolation and peoples each gulch with the odor of codfish balls and civilization. Civilization is not to blame for all this, and yet it seems sad.
Civilization could not have done all this alone. It had to call to its aid the infernal fruit can that now desolates the most obscure trail in the heart of the mountains. You walk over chaos where the “hydraulic” has plowed up the valley like a convulsion, or you tread the yielding path across the deserted dump, and on all sides the rusty, neglected and humiliated empty tin can stares at you with its monotonous, dude-like stare.
An old timer said to me once: “I’ve about decided, Bill, that the West is a matter of history. When we cooked our grub over a sage brush fire we could get fat and fight Indians, but now we fill our digesters with the cold pizen and pewter of the canned peach; we go to a big tavern and stick a towel under our chins and eat pie with a fork and heat up our carkisses with antichrist coal, and what do we amount to? Nuthin! I used to chase Injuns all day and eat raw salt pork at night, bekuz I dassent build a fire, and still I felt better than I do now with a wad of tin-can solder in my stummick and a homesick feeling in my weather-beaten breast.
“No, we don’t have the fun we used to. We have more swarrees and sciatica and one bloomin’ thing and another of that kind, but we don’t get one snort of pure air and appetite in a year. They’re bringin’ in their blamed telephones now and malaria and aigue and old sledge, and fun might as well skip out. There ain’t no frontier any more. All we’ve got left is the old-fashioned trantler joos and rhumatiz of ’49.”
Behind the red squaw’s cayuse plug,
The hand-car roars and raves,
And pie-plant pies are now produced
Above the Indian graves.
I hear the oaths of pioneers,
The caucus yet to be,
The first low hum where soon will
The fuzzy bumble bee.