“American Progress” by John Gast

O’ pioneers, with your braided hair
Dulled with dust and brow sweat
Your prairie skirts and ruffled blouses
How you huddled in those middle states
On flat land, battling air, stone and madness
Relentless winds taunting your sanity, survival through a day
Only to carry you to the next
No task ever finished
No belly ever full

You watched as your children swam in pasture ponds
Gave your girls floral names, biblical for the boys
While the western rivers receded, thawing from a deep freeze
Dropping cattle to their knees
Waiting for warmer days
Swatting swarms of grasshoppers descending upon your crops
Streets slick with insect bodies, towns delirious with their song and death
And all the while the country, rushing to pan gold, seeking better lives,
Knitting together a patchwork quilt of fickle humanity
One steel rail at a time, blasting the Sierras
Through Donner Pass, built upon the bones nourished from familiar flesh
Chinese working east, Irish working west
Meeting at Promontory, Utah
To drive the final, golden spike

When the train came to town
The budding brand of man, Fred Harvey, took your girls
Put them in starched uniforms, white as skin, no stain unnoticed
Gave them sculpted coiffures, housing and rules, pinched dreams of their own
Civilizing land with polished silver, ladling meat with rich creamy sauces
Fruit dripping with ripeness, reinstating decorum, a path to consistency, unification
Tables filled with food picked by Mexican migrants, heads bent and hands bloodied,
Their skins browning in the sun, turning the color of soil
Backs weighted with another man’s civility, waiting for their turn at the table

Towns sprang up overnight, borrowed architecture and Santa Fe style
Arching doorways and sweeping entrances, declared grand and quaint in one breath
And the travelers: the missionaries and immigrants, the Easterners and explorers
All reading their Will James novels
Dreaming of wild mustangs and Billy the Kid
Shoved the Indigenous people to the sides, putting up their imaginary lines
Descending upon them like a plague of locust
Cruel and ruthless
Manifest Destiny

The heavy winds still carry our burdens
Each rail of track our cross to bear
Each silver set a reflection of our former selves,
Of women seeking independence
Of men with no rights
Of people judged for the color of their skin
Those Wild West settlers and thieves, tycoons and builders,
Hard working laborers and Buffalo Solders fighting for their freedom
And natives forced into modernization, leaving behind a trail of tears
We lay upon their foundation
We lay upon their dreams and grit
Humbled by their sacrifices
Bearing the cost of our passage
Lest we forget

-S. S. Hicks


12 thoughts on “Transcontinental

  1. Don Royster

    Oh, my. Oh, my my. This is something. A reminder of where we’ve come from. That the heroes could just as well been villains. That taming that wild country that continues to be the West. We’d like to step away from all that got us here. We can’t. Each line is an image that calls to mind what it took to get us here. One of the things that struck me about this poem is how compassionate you are. So many remarkable lines. These struck me as some of the truest:
    Relentless winds taunting your sanity, survival through a day
    Only to carry you to the next
    No task ever finished
    No belly ever full.
    One of the things this poem does is that it doesn’t romanticize the West. It shows you the hard life it took to settle there.

    Speaking of the Harvey Girls, Judy Garland had a 1946 movie called “The Harvey Girls” about them.

    I think that once the Southwest gets into your blood, you never get it out. This reminded me of much that I love there. That the land molds you. And that it is a hard land. If there is anything missing from this poem, it is the Earps and Clantons at the OK Coral. It is also the music. A long long time ago I fell in love with the music. The music of Calexico, Tina Hinojosa, Linda Ronstadt and Ottmar Liebert all continue in that music, founded in a border culture that embraces both Mexico and the United States in a mixture that is absolutely wonderful to the ears. And finally the influence of the Catholic missionaries and missions.

    Don’t know whether you have read it, but “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather explores the Catholic influence.

    But none of that is to complain about your poem. It was what your poem touched off in me.

    1. desertdweller29

      Oh, I love Willa Cather! Her book O’ Pioneers! inspired this. So much to include, but I didn’t want to drone on and sound like a history book. That’s why my timeline is questionable. We have a lot of old Harvey spots here in AZ (the Grand Canyon in particular). I remember seeing the black and white photos as a kid and being fascinated at the women who worked the restaurants. I did see parts of that Judy Garland movie, but it was too saccharine for my taste. And, ah yes, the music is awesome, isn’t it?! Canciones de mi Padre is my favorite! Linda Ronstadt is superb. Not many people know the difference between Western music and Country. Sons of the Pioneers is another great one… Thanks so much for your comment. Got me thinking again. So much inspiration!

      1. Don Royster

        Marty Robbins is my all time top Western singer with Ian Tyson right behind. Every time I hear this one I want to just cry. (Geez, getting misty here.)

  2. L. T. Garvin, Author

    How the west was done indeed. I wish the history books had read with the flavor and intensity of your poem and maybe more people would truly understand. My significant other is one quarter Native American descendant so this really struck a chord with me.

  3. Debbie

    “Lest we forget,” indeed! Living in this part of the country, we don’t see the reminders you do out West, but they’re here. Native American river and city names, migrant worker stations…all remind us that our future hinges on their past and present. America truly is a melting pot, DD, and your lovely poem calls that to mind most vividly.

  4. ramonawray

    A girl who knows and respects her history deserves respect herself. Another powerful poem, DD. “Destiny Manifest” indeed! I can’t wait for your next one, my friend 🙂

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