There is a mysterious, but consistent thread running through the literature of the Great Plains. This being that there is something about the open spaces of the world which elicits an almost existential response from those who visit them. I certainly attempted to describe this in my opening post, High Plains Drifter, but I am a long way from the first to try.
What am I talking about? Let’s examine some quotes from early visitors to the plains; before roads, farms, fences, etc. took over much of the visual landscape. These fortunate pioneers had seen it all: unscaled mountains, pristine forests, and the clear blue ocean. But it was the plains that stopped them dead in their tracks:
There is no descibing (the prairies). . . They inspire feelings so unique, so distinct from anything else, so powerful, yet vague and indefinite, as to defy description, while they invite the attempt. John C. Van Tramp, Prairie and Rocky Mountain Adventures (1860)
Clearly, he was moved deeply, but yet was unable to adequately express himself. Even so, he hints at the uniqueness and mysteriousness of the experience. Others were equally awed, but more successful at description:
The first experience of the plains, like the first sail with a “cap” full of wind, is apt to be sickening. This once overcome, the nerves stiffen, the senses expand, and man begins to realize the magnificence of being. Richard Irving Dodge, The Plains of the Great West (1877)
The “magnificence of being” captures it pretty well. Other scenic landscapes may inspire someone to do, but the prairies invite someone to be. This feeling was perhaps best expressed by Albert Pike as a young man in the 1830’s. He was on an expedition from Missouri to New Mexico when his horse broke and ran, and he was forced to walk the remaining 500 miles to Taos. Later, he wrote of his adventures and had this to say about the plains and prairies:
The sea, the woods, the mountains, all suffer in comparison with the prairie. . . The prairie has a stronger hold upon the senses. It’s sublimity arises from its unbounded extent, its barren monotony and desolation, its still, unmoved, calm, stern, almost self-confident grandeur, its strange power of deception, its want of echo, and, in fine, its power of throwing a man back upon himself. Albert Pike, Journeys in the Prairie (1832)
The plains and prairies have a mysterious power which cannot be learned, solved or even truly expressed. It can only be experienced. Even though much has changed since