Reading American History: A lesson in intention
I began this month reading about the American frontier. I realize my selections were about intention.
The whole regional approach, focusing on the Southwest, shattered when I realized I had assumed the book I bought on Native American art and culture (All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture) covered the whole United States, not just the SW. That over-simplifies things, and so will what I learned, but the book is a companion to the museum display in the National Museum of the American Indian.
Trying to re-articulate the thoughts of the essayists and artists would cheapen the lessons taught, so here are a few of my favorite quotes:
“When I look at art like the bandolier bags, it makes me feel proud because these things were made not so much out of a sense of obligation but because the people wanted to make them, and when you want to do something or make something, it takes on a greater meaning for you. … the degree of effort, time, and thinking that goes into these is something that can’t be forced.” – Earl Nyholm
“How you live life is both an art and religion, as is how you treat and respect the environment… You need not have to go to church and pray when your home and environment are your church, your place of prayers. Try to live a clean, beautiful, good, and balanced life. Be generous and caring. That’s what our elders tell us.” – Conrad House
“If I don’t feel good inside, I cannot sit down with my basket. I don’t go to the basket for comfort or therapy. I have to feel good in order to weave. If I feel bad when I start to weave, these bad feelings will be reflected in my work…” – Susan Billy
To create with intention, the way described by the artists, seems worlds healthier and happier than making every action about producing for sale; creating for others.
Method, too, comes to mind. Writing is my art, and many writers’ methods include music in the background, their space perfectly arranged, and their favorite beverage or snack on hand.
Compare that to the method of a ceremonial basket weaver – fasting, peace, a clear mind, and a sanctified heart. The work is done with intention, reverence, and focus.
My second read, Five Million Miles of Truck Driving Stories, seems irreconcilably different from the first. Transportation and freight with a veteran of the road.
There is incredible intention here too.
When Dennis Fox took up trucking, it was part the history of his family and part the need to provide for his wife and children. It was not a passionate, vocational choice. This was necessity turned vocation.
Intention creates things, like interest, skill, and passion. You don’t need to start with all three to begin a path in life.
While this book wasn’t as rich quote-wise as the first, the anecdotes follow his career from beginning to end, illustrating some timeless principles of a focused career. He grouped them by each company he worked for, sharing stories of skills as he learned them.
Some skills, like handling a heavy load with water cooled breaks and poorly maintained cooling lines, threatened his life, and the lives of fellow drivers.
Others required taking calculated risks. Backing double trailers as a young driver could have cost the company repairs and Fox his job, but it became a highly marketable skill later when he jumped between companies.
Working with intention, for Fox, included embracing limits on his daily spending and focusing on the best ways to be safe while paying strict attention to the costly bottom line. It involved supporting other drivers, accumulating skills, and making efforts to understand every type of load he hauled to get it (and himself) safely to its destination.
The third book I picked up (Great American Cattle Trails) was published in 1965, but when it comes to history, being closer to the source material can be a positive. Again, the book I thought was about the SW was pointedly national.
Cattle trails appeared first in the Eastern US with small herds of under 500 head, driven from the farms outside more populated areas in to be sold and processed. As the population grew and spread European settlers further west, trails shifted, appeared from unknown trace paths, and disappeared again almost as fast when market shifted.
Harry Sinclair Drago wrote about each of these trails’ stories; where they were, who they were named for, and how they rose and fell in use. The “why” of each was the same – money.
I don’t mean money to be a callous reason. In its simplest purpose, money turns what you do have into something else you need but don’t have. Survival in human society means trade, and money helps that.
Opportunity, however, means getting the most for what you have for trading. Seizing opportunity demands intention.
One story stands out – of Abilene and its cattle yards. Joseph G. McCoy saw the need for a cattle town – a place with materials and space enough for herds, drivers, and buyers to come. He had to ensure this little backwater town was quickly equipped to make the best use of their new rail line. They needed massive cattle yards, auction areas, hotels, homes, stores, and amenities sufficient for everything he envisioned would bring fortune to himself and Abilene. He had his goals and invested huge sums. As soon as physically possible, he held the first cattle auction, relying on his own skill as a salesman to make his stop on the rail line the most desirable trade destination for cattle sellers in every surrounding state.
These days, accomplishments of such a lucrative nature happen digitally. Clean, well-controlled, and all done from the comfort of a sophisticated standing desk. McCoy’s work, in contrast, was a loud, smelly, dirty, and often disreputable business with widely fluctuating returns. To take advantage of the four-hooved asset required setting up just the right circumstances to send prices up and take costs down. Risk and reward, with a lot of calculated intention, created each cattle boom town and the trails from ranches to market.
Whatever you currently do or aspire to do, know your purpose and follow through with intention. Intention helps people with it overcome obstacles, mental and physical, freeing up potential and turning it into achievement.
I may have shelved this as “western United States”, but that’s incorrect.
The artifacts and photographs in this book are beautiful and intriguing, but nothing compared to the essays and insights by those asked to select from the museum collections and contribute their thoughts.
I think I’ll take away a stronger respect for time, materials, and spiritual investment needed to create something the “proper” way. There are some thoughts on art, creation, and connection to personal culture that I will carry with me for years.
This would be powerful read for anyone interested in learning from museums vs. simply visiting them. This is how I want to experience artifacts – in context and with connection.
I picked this book up at a little shop in Show Low, AZ. Fun shop, and I wanted a local author’s work to take home with me from my little trip up there.
This book opened up a world I knew nothing about, however it would find its real audience in a person who knows about engines, has a good head for geography, and can fill in the blanks as far as imagination goes.
Reading this book was like meeting up with Mr. Fox at his favorite diner, right where he’s comfortable, and listening to him share stories about his career – not with you, but with someone beginning their time with trucking whose experience he isn’t yet sure of. After getting through the first few chapters, it’s pretty clear this was written to someone a lot like him in his younger years.
Take it for what it’s worth – and it’s worth a lot, just not what you might think as you pick it up. It’s wisdom of ages from an expert in his industry, not sugarcoated or soft-pedaled, and not an introduction for a layman into the trucking industry.
I’d have loved to have a bit more by way of narrative instruction, but I got the feeling that wasn’t the purpose of the book. Still glad I read it!
Insightful, especially for someone who had no idea of this history before.
I came to this book through a library sale and with a vague idea that cattle trails were a thing of southwestern cowboy movies. John Wayne’s movie Chisholm was about all the experience I had with famous trails.
Not sure of it’s value as a research source, but it’s certainly not a recreational read – at least not for the current reading generation.
Still, it got my mind going! I wish we heard more about this kind of economic history!