Camping at the Crossroads
Logan's Festival of the American West
There is a pretty interesting pull-out map in this month's National Geographic. Titled The Pathfinders on one side and Western Migration on the other, and chronicling the periods of 1803-1848 and 1841-1869, the maps look at the western two-thirds of the United States and show, with dozens of different-colored dotted lines, how, when and by whom the West was explored and settled.
In scarcely a century of hard work Americans had fought, bought, claimed or stole this two-thirds of the country. First it was New France - the Louisiana Purchase - and later Texas, California, Oregon and finally, from Mexico and the Indians, the great gulf of mountains and desert which today comprises the Intermountain West. By 1890 the Census Bureau announced that the frontier was closed.
I think that in many ways the completion of the nation came about by accident. While many explorers and settlers did come west with the idea of nation or nationality in mind, many more came with more single-minded purposes. Even more came not as Americans but rather as Travelers, as though that itself was a nationality. In places like the high country of Wyoming French trappers met American explorers guided by Indians who were fearful of Brits. And everyone wanted to stay ahead of the Russians and Mexicans/Spaniards. Until they were replaced by men and women with covered wagons and steel plows - and by their own success - these mountain men in the West supported their own culture, with mediums for communicating across wide gulfs and a learned set of customs. Today, those customs and that 'lifestyle' are memorialized by those of us who are fascinated with the age of exploration and the creation of a nation.
Looking closer at the National Geographic map, there is something else that is interesting: Nearly all of the trails converge on the Cache Valley of northern Utah.
Though these days in Logan you can get a gourmet meal, buy a Land Rover and fly out of town in a jet airplane, the Cache Valley still offers the aura of the frontier, and today it has a special historic tinge to it - thick smoke from wildfires burning across the West. The smoke adds a surreal and olfactory air to the 29th annual Festival of the American West.
Inside the gates of the 160-acre American West Heritage Center (actually, it's not in Logan but about six miles south in Wellsville) and behind a thick line of cottonwoods, the sounds of the highway fade away. A water wheel and sluice gate help the hopeful pan for gold. Banjo players sing of the good days gone bad. Two men help to build a log cabin before winter sets in. A woman teaches a daughter to can peaches, while another teaches how to knit. Down a hill, Native Americans weave, pound corn and dance. And the mountain men regale stories.
Called the best living history presentation in the country the Festival of the American West is an art show, quilt festival, horse parade, ongoing concert, Dutch-oven cook-off, cowboy poetry competition and massive-hands on museum rolled into an eight-day affair. Begun on-campus at Utah State University, the festival eventually moved to this dedicated complex and grew into a life of its own. The festival is even bigger than the aforementioned list - it would take paragraphs to describe the activities, entertainment and learning opportunities. But like all great gatherings the festival is big in the sense that after a few hours, with the help of a little imagination, one can't help but feel lost in another time.
If the settlers of the West represented an amalgamation of cultures, the figure who might best portray that is Toker Timothy Many Hats, who with is indistinguishable accent and Brillo-pad long beard was one of the festival's most popular attendees.
'We used to call this Willow Valley,' Many Hats said, instinctively brushing down his mustache. 'The first rendezvous was two days long and by the time of the last one, in 1840, it lasted six months. But by 1840 wool to make hats was cheaper than trapping and shipping beaver, and that left the mountain man with nothing to do.'
Wool hats? True. The settling of the West was really about hats - beaver pelt hats, which were all the rage back East. It was for the beaver that thousands of men set out West to trap rivers, bring the pelts to market, and head back into the wilderness. But then the beaver went out of style.
Rendezvous, where trappers met up with traders to sell their wares and buy supplies, was a time-saving measure begun in July, 1825. It was, wrote the late Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert 'a kind of Baghdad bazaar leavened by fighting, fornication, and adventure stores that would have seemed outlandish if they hadn't, for the most part, been true. Trappers arrived from hundreds of miles around with their pelts, which they traded for whiskey sold by St. Louis entrepreneurs at $25 the gallon, for ammunition, and for staples such as squaws. There was usually carnage, inhibited mainly by the water the traders had added to the whisky ...'
In all, rendezvous were held in Utah in Odgen's Hole (Ogden), Willow Valley (Logan) twice, Bear Lake, and Henry's Fork, which straddles the Utah-Wyoming border in the foothills of the Uinta Mountains. Most others were held in the vicinity of Wyoming's Wind River Mountains.
But like I said, by 1840 the trapper was a beast of history. He had been replaced not only by advent of wool but also by the closing of an era - 'a subspecies of American which flourished briefly during the nineteenth century and went extinct with the end of the frontier,' wrote Reisner. By 1841 small groups of intrepid travelers were breaking the California Trail, and by 1848 gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill and tens of thousands made the journey by wagon and oxen in the succeeding years. Then came the settlers, Manifest Destiny, the transcontinental telegraph and railroad, and the 160-acre promise of the Homestead Act of 1862.
Go back to the National Geographic map. The roads which led to Willow Valley - Logan - begin to spread out and lead to California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and points beyond. Soon they are real roads, cities sprout, highways come, and America is born.
Of course, the American West is more than trappers and explorers. The festival is typically in late July and early August. Entry is $10 per person, with some bigger-ticket music shows costing more. Accommodations are available in Logan, and interesting food and drink, along with tons of souvenirs, can be purchased at the festival. For more information call (800) 225-FEST or (435) 797-1143. The American West Heritage Center, at the base of the towering Wellsville Mountains, is open all summer and includes a pioneer-era working farm and other interesting attractions.
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