Albert Bierstadt joins the Overland Trail Survey Party, South Pass Route, 1859
Two dollars to sleep on a thin tick
sharing a floor with snoring gold fools!
Pike’s Peak crazed Missouri with dreamers
and thieves, but we were the road builders
and hundreds waited to sign each day.
Anxious to paint mountains and skies, I
quit St. Jo after the grand send-off
and walked up to meet the survey team.
At Troy the wintered mules were phlegmy
and gaunt; they could not have pulled a cart,
certainly not our army wagons
with months of provisions, tack and tools.
Colonel Lander fumed and wired for more.
Now the long train drags slowly forward
like a snake humped with an outsized meal.
Storms boom and raw roadcuts churn into
deep mires of sucking mud that pop spokes
from their iron-banded wheels. Lander whips
the struggling mules as if rage alone
could move them. Only five miles some days.
Other days the prairie hums and sways
in easy undulations. The green
whirr and shush soothe me, but the day’s heat
fires the night’s riot and fierce storms rake
our tents and lift them like sails. Entire
reservoirs of rain gully our camps,
river away bedrolls and pots. Then
mosquitoes rise from the bluestem and
haze us in a singing smoke of needles.
During rests I fix our camera
on its heavy legs, tedious box
of glass and acids, making silvered
plates of timid Shoshone children,
women patting meal by their lodges.
A camera is a type of truth
but stereographs cannot convey
like bold sketches—such exquisite dress!
Shouldered blankets red as a blood moon,
fine necklaces of bear claws and quills.
Some warriors will pose with a clutch
of arrows, but others are afraid
to see faces form on gray paper
like spirits enthralled in heavy mist.
Still, I did not expect the tatters
and beggared faces of children who
stare at our swell of wagons knotted
with barrels and larder kept for trade
and favor with other tribes and posts.
Impassive eyes track our every task.
During my errant apprenticeship
in Westphalia, a dim alehouse
or an opened home never seemed but
a few miles or hours from the last.
Parish churches, common as mullein,
rose toward the same sky as wrecked castles.
Often I would hear the Kyrie
when I passed by at vespers, seeking
the cool of a twined ravine, a strewn
ashlar as the day’s dinner table.
Now, westward, each wearing mile reveals
a stark distinction—America
is as raw as a poorly-shod foot.
Towns and stores are shade-rare and ranches
days between. The fickle Platte, at times
a muddy drudge, will suddenly rush
down tiers and tumbles of stones broken
like bombarded walls. Cattle and sheep
wandered German roads but a hundred
thousand bison block our way for hours,
flooding north in a tide of flies and
bellowing. After our mess, the wolves’
unholy songs edge us to the fire
and the hard comfort of our rifles.
One wavering noon a purple braid
runs the hem of the horizon. Day
after day it reweaves itself until
the plains buckle like a parlor rug.
Behind timbered foothills, gray mountains
jag upward, ice-topped and teased with clouds.
The dull Berkshires are groundlings to these
Titans, rising to European
majesty, our western Dolomites!
Everything in me is tingling now—
my hands are forks of Kansas lightning,
my brush galvanized with the power
to suspend antelope in swift chase,
hold deer wary to a storm’s menace.
I gather encampments of tipis
from the Wind River and ground them
against the backdrop range. Each day is
a race with dwindling light. I may run
out of millboard and oils but not scenes.
Hills drop-terrace into gravel shoals
shadowed by willow and cottonwood.
The great distances, glazed thin by day,
suffuse rose-orange in twilight’s dust.
In my studio, these sketches will
spark memory as I paint the west
I feel—limitless, unreckoned, new.
Polite frames will not suffice—I need
easels hewn from seasoned oak hefting
canvases wide as a wagon’s span!
After South Pass, our small party leaves
Lander’s crew to its shovels and sweat
and puts the Wasatch to our backs.
We follow a free regress, stopping
where we want, shooting grouse and rabbits,
sketching, writing letters, enjoying
our lives immensely until the game
vanishes, then our supplies. Hungry,
seeking the Big Blue and Wolf River,
we keep painting though we are reduced
to water and flour, no leaven
to make a biscuit. At last we ride
upon a trappers’ camp, nothing but
a shallow cave’s green-scabbed overhang,
though the stew and whiskey are welcome.
Miles north, a massive prairie fire glows
like a pulsing forge reddening night,
reminding me that while we mend brushes
Church has brought volcanoes and jungle
to a draped gallery in New York.
His Andes allures a public keen
to peer beyond the fringe of rumor
and share a claim. Viewers parse the scene
with tubes like glassless telescopes,
scouting each circlet’s story, lost in
equatorial air, fancying
birdcall, nameless flowers’ scent and sway,
but how much more they will want to see
our country’s snowcaps and cataracts,
buffalo and lodgepoles seen from bluffs.
His tropic patent is now my spur—
I will stand the Rocky Mountains high
on Broadway and invite the world.
The tingle in my hands redoubles—
I lift a brand from our campfire, coax
its red nib, then sweep my initials
toward the lacework of stars above me.