Friday, July 1, 2011

The Final Frontier

It's entirely fitting that Daniel Boone should be the person most recognized as a symbol of Kentucky. Like the greatest men in history, his legend has merged with his original life until even historians aren't entirely sure what's what sometimes. (And some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that even if parts of his legend weren't originally factual to begin with, they retroactively are true now in some sense.)

Imagine what men like Daniel Boone had to endure just to survive in a world that wouldn't slow down and just kept changing, again and again and again. Even the very calendar by which men marked time changed in his lifetime, from the Julian to the Gregorian in 1752. This meant that although his birthdate had been October 22, suddenly everyone around him went along with this new-fangled idea that his birthday was now November 2. It must have truly seemed to him, at that point, that the entire world had well and truly jumped the shark, drunk the Kool-Aid and gone utterly mad. (I know just how he feels.)

Between his birth in 1734 and his death in 1820, he saw a mysterious new land - with thirteen British colonies fighting to survive - turn into an independent nation by way of violent revolution; then he worked to impose order on the chaos of the frontier by forging a new land called Transylvania, only to have it stolen by the state of Virginia. He saw that land eventually wrest itself from Virginia's grip and call itself Kentucky, but then he watched in disgust as it quickly became tainted with the very same governmental bureaucracy and cronyism that had forced the American Revolution to cast off despotic rulers in the first place. Frustrated with lawsuits and debt, Boone fled even further out - into the wilderness that would eventually become Missouri, where he died defeated, disillusioned, and truly terrified of what this continent had so quickly become.

That's not to say that his life was miserable and misspent - by no means. Boone had a blast. You've got to have some real joie de vivre to go boldly where no Pennsylvanian has gone before, and Boone went with a smile. A story is told, reportedly by trailblazer Kasper Mansker, that when one of his expeditions cut their way into a section of the Cumberland area for what they thought was the first time by any white man, they heard a terrifying animal-like yodeling call in the distance. Fearful but undeterred, they bravely trudged on until the horrific caterwauling grew louder. Finally Mansker himself told the party to fall back while he went ahead to investigate. What he found was Daniel Boone, sprawled out on a deerskin blanket on the forest floor, drunk out of his mind and singing at the top of his lungs. Sadly, history does not record what song Boone was butchering.

In his younger days, his kinship with this strange "Dark and Bloody Ground" was strong. He and his brother Squire entered the region at around the spot where Elkhorn City currently stands, and spent a good chunk of the rest of his life here, exploring, trekking, ekeing out a living in terra incognita where he experienced strange prophetic dreams, burning springs, and the devious spirits of the coal and the corn.

Countless more men like Boone tried to tame this soil and its ghosts, each with some success but not quite enough to stave off what was to come. Men like Kaspar Mansker, Henry Scaggs, and John Montgomery aren't household words today like Boone's, but they should be. Unfortunately, that is not the way of history; the names and data of frontiersmen are not memorized in the manner afforded basketball players and rock stars, not in the average man's home and probably not at the Filson Club either.

And though adventurer-explorer-rogue Kit Carson took his six-guns West and didn't do much Kentucky scouting, he was born here - in Madison County, to be precise; Richmond, to be even more so.

The mountain man Jim Bridger also traipsed through a post-Boone Kentucky before finding further freedom out West. However, at the end of the road, Bridger found himself holed up in Missouri, just like Boone, dogged by thievery from the cold unthinking machine of governmental bureaucracy. I'm especially intrigued by a story Bridger liked to tell in his old age - one that has been cited of an example of his sense of humor and proclivity for tall tales - but I see something even deeper and poetic in it.

As Bridger would tell the tale, there was a time he was being doggedly pursued by one hundred Cheyenne warriors out for blood. After being adventurously chased for several miles, during which time he narrowly eluded them at every turn, Bridger suddenly found himself stuck at the end of a box canyon with nowhere to go. The war cries of the Indians grew louder as they closed in on him. At this point in telling the story, Bridger hung his head sadly and let his voice trail off, going silent. After an uncomfortable silence, this prompted his listener to ask, "What happened then, Mr. Bridger?"

Bridger's response: "They killed me."

Another legendary larger-than-life figure was Jesse James (pictured at right with brother Frank.) He was not a Kentuckian per se, but his mother was (she was from Midway in Woodford County) and he spent a lot of time in Kentucky during his checkered career of carousing and crime; enough so that I feel quite comfortable considering him an honorary Kentuckian. It's in that same spirit that I call myself an Estill Countian because my mom's from there and because I spent so much time there in my formative years, even though I technically lived just on the other side of the Estill-Madison border in Waco, and even though I attended school a fur, fur piece away, all the way out to Richmond's Model Laboratory School. And Boone himself was, after all, born in Pennsylvania.

While sitting around drinking at the infamously haunted Talbott Tavern in Bardstown one evening, Jesse James claimed that he saw the murals painted on the walls of an upstairs room coming to life, and shot the walls full of holes in his panic. (Then again, it may have just been the fact that he was three sheets to the wind. And maybe hallucinating on a bad batch of bourbon.) Some speculate he still has buried stolen loot somewhere in the vicinity of Mammoth Cave; perhaps even in the cave itself.

Jesse was no hero and no saint, but he was in possession of a free spirit and an indomitable will, for better or for worse - which is probably more than can be said for an increasing number of American males whose brain's way of processing information is so radically different from his ancestors that he almost cannot be said to be the same species of life form as Mssrs. Boone and James.

"United We Stand, Divided We Fall", says Kentucky's state slogan. And if this pithy saying is merely intended to be applied to the two gentlemen depicted on the flag, well, that's fine. After all, even Lao Tzu, Napoleon and Caesar knew the importance of "Divide and Conquer" as a military motto.

But let us never kid ourselves that it should ever, even for a second, mean that it's better to put one's own personal principles aside in the interest of "making peace" and seriously compromising yourself. Making a contrived sort of peace when you don't really mean it only leads to more bitter battles down the road - just look at international politics or romantic relationships. (Interestingly, the original seal simply showed two gentlemen with arms locked, sometimes actually hugging. Somewhere along the way it became our present seal with a Daniel Boone-looking frontiersman shaking hands with a fop.)

Bill Monroe wasn't the compromising type, and neither were the Everly Brothers. They both dug their heels in for the long term with McCoy-Hatfield sort of feuds - Monroe with the Stanley Brothers, Phil and Don with each other - and though part of me loathes the negativity of the grudge-clinging mud-slinging involved, another part of me respects their determination to stand up for whatever it was they thought was right. (Ultimately, all parties involved finally figured out, a little too late, perhaps, that other unseen outside factors were conspiring to cause their disagreements.)

Maybe the state slogan really means that you yourself, each individual, should be united in your beliefs, your thoughts, your moral and ethical principles, and that you should not be internally divided. Cast off doubt and get yourself some certainty.

"Where is all this leading, Mr. Holland?"

Well, once again we seem to be at one of those times in history where everything is changing so rapidly that we can't seem to keep up with it all and it's messing up a LOT of people's lives - weird thing is, most of them aren't even aware of it yet. But I have hope for the future, because part of my love for this state comes from its power of intention, its will, its backbone - a backbone that's sorely lacking in some other parts of the country. Used to be, Kentucky and Texas were often held up as two of the best examples of the national spine. Texas isn't what it used to be, but I still believe it will also return any day now to its former glory. Kentucky's still one of the best places going on the planet, despite doomsayers, gloomsayers, naysayers, negative nellies and numbskulls who can't see the same things Jesse James saw, who can't feel what Daniel Boone felt.

I feel it. You feel it too, don'tcha?


Ed Henson said...

Enjoyed your comments with an interesting take on the subject! Unusual Kentucky is one of my very favorite blogs. Thanks.

Josie said...

Here, here! And that picture makes me very homesick for Harlan County.