As a writer I attempt to develop believable fictional characters. But I share nothing in common with some of them. I possess no first-hand knowledge of their experiences. For example, how do I create a believable character who endured the Rockies and the threat of scalping?
The closest I’ve come to scalping was Mother detangling my rat’s-nest hair with a fine-toothed comb. Worse yet, such a combing after falling asleep with gum in my mouth. Or just after a home perm. Ouch.
The roughest first-hand travel I’ve experienced? A 1950s vacation from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas through the western U.S. Our Chevy had no air conditioning, so around the Panhandle of Texas, we rolled down the windows. Sweat had pasted our shirts and shorts to the vinyl seats. Gale-force winds whipped through the open windows. My brothers weren’t bothered in the least, but I endured the horror with clenched teeth. My neatly pony-tailed hair-do (I was OCD-ish about my hair) swept into my eyes and around my head, stinging my face like a wild Texas sand storm.
What did winning the West by foot, on horseback, or in wagons do to bodies? Covered wagons weren’t known for their comfy spring systems or plush upholstered seats. Something tells me I wouldn’t have made a hearty Westward Ho traveler.
The Flood & Beyond
The closest I’ve come was an event we locals called “the flood” of 1955. Raymondville, Texas had had a lot of rain, to be sure. But the flood had more to do with the railroad tracks built down the center of town without proper drainage than what the rain gauge read. Water covered the land from the railroad tracks, past our farm four miles outside the city limits, and beyond.
We lived on a dirt road, so when it rained, we groaned. Our treks into town were precarious. Our car slipped and slid, sometimes into the ditch. (Daddy was called out of a deep sleep more times than once by an embarrassed teenaged boy who had “gotten lost” out in the country with his date beside him. Funny how it always happened on Saturday nights.)
The road was a tad muddier than usual during the flood of ’55. We couldn’t see the road. Daddy hitched a cotton trailer to a tractor and we piled inside. It would have been an adventure, had it not been for the typhoid shots that left our arms red and swollen. The ride into town for school or church was ex-cru-ci-at-ing! (Yep, we donned go-to-meetin’ clothes every time the doors opened–rain or pain or nay.) Mother and I held onto our arms and bawled both ways.
Camping and Critters
1800s settlers slept under the stars after grueling 16+-hour days. On foot. Or in wagons without benefit of springs. The closest I’ve come? My grandmother’s screened porch without benefit of air conditioning or fans–in as hot and humid a climate as exists on planet Earth–the Rio Grande Valley. No critters have crawled over me as I sleep, or curled up beside me, or taken my life. For that I rely on the fear-inducing Valley mosquito and the giant, flying roaches. But then I can pull out my Off and be done with ’em.
The closest my life experiences take me to cooking meals over an open fire and consuming them under the blazing sun? A picnic set on a blanket on a sandy slope. Or a backyard barbecue using plastic utensils.
The Internet & Beyond
So thank the good Lord for the Internet. There’s the Online Handbook of Texas and the Oklahoma Historical Society and university archives and historical newspapers and a slew of other resources at my fingertips. I reckon He figured virtual traveling would challenge me sufficiently without setting me down in the Rockies in the 1800s.
So there you have it. First-hand, one way or another.
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands … Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years.