It’s tougher than you might think, being retired and trying to find a second wind as some kind of creative writer — an ambition I call, after 41 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, “Making It All Up.”
For one thing, it seems to require discipline, which is a bit of shock to my golden-years metabolism. And, in the past two weeks, as part of my research for morally focused glances at the 19th century American West, I have gone down one reading trail after another. I still have a lot to learn, despite my fictional intentions.
I had to re-read things about the Black Hills Expedition of 1874 and the breachings of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868. That led me back into Custer, the refuge of thousands of Plains Indians, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s actual instructions from General Alfred Terry and, as always, roaming over the maps to fix the geography of the history in my mind’s eye.
Custer stuff led me indirectly to reading about the California Gold Rush, the transcontinental railway, the Great Migration of 1843, Kit Carson’s autobiography and the Long Walk of 1864.
The research led to some related but more or less recreational reading that included Blackfoot writer James Welch’s Fools Crow, Mark Twain’s Roughing It and the temptation to really go out to lunch and reread the late Oakley Hall’s wonderful Ambrose Bierce mysteries, set in 19th century San Francisco. I can see it, smell it, feel it and eat it in Hall’s books.
This all is great fun, of course, but I’m not sure where it’s getting me.
There are so many twists and turns.
While I might have Col. John Chivington to thank for turning back the Confederacy at Apache Canyon outside of Santa Fe in 1862, I grimace at the would-be chaplain’s leadership in the Sand Creek Massacre two years later in Colorado.
My hero growing up was Kit Carson, but as a better educated adult I can’t get my head around his thinking during the forced relocation of the Navajos and the start of the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo ikn 1864.
I have learned that Custer, job-wise, was just a pawn in a bigger game, but isn’t that the story of most of us?
I try to imagine the depth of Chief Joseph’s pain when he said in 1877: “I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Beyond the wheels continuing to turn in my own brain, the value of my research is questionable. As I think Monte Walsh (Tom Selleck) said at the end of the trail-drive days in the-made-for-TV movie of Jack Schaefer’s novel:
“You can ride all the way to Canada and back. Ain’t nobody gonna pay you for it.”
And I don’t want to find out that the only winners in it all were the Donald J. Trump types in the Grant administration back in Washington, D.C.
Now, time again to confer with Cooper.