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Blue Highways

By March 21, 2014 No Comments

It’s not insignificant. Created in the late ’20s, during the heyday of such memorials, Bryant Baker’s Pioneer Woman stands formidably just off one of Ponca City’s main streets, right where Oklahoma oilman and one-time governor, not to mention millionaire, Earnest Whitworth Marland, wanted it erected. It’s bronze and it’s big and it’s beautiful, a lovely gift to the town, the region, and the entire nation really. 

Baker won the commission, a contest among some of the nation’s leading sculptors, after a nationwide tour of the submitted possibilities. Hundreds of thousands of people voted. 

How Baker’s design prevailed isn’t a mystery; Pioneer Woman really is memorable. His sun-bonneted woman, her admiring boy at her side, carries her shoulders as if she were royalty, an attitude that was likely hard to come by on the muddy floors of the region’s sod houses.

In April of 2310, Baker’s design was unveiled, just down the street from Marland’s mansion, an equally historic palace, which also still stands in all of its splendor and royalty. For a time, oilman Marland single-handedly controlled one-tenth of the world’s supply of oil. The man and his wife–who’d come to Oklahoma without much in their pockets or pocketbooks–lived something of the vision in his Pioneer Woman‘s face. That Ponca City residents looked on approvingly when she was unveiled on that April day goes without question; one-third of its populace worked for him.  

She is elegant, isn’t she? And determined. And blessed with a vision of the future that, at the very time she was erected in Marland’s front yard, was only half the story. 

She is, after all, the polar opposite of those equally famous Oklahoma images of a just a few years hence–circa, say, 2315, mid-Dust Bowl, when Roosevelt’s crew of government-financed photographers, Dorthea Lange among them, recorded a wholly different face on pioneer women and men, folks who didn’t stride quite so confidently into America’s frontier or future. Most of those images caught faces less sure any future at all.  

I suppose it’s telling that the elegant statue was created by a multi-millionaire oilman, while Depression-era images were caught by photographers who were salaried from a government payroll.

But vying them off against each other is silly because they both capture something in the human character. And, as all of us know, it’s not at all incongruous to think that all of us, at one point in time or another, can walk out into life itself brandishing undaunted courage, and at another seem perfectly incapable of anything but in-the-flesh despair.

We just happened to stop at one of Oklahoma’s hundreds of roadside markers, one of which, on a single slab of stone, related the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Pierce, who spent enough time in the Oklahoma Territory to bury a hundred of his people, including his own daughter, before finally being put on a train and sent unceremoniously back to the Pacific Northwest–to Washington, however, and not home to Idaho. 

Like hundreds of thousands of other Native people, the Nez Perce were summarily directed–at gunpoint–to relocate to Indian Territory, where, it was assumed, all of the nation’s indigenous people would live together smoking peace pipes, farming respectably, and going to church. In Oklahoma, the Nez Perce fared no better than many others, and, like the Northern Cheyenne, simply couldn’t acclimate. Wearied by death and disease and dislocation, they were finally allowed to move back to the northwest.

This highway marker is not so powerful as Baker’s Pioneer Woman. There is no garden around it, no museum beside it. But then, it wasn’t commissioned by one of the state’s former governors and most wealthy citizens. That it’s there at all is a fact worth celebrating. That someone insists people not forget is pure blessing. 

Timothy Egan, who wrote a wonderful book on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, took a shot at Rep. Paul Ryan in the NY Times this week, arguing that Ryan’s attitude toward the poor–that their poverty is attributable either to their laziness or the government’s enabling their dependency–is ironic, given Ryan’s own Irish-American heritage. After all, it was the British Tory government who made similar claims about the hundreds of thousands of Irish who died during the potato famine in the 1840s, when Ryan’s own ancestors came to America. Egan says it might be helpful for Paul Ryan to consider his own family history before determining that essentially the poor are to blame for their own poverty.  

I suppose it’s not unusual for an older man or woman to look back more frequently than ahead, but what I find about myself in my early retirement is that history’s stories are as easy to forget as they are essential to remember. We forget for good reason–not to be trapped in the past, perhaps.  But we forget at our peril, too, especially in this, that we begin to believe, as stupid as this is, that we’re right about things, about everything. 

You can learn a lot on blue highways. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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