A Trip with Grandma Along the Santa Fe Trail: Do We Still Tell Stories?

Grandma, Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexcio. The park protects the ruins of a 17th century Spanish mission and a 14th century indigenous pueblo.

Much as a star’s mass curves space and pulls the cosmos toward it, so history leaves depressions in the land and in time.  It tugs at us.  On approaching a battlefield, a crumbling military outpost or the detritus of a dead empire, we sink into a temporal well.  We sink and then we plunge without warning.  The weight of a place and everything that happened in it crushes us.  People lived here, we realize.  They washed in these streams, cultivated maize in these fields, had babies.  They lived, they fought, they died, yet their works linger in the land.  Their thoughts pervade ours.  They are still with us.

My grandmother taught me how to read history in a landscape.  I was eleven years old when she, my mother, my sister, and I drove from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Grants Pass, Oregon to visit my Uncle David.  On that trip I saw the west for the first time.  I remember that the Great Salt Desert blinded me like new snow, that the immense salt pan glowed and that to walk on it was like walking on light itself.  I remember that the mountains that ringed the white desert seemed close enough to touch.  When I asked my grandmother how far away they were, she said, “miles away.”  I was enthralled.

On that trip she and my uncle taught me about distances.  They taught me to see stories in the land, evidence of volcanic cataclysms in Crater Lake, the imprint of pioneers and Native Americans in the relics they left behind, in the persistence of their ideas and lifestyles, and in their descendants who walk among us, who are us.  On that trip, eighteen years ago, I learned how to listen to the land.

In the summer of 2009 my grandmother and I took up where we had left off when I was a boy and lit out for the Santa Fe Trail in her light blue Buick.  We clambered over the ruins of old U.S. army outposts, meandered through the mountains and high plains of New Mexico, and stood atop Bent’s Old Fort in Colorado and gazed across the Arkansas River at land that more than one hundred and fifty years ago belonged to a Mexico twice its current size.

My grandmother knows history in a way that I believe becomes rarer with each passing year.  She knows history as someone who has lived it, studied it, immersed herself in it.  She has strolled through fields where tens of thousands of soldiers fought and died.  She has visited the tombs of men and women who nudged civilization in this direction or that, for better or worse.  She always told me that to understand an era you have to try to place yourself in the context of the people who lived within it.  My grandmother understands history in a way that demands internalization of its lessons, the cultivation of an awareness of the past that a thousand Google searches cannot provide.

Google doesn’t tell a story.  People do.  Cultures and societies do.   Do we still tell stories?  Or have we lost the narrative and therefore weakened our links to generations we never knew directly but who laid the foundations of the world we live in?

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico, a frontier outpost built in 1851 by the U.S. army.

Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico.

Fort Union, New Mexico.

Bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge, near Taos, New Mexico. Much of Terminator 4 was filmed in this area.

Rio Grande Gorge

Don't mess with me. I have a massive cannon! Bent's Old Fort, Colorado.

Bent's Old Fort, Colorado, along the Arkansas River.

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

16 Responses to A Trip with Grandma Along the Santa Fe Trail: Do We Still Tell Stories?

  1. Patti Ross says:

    Thanks for sharing. I, too, love stories and worry we may lose them in our fast-paced tehcnological world, but we are the storytellers–so we can keep them alive, even via blogs!

    • Yeah, I wrestle with myself when it comes to blogging… Overall, of course I think it’s wonderful. But it’s also a facet of this technology-saturated world that so often irks me, even though I grew up in it.

  2. pattisj says:

    Your grandmother is a treasure! I barely knew my grandparents, having come along so late in their lives. What a blessing to be able to travel and experience such things under the tutelage of one so wise. Thank you for bringing us along on your journeys. I really enjoy these road trips, and I haven’t gotten carsick once! 🙂

    • You’re right: it’s a huge blessing, and I wonder all the time why I deserve it :). I’m lucky. Hah, and a road trip that doesn’t make you car sick is the best kind ;).

  3. Thank God for Grandmothers! Mine also was a treasure trove of stories and wisdom. Now my Dad tells stories to me and my kids. He writes some of them down, too. I store them up, carefully, and also coax stories out of my Mother-in-law. Some still tell stories, and some of us are listening.
    Thank you for keeping the storyline alive!

    • Thank you, Melissa! We’ll be all right as long as some of us keep the narrative going! I love that your dad writes down some of his stories, too. Those will be treasured forever.

  4. My grandparents were also older, and it is one of my regrets (one of the ones I would change) that I didn’t spend more time conversing with them. My grandfather was 97 when he passed – 97! What experiences he must have had, what he could have told me about the world as it was. It’s a treasure that your Grandmother shared her love of history with you, and helped you to appreciate that it’s really a living history. Even as I type these words.

    • 97!!! That’s incredible! What must life feel like at that age… Obviously we can’t imagine, and I wonder if someone that old would be able to explain fully. I suspect you only understand what it means to live that long when you’ve lived that long. I was and am lucky to know my grandparents so well.

  5. ceceliafutch says:

    I, too, learned so much from my grandparents. Storytelling is more than an art. It is the way one generation tells another generation “I love you.” At least, that is what it felt like when I would hear my grandparents telling me their stories. You are blessed to have a grandmother like the one you write about. The photographs are phenomenal, too. Thanks for sharing.

    • I agree, Cecilia. I’m worried that it’s becoming harder for each generation to tell the other its story. The ubiquity of communication and access to information should make this task easier, but I’m afraid it may distract from the core narrative. Also, the gap between each generation–in how they interact with the world–I believe is widening. I am lucky to have such an awesome grandmother. Both trips rank among my best ever. Thank you for commenting!

  6. Claire says:

    This is wonderful. You’re completely right…

  7. I think you’re onto something here. These days, people consume stories on the big screen which is fine, but we may be losing the stories handed down from our predecessors so that much is slipping away.

  8. diana1604 says:

    Again, another romantic piece of writing (be still my beating heart)! But careful, traditional oral story telling has a way of twisting the truth so that history is usually the exaggerated stories of winners and bitter justification for current and future hatred.
    Unless you’re talking about timeless stories with a universal truth in them. Now THOSE stories need to be retold again..and again. 🙂

    • A very good point! Whatever the means of telling history, whoever is telling it, it will always come out distorted. Even the people telling it may not realize they’re propagating myths.

      But yes, those stories with universal truth are the ones I was thinking about most of all–also stories passed down within families that connect us to our ancestors and that give us a sense of continuity and orient us within a community. I’ve known so many people who barely knew their grandparents. I wish they had what I had.

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