Were time travel possible, I would transport myself to the American West the year Abraham Lincoln won election to the Presidency. Not that I am particularly anxious to see the horrors of the Civil War, but more so than any other span of the nineteenth century, this decade represents, in my opinion, the greatest period of change in the history of America. Even without the conflict between the industrialized Northern states and the plantations of the Confederacy, I would witness the very definition of obsolescence as history unsuccessfully tries to keep up with itself.
Between 1849 when Joseph Sutter’s team stumbled upon gold at his mill and 1898 when the American frontier effectively closed, the transformation of the American West spiraled. Change dramatically impacted nations from the last nomadic Native Americans losing their ability to sustain their centuries-long livelihood to Mexicans redrawing their northern borders and handing over land to the rapidly expanding country to the north. Yes, if someone discovers how to manipulate time and transport people through it, please plop me down right there in the middle of all that change.
You Are Obsolete
Driving north on US Highway 93 between Wendover, Utah and Ely, Nevada, the old Pony Express trail crosses the road where a wide swath of dirt marks the historic and mission-critical route traversed by solitary horsemen to deliver mail across the open West. In 1860, the first rider braved the elements and the terrain between Missouri and California and each successive rider pushed his horse to get to the next hand-off point. Within a year and a half, the service folded, not coincidentally just days after telegraph service bridged the two coasts. What a tiny fraction of US history this dirt lot represents along a lightly-traveled US Highway and a still-unpaved county road – a short period of history that found itself outdated almost as soon as it started – a speck of history that symbolized the expansion of the American West.
On a similar route just slightly north, the railroad companies busily drew their own lines across the map. Driving north from Idaho, this out-of-the-way location at Promontory Point, Utah represents history’s next crossing of the United States: when train travel united the post-war east to the expanding west. First the mail, then telegraphs, and now people took a direct route across the country. But as I arrive here in the twenty-first century, a short stretch of track recreates the site where the final golden spike joined the nation, but no train traffic pushes through the remote site headed westward. Much like the riders of the pony express, and the relays along the telegraph wires, the trains, too, became obsolete. I want to travel to that brief and fleeting moment in history when these places mattered.