history, research, Uncategorized, US history

The Old West’s Most Interesting Woman

People are sometimes surprised to find out that I never studied writing formally. Instead, I majored in history – both for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Why? Because history is nothing but stories. And you know the saying: truth is stranger than fiction.

So it is that while researching mountain men for one of my freelance projects I came upon the story of an amazing woman in the Old West: Stagecoach Mary. This 6 foot tall, 200-lb woman picked up and moved into Montana at the age of 52 years. There, she first worked for the Jesuits and next for a convent, where she chopped wood, dug holes, tended as many as 400 chickens, and grew vegetables for the nuns. Though she was devoted to the nuns and their Indian students at the mission, she was well known to have “the temperament of a grizzly bear.” She smoked, swore, and engaged in rounds of fisticuffs with her fellow hired hands. These behaviors got her banned from the mission in 1884 despite the protestations of the nuns.

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Yes, indeed, Stagecoach Mary could kick ass and take names with the best of them. She smoked homemade cigars and was once attacked by wolves while alone on the prairie. I guess you know who got the bad end of that deal. After the nun debacle she tried to run a couple of restaurants, but because she kept giving meals to the down and out, she couldn’t make a go of it. In 1895, at the age of 63, she got a job delivering mail for the post office. As a job interview she and a dozen young cowboys had to hitch a team of six horses to a stagecoach as quickly as possible. She won to become the second woman – and the first black person – to manage a mail route. For eight years she carried mail back and forth to Montana pioneers. With the help of her mule, Moses, she braved icy blizzards and heat waves in the remote land.

Stagecoach Mary, also known as Black Mary, was christened Mary Fields when she was born into slavery in 1832, in Hickman County, Tennessee. After the Civil War guaranteed her freedom, she worked for a time as a chambermaid on a steamboat named the Robert E. Lee.  She witnessed the steamer’s race against Steamboat Bill’s Natchez in 1870. During the race, the men tossed anything they could get their hands on into the boiler – from barrels of resin to slabs of ham and bacon. Other men sat on the relief valves in order to increase the steam pressure.

At 71, she gave up her postal route to run a laundry – and famously punched out a customer who hadn’t paid up the $2 he owed her. Reportedly, she spent more time drinking whiskey and smoking cigars than washing clothes. So she took up babysitting the local kids. One of those local kids was actor Gary Cooper, who visited her hometown of Cascade, Montana from nearby Dearborn. He wrote a story about her for Ebony magazine in 1959.

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The only black resident of Cascade, she had plenty of friends in the townfolk. One was Kirk Huntley, who, when he sold his hotel in 1910, stipulated that she was to be offered all the meals she wanted free of charge. Her house burned down in 1912 and the town pitched in to build her a new one. She was also a baseball fan who sponsored the Cascade baseball team and made sure that each player had buttonhole bouquets of flowers from her garden.

At the age of 82 she grew ill, and stole away to die in the tall grass near her home. But children who she had babysat found her and she was spirited off to the hospital in Great Falls, where she died a few days later, in 1914.

inspiration, travel, Uncategorized, writing

Listening to The Call of the Wild When You’re Stuck in the Suburbs

Picture this, if you will: a dumpy middle-aged woman with frizzy hair and a distracted look in her eyes. It’s been a hard few years. There’s been sudden death, shocking confessions, unexpected babies, invisible braces, multiplying dogs, grumpy cats, enthusiastic yoga, painful spines, drunk people, depression, doom, gloom, and menopause. What’s a person to do? Especially if that person is me?

Well, she could teach her three dogs to trot alongside her bicycle. You know, for giggles and that other stuff. Check. How about something simple,  then.

Take a walk.

I’ve been a walker for a long time. It makes me feel good to get outside in the sun and fresh air, dogs at my side, meandering route in front of me. The motion, the movement, getting somewhere even though I’m going at a slow pace, is addictive. I live in a valley with hills all around, and I’ve been up and down most of them. There’s something new around that winding corner – blooming monkey flowers, a wary coyote with wizened eyes, a cairn of rocks, a trickling stream. The quiet is holy, and it makes a sound of its own. Like a sleeping baby’s breath. Gentle and alive.

The solution to this funk is a walk, then.

Well, except that there’s just a little more to the story.

The walk is in Spain. And it goes for 500 miles.

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Dad has a penchant for philosophical discussions around the dinner table. A thwarted scholar, he can still recite poetry he learned in third grade. As I was growing up, topics of conversation involved politics, religion, regrets, adventures, life, death and the meaning thereof, and more. In the 50’s Dad was in the army for two three-year stints. For him, military service led to European adventures otherwise impossible for a backcountry boy of humble means. His tales of carousing in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and rural France made a lasting impression on me. This, coupled with family cross-country road trips to the summer-lush East Coast cemented my love of travel early on.

Also from him I learned about human nature. Something which hasn’t changed for thousands of years, despite our vaunted technological advances.  But despite the grasping, greedy, lustful, murderous things people do every day, there’s more inside them. Dormant capabilities. Dormant greatness. What brings it to the fore? Usually some catastrophe or another. A disaster, like 9/11. The ugliness of a terrorist attack on US soil was mitigated by the many kindnesses of rescue workers and everyday people toward one another, at least for a while.

A war, like World War II, also brings greatness out. Just think of it. If there was no war, would General George S. Patton be remembered with honor? The commander of the European theater, famous for quotes such as, “Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.” No, probably not. He would be another nameless, faceless soldier. But the times called for a hero. A man to lead others, to do the undoable. So he rose to the occasion. In doing so, he became one of the greatest generals of American history.

Rising to the occasion. I liked the way that sounded. Like a caterpillar, you’re hatched small with a fierce hunger that makes you beeline it for munchy-looking leaves. Or pizza and chocolate. You balloon up, cells zipping around, time passing until just the right moment. You spin that chrysalis, and rest within, waiting quietly. Cogitating. Developing. Looking for that perfect moment when you can split through that chrysalis and unfurl your delicate, colorful wings and fly away.

*

I don’t have beautiful wings and furious mating awaiting me when I burst out of my shell this time. Those days are gone. But I do have an unwalked road ahead, untrod stairways, a joyfully prodding Spirit within that says, “Go, now. Carpe diem. Seize the day.”

So I seized it.

I booked a round trip ticket to Denmark. From there, I will take another plane to Barcelona, then board a bus or train to reach the beginning of the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route of around 500 miles to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compestela. This route has been walked by pilgrims since the Middle Ages. In early April I will join these pilgrims.

Why?

Better to ask: why not? Leaps of faith don’t need an explanation to those of us who have learned to act on them, to trust them and gain the hidden and unknowable rewards they bring.

I will post to this blog when I’m on my trip, and before as I prepare. I can’t promise long, thoughtful posts every time. But I can promise reflections, and distances walked, and sights seen, musings, and maybe a laugh or two. It may be messy. It may be wonderful. It may be both at once or neither. Life’s like that, it seems.

At least for one who’s in the process of rising to the occasion.