Andrew Carroll in his excellent new book (Here is Where) about what he calls America’s “forgotten history”, raises the question about the difficulty of learning from history when so much of it is either mis-remembered, or worse, just plain invented. Personal memoirs are particularly suspect because the author often has an agenda aimed at protecting either his own or his ancestors’ reputation.
I personally think it’s titillating to locate a less-than-pure member of the family tree, and once pursued the story of my grandmother’s five half-brothers, three of whom had died young and/or under mysterious circumstances. The possibility of discovering murder and mayhem in my own upstanding family absolutely intrigued me, and in fact, I did uncover a deliciously mysterious death involving two rambunctious youths and a gun. The death was probably accidental and doubly tragic because of the extreme youth of those involved. But alas, the trail ran cold because I had waited too long to investigate the family rumors, and crucial sheriff’s records had been destroyed (a cautionary tale in itself.)
The Board of our regional history conference, over which I preside, wrestles with the question of accuracy on an ongoing basis. As a history major in college, the need for proper documentation was drilled into me, so I am very big on insisting that research papers considered for awards have proper footnotes and bibliographies (a losing battle. Even college professors seem to have accepted a more “relaxed” method of notating assertions these days.)
Unfortunately, it seems to be endemic in our society. We all know the difficulties in the world of journalism. Certain cable networks who bill themselves as “News” have become notorious for a lack of interest in corroborating sources, politicians running for the highest office in the land brag that they will not be swayed by “fact-checkers”, and even CBS’ esteemed Sixty Minutes fell from grace in the recent past with a totally fabricated (but highly successful) report. How can we believe anything anymore?
So it is that when we develop a new tour we conduct historical research concurrently with searching for appropriate hotels, restaurants, attractions and events to include in the itinerary. We collect information on the history, location, and inevitably some fun trivia including Quick Facts for each state, regional history, information on stops along the way – you know, what happened here – and gather them into a booklet for the tour director to share with our participants. When I travel I always want to know: why is this town here? How did the founders make a living? Was it a railroad town, or maybe a town that grew up around a strategically placed fort during pioneer times? And I’ve found that many of our travelers also appreciate the opportunity to expand their own understanding of the places they visit.
I assume that all tour companies do this to a certain degree, but probably not to the depth that we do. Our travelers have come to expect more than a brief overview of an area. They want to know not only what happened, but why, and if possible learn some personal stories about the people who lived it. Maybe even walk in the footsteps of those who came before, see what they saw.
Two of our upcoming Vanishing Trails Expeditions were created this way: the Lewis & Clark Trail (July 15-30) and the Oregon Trail in Nebraska (Aug. 13-18). Each contains a suggested reading list to set the stage, and loads of living history situations to help recreate the time and place of these events for the participants. If you haven’t yet decided on an excursion for 2016 you couldn’t do better than these. Check them out online, and be sure to read what previous travelers on these trails enjoyed about them.
Learning about the cultures and backgrounds of the people who settled various areas of the country enhances our understanding and memories.
Is it any wonder that our slogan is “It’s not the destination it’s the journey”?