Immigration: The More Common North American Experience
September 6, 2013 §
The scenery as we drove across the United States and back was amazing. So were many of the place names. There is a town in Colorado named Rifle. Another town in Colorado is called Cahones. I kid you not. But perhaps my favourite highway road sign in all of the United States was this one we saw on the side of I-84 in Eastern Oregon.
The sign pretty much says it all. Canadian and American culture is full of stories of the successful immigrant, the ones who came to these shores with nothing and made lives for themselves, who made fortunes and found fame. And while certainly there were a few who experienced this good fortune on North American shores, the majority did not. Most settled somewhere in between fame and fortune and poverty and despair.
Certainly, pop culture contains references to the downside of emigration. In Canada, university students in Canadian history and literature are tortured with perhaps one of the worst books in Christendom, Susanna Moodie’s interminable Roughing It In the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, about the trials and tribulations of Moodie and her husband, John Weddiburn Dunbar Moodie, a down-at-the-heels member of the British gentry, in the wilds of Upper Canada in the 1830s and 40s. While Moodie was a horrible writer and her husband an even worse poet, the book is a key text on the struggles of even wealthy emigrants in the British colonies in the mid-nineteenth century (it worked out ok for the Moodies, they ended up moderately wealthy and living in the thriving town of Belleville, Ontario).
One of my favourite Pogues songs is “Thousands Are Sailing,” which is the story of downtrodden Irish emigrants in New York City in the 19th century. The song is actually kind of heartbreaking.
So this sign for an exit on I-70 in Eastern Oregon struck me as a remarkable site. Old Emigrant Hill Road is on the northern side of I-70, and it runs into Poverty Flat Road on the southern side of the highway. Obviously, these two roads have been there for a lot longer than the Interstate. And, as you can see from the terrain surrounding the sign for the exit on the highway, the landscape around Poverty Flat Road isn’t exactly all that welcoming. This was also a common experience for emigrants to the “New World” in the 19th and 20th centuries: they ended up farming lands that were not conducive to growing much of anything. Generations struggled to make a living on these farms until someone, whether out of optimism or desperation, decided to clear off the land and make his or her fortunes elsewhere.
Perhaps this is the more common story of the immigrant in North America than the one of fame and fortune.