Saturday, March 20, 2021

Cowboy Hats and Waterfalls

Last night I asked my husband to give me a writing prompt and he offered: "cowboy hats and waterfalls"

I didn't really find a satisfactory way to connect those two ideas, but I spent about an hour and a half on Wikipedia learning more about the 1800's than I ever did in high school history class. I used to hate history; now I think it's about the most intriguing thing of all. It's the story of the humans who came before us, and how they set the stage for our lives today. What could be more important?

Anyway, an hour and a half on Wikipedia showed me that I am: a) a really terrible American, because I should have already known this stuff, and b) that the history of the U.S. is really fascinating. Every scoundrel, every do-gooder, every inventor, every prophet, every mother and every dirty politician - I love them all.

Cowboy Hats and Waterfalls?

The morning of November 18, 1890, in the New York naval shipyard, 12-year-old Alice Tracy Wilmerding - granddaughter of the then-secretary of the navy - christened the USS Maine in a well-attended ritual marking the launching of this ill-fated ship.

History doesn't make much mention of Alice after that, but we know she later married and that one of her two sons - Frederic - served 5 terms as a New York congressman. She died in 1962, having experienced all the significant changes of the modern world over her lifetime. I think you could say, just based on that, that she did well.

The same cannot be said about the USS Maine. It was originally ordered in 1886, in response to concerns about Brazil's then superior fleet. (Navy leaders at the time claimed that if the entire US fleet went up against the Brazilian ship Riachuelo, they wouldn't stand a chance.) But due to supply issues and union strikes, the Maine was not completed until 1890, and not commissioned - under the command of Captain Arent S. Crowninshield - until 1895. She took so long to build that she was already obsolete when her hull touched the water.

Just three years later, the Maine was sent to Havana to "protect American interests" in the Cuban revolt from Spain. We were friends with Cuba then.

In the evening of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in the Havana harbor, killing almost everyone aboard. The most likely cause seems to have been a combination of a design flaw with a build-up of highly flammable gases from the bituminous coal used to power the ship.

Although not officially the cause of the Spanish-American war later that same year, the USS Maine became a hot topic in the so-called "yellow press" (a.k.a. unmitigated bullshit) of the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who whipped Americans into a fury over the event. The catchphrase became "Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!"

But that's not what I came to tell you. What I want to tell you is this: one of the men aboard the Maine owned a Stetson, the hat that came to be known as "the boss of the plains" - a hat that became synonymous with the culture of the West.

The hat was invented by John B. Stetson, whose father was also a hat-maker. As a young man, Stetson was diagnosed with tuberculosis (that common killer of so many famous people once upon a time), and given a grim prognosis. Stetson traveled to the West, fearing he wouldn't get to see it before he died. While there, he noticed all the hats everyone had brought with them from their previous lives were terribly ill-suited to life in the West. So, he came home and invented a hat so good that it became the mainstay of an entire cultural movement and has not changed in design since.

Inspired by traditional hats of Northern Mexico, made from beaver felt, and designed by a New Jersey boy who fell in love with the West, the Stetson could not be more quintessentially American.

The hat was so good, in fact, that when the US government pulled up the Maine in 1912, at the request of the Cuban government who did not appreciate a shipwreck clogging their harbour - they found a Stetson onboard, cleaned it up, and reported it undamaged. Fourteen years under water, covered with sludge, and it looked just fine. That's a damn fine hat.

Another man who was both captivated by and then shaped the West was John Muir, who immigrated from Scotland and later moved to California. On seeing the Yosemite valley, he had a near-religious conversion and became our country's greatest advocate for the preservation of wild places.

In 1890, the same year Wilmerding christened the Maine, Muir successfully petitioned the US government to pass the National Park bill, paving the way for federal protection of places such as Yosemite.

Muir was a cowboy renaissance man: a naturalist, engineer, geologist, philanthropist, and botanist. He founded the Sierra Club. He theorized that Yosemite had been formed by glaciation (not earthquakes, as the prevailing theory had it at the time), and he even discovered an active glacier there. He spent many days climbing mountains and visiting waterfalls. And he wore a Stetson.

Ribbon Fall in Yosemite park is the highest single drop waterfall in North America at 1,612 feet, on the West side of El Capitan. There is a picture from 1903 of Teddy Rosevelt and John Muir in front of Ribbon Fall, both wearing Stetsons.

The history of America is one of inspiration and transformation. Of people moving and mixing, designing and building, trying and failing and trying again. And like the seasonal water at Ribbon Fall, we keep coming back to provide new inspiration for future generations of ship-builders and hat-makers, scientists and philosophers, mothers and politicians.

So put on your Stetson, and get out there and do something great.

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