For The Duration

The world about us is strewn with relics that are quietly eloquent of the struggle that ended half a century ago

Finger some old magazines from the world War II years. Among the earthy-scented, kaolincoated slicks or the brittle, decomposing butterfly wings of newsprint, advertisements acknowledge cutbacks in consumer goods while the advertisers produced war essentials “for the Duration.” Americans knew what that meant: The Duration was the duration of the war, an unknown length of time right up to the end in the Pacific. Read more »

“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

The first caravans lumbered across two thousand miles of dangerous, inhospitable wilderness in 1843, the year of the Great Migration. To a surprising degree it’s still possible to follow something very like their route.

A couple of miles south of Marysville, Kansas, not far from the east bank of the Big Blue River, lies one of the most moving places on the Oregon Trail. Back in a shadowy sanctuary of oak and ash and cottonwood trees, just a few hundred yards from where the emigrant trail used to run, a cold black spring sparkles from the ledge of a little rock alcove and pours into a stony basin ten feet below. It’s a beautiful place, impressively quiet and a little gloomy.Read more »

Search And Destroy

The United States Army has always been secretive about its defense installations. In the summer of 1864 a breach of security took place on the tiny island fortress of Alcatraz that reverberated all the way back to the War Department in Washington.

Alcatraz Island, squatting in the middle of San Francisco Bay, is the twenty-two-acre cork in the mouth of the Golden Gate. Read more »

Links With History

When you’re lining up a putt on the close-cropped green, there are ghosts at your shoulder. More than any other game, golf is played with a sense of tradition.

The oldest golf joke I know is one about the player who threw his clubs into the ocean after a terrible round and the next day was drowned trying to get them back again. To people who don’t play golf, this is a silly story; to those of us who do, it isn’t. Trying to comprehend the appeal of this frustrating game has engaged the interest of poets and lunatics for centuries with limited success. Passion cannot be explained, only endured. Read more »

The Real Gold At Bodie

The author leads a search for hidden treasure in the amazingly complete documentary history of a California ghost town

The road to Bodie, California, turns to gravel as it meanders upward from U.S. 395 on a thirteen-mile climb through sagebrush to an elevation of almost eighty-five hundred feet. I paused at the crest of a hill where a small sign marked the entrance to Bodie State Historic Park. The air was still, and the silence absolute; but I was most struck by the intensity of the light and colors. A spectacular June sunrise illuminated the imposing wall of the Sierras to the west.Read more »

How Media Politics Was Born

To keep Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California in 1934, his opponents invented a whole new kind of campaign

The American political campaign as we know it today was born on August 28, 1934, when Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author and lifelong socialist, won the Democratic primary for governor of California. Sinclair’s landslide primary victory left his opponents with only ten weeks until election day to turn back one of the strongest mass movements in the nation’s history.Read more »

Vintage Years in the Napa Valley

Rich soil, warm days, and cool nights have shaped the history of northern California’s Napa Valley. Thirty-five miles long and one to five miles wide, this fertile valley has successively lured Indians, Mexican rancheros, American pioneers, and vintners to settle here. Today it also attracts some two and a half million tourists a year. Recently I was one of them and discovered that the Napa Valley has more to offer visitors than tours and tastings at its renowned wineries. Read more »

Lets Eat Chinese Tonight

Americans have been doing just that since the days of the California gold rush—and we’re still not full

A photograph taken in New York’s Chinatown in 1933 seems to sum up the special place of Chinese restaurants in American culture. The windows of a storefront are hung with Chinese characters, but there is also a large vertical sign, edged in neon, that proudly proclaims CHOP SUEY. REAL CHINESE CUISINE. Although chop suey is no more Chinese than succotash, it is this mix of the exotic and the familiar that has made the Chinese restaurant a ubiquitous national fixture. Read more »

Starting Again In San Francisco

No city has more energetically obliterated the remnants of its past. And yet no city has a greater sense of its history.

On the edge of a pond a few blocks from my home, there is a knee-high chunk of granite with a bronze plate on one side, marking the spot where a band of Spanish soldiers commanded by a captain named Juan Bautista de Anza pitched camp on a March afternoon in 1776. They were scouting the site of what is now San Francisco, and like most San Franciscans ever since, they came here hoping to change their lives. Read more »

Traveling With A Sense Of History

From Fort Ticonderoga to the Plaza Hotel, from Appomattox Courthouse to Bugsy Siegel’s weird rose garden in Las Vegas, the present-day scene is enriched by knowledge of the American past

To grow up in New England is to grow up with an inescapable sense of history, a heritage that a New Englander carries with him wherever he goes. Read more »