Gathered around the office water cooler (actually, the automatic coffeemaker) the other day, we editors shared a bit of our fatigue with the surfeit of reality, survivor, and celebrity-gladiator programming on television these days. Even as our soldiers fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to avoid images of tanned suburban faces eating fake worms in exotic locales and tackling staged contests. Fun perhaps, but somehow not ultimately satisfying, because the challenges are contrived.
We wondered how these self-absorbed gamesters would stack up against the real survivors in American history: people who trekked vast distances in the frozen wilderness, suffered terrible twists of fate, or were tortured by the cruelty of fellow humans. So we asked our favorite historians and writers to tell us their favorite stories of fortitude and courage. We mostly did not include war experiences, focusing instead on situations where human beings encountered the unanticipated. In the following pages, you will find examples from over six centuries of the famous and the unknown, the old and young: a Hispanic adventurer, frontier mother, escaped slave, and intrepid astronaut.
As we assembled the section we noticed that, despite wide geographical and chronological disparities, the experiences ultimately appeared more similar than different. Each individual tapped into deep resources, be it of faith, skill, grit, training, or the flexibility to be able to adapt to a new culture. They all drew on their wits with a nearly indescribable confidence, strength, determination, and refusal to be beaten down or wiped out. In these stories—these particularly American journeys—a vivid picture crystallizes of what it is to be American and what has made this country great.
Be prepared to chew a few fingernails as you read these gripping accounts!