Traveling With A Sense Of History


Still, the West has a peculiar kind of history all its own, not an imitation of Eastern history, as Eastern history is an imitation of European history, but—well, consider Leadville, Colorado, a small town of no distinction whatever except for the morality play that was enacted here not once but three times. Gold was discovered in 1860, in a place called California Gulch; the town that sprang up nearby was named Oro City. Within a year, five thousand prospectors had crowded in, making Oro City the largest place in the Colorado Territory. Greed was its only reason for existence and its only law. In the little town museum there are still brownish pictures of rows of miners sleeping on floors (and paying handsomely for the privilege), carousing in crowded saloons, murdering each other, and being murdered, in the ruthless struggle over gold claims.

After some three million dollars’ worth of gold had been dug out of the mountain, the lode ran dry, and everyone decamped, and Oro City shrank to a somewhat battered village. Dust unto dust, vanity of vanities, and they that live by the sword. About ten years later somebody discovered that the slag stripped of gold still contained silver. Another explosion of greed. The new town that grew up was called Leadville (there was lead, too, of course). More miners sleeping on the barroom floors, more miners being murdered in the battles over silver claims. The silver rush proved even richer than the gold rush. By 1880, when Leadville had swollen to thirty-five thousand inhabitants, it was the largest silver-mining place in the world, with thirty producing mines, ten large smelters, nearly thirty miles of streets, and an opera house. After millions of dollars’ worth of silver had been extracted- $11.5 million in 1880 alone—the price dropped sharply in 1893, there were strikes and the summoning of militia, and the town began dwindling again. Then, about 1900, somebody discovered that the hills, stripped of gold and silver, still contained molybdenum. There was reenacted the same old melodrama of greed and destruction. Is there not some lesson in all this? Hegel said that the only lesson we learn from history is that nobody learns a lesson from history.

The West has a peculiar kind of history, not an imitation of Eastern history.

As our westward travels finally bring us to California, we see that there are two kinds of history: old history and new history. San Francisco takes pride in its archaic cable cars and the square-rigger anchored at the pier, but though the city has its comfortable charm, I think I prefer the swaggering modernity of Los Angeles. Where else in the world could Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose , the gigantic wooden flying boat that never flew more than about a mile one day in 1947, be a tourist attraction? Where else could the barn that Cecil B. De Mille rented to film The Squaw Man in 1913 be treasured as a relic of preclassical antiquity? Where else could J. Paul Getty have created a major art museum in the form of a Roman imperial villa? Where else could a guide on a bus tour point with pride to the site of the filming of “The Beverly Hillbillies”?

For that kind of history we must eventually visit Las Vegas, where the sense of time has been totally abolished. Wander at any hour through the garish gambling casinos, which have no windows that might reveal whether it is day or night, and you can see the money-drugged customers hunched in front of the slot machines, each of them hoping to reenact the melodrama of Leadville. I asked one of the bartenders at the Rainbow Bar of the Flamingo Hilton, a middle-aged man wearing a string tie in the fashion of the Old West, whether there remained any trace of the original hotel that the notorious Bugsy Siegel had built back in the 1940s. He could suggest only that I inspect a series of photographs of the hotel in that vanished era, now framed and hung on the walls of an obscure corridor, and that I wander outside to take a look at “Bugsy Siegels rose garden.” Out in the empty darkness near the swimming pool, I eventually found the spot, a handsome array of about seventy-five rosebushes, which 1 suspect were no more than five or ten years old. There was a plaque, though, that claimed that every year the roses “bloom bigger and with a deeper red than the year before” because Siegel buried some of his victims here. If you wander here at midnight under a full moon, the plaque declared, you might hear the voices of those victims murmuring, “Bugsy, how do you like the roses, Bugsy?”