George R. Stewart, Space Explorer

Say what?  GRS a space explorer, decades before we had humans in space?  How so?

In Ordeal By Hunger and Storm, Stewart writes the view from space into the work.  The Ordeal By Hunger entry is especially interesting.  He describes the view of northern Nevada along the California Trail so precisely that in the NASA days when I asked Astronaut Dr. Ed Lu to photograph it on ISS Expedition 7, and had the passage sent to him, the photos that came back showed how accurately Stewart had visualized the space explorer’s view – 25 years before any human actually saw it for themselves.

 

Storm begins and ends with a view of Earth from space – the opening passages, like those in Ordeal By Hunger, give a view from near space.  The closing passages move farther out, into the solar system, where he gives the view from Venus.

Interestingly, he changed the space-perspective section in Ordeal By Hunger for the second edition; but once humans had gone into space, he put the original back.

He was a pioneer in the Whole Earth Perspective, including the close view from within the ecosystem here on Earth, and the overview, the Astronaut’s View, from Low Earth Orbit.  So it seemed to make sense to use him as a model for a new way to interpret the Earth and educate others about it. When the opportunity came to present a teacher’s workshop at a Mars Conference, in 1998,  I used that theme.   Accidentally, today, I came upon that workshop paper in researching another talk.  The paper lists all the resources for space education, many now gone, available to teachers in 1998.  GRS wanders into the paper on page 8.

Here’s the paper,  for your edification and amusement.

 

Frank Brusca’s U.S. 40 Rephotography Project

Frank Brusca is a George R. Stewart Scholar with a special interest:  U. S. 40.  He discovered the book when he was a boy, and it has shaped his life since.  Frank’s goal is to re-photograph as many of the places Stewart photographed in 1949 and 1950 as he can, to record the changes over time.  Geographers Tom and Geraldine Vale did that for their 1983 classic U.S. 40 Today, which tracked changes over the 30 years since GRS published his book.  Brusca has more elaborate plans – he’s including color and virtual panoramas of some sites.

His love affair with U. S. 40, highway and book, helped Brusca connect with author William Least Heat Moon, who wrote the classic Blue Highways. Eventually  Least Heat Moon and Brusca traveled the old highway together.  Those journies are the meat of four chapters about Brusca and GRS and his road book in Least Heat Moon’s Roads to Quoz. (Least Heat Moon is also a fan of GRS’s other work, and so there’s more GRS influence in  Blue Highways.)

Last Sunday, Frank held a web meeting for a small group of road scholars, describing his project in detail and showing his photos of the GRS sites on the old highway.  It was impressive to see how much he’s done so far.  His work, like that of the Vales, expands Stewart’s ground-breaking book.

Brusca has a deep understanding of Stewart’s book.  During the web session, Brusca revealed how to identify a first first printing of U.S. 40 – one photo is a mistake, so the book was pulled and corrected.  (The photo, from a Hogback ridge west of Denver, was supposed to show the town and valley to the west of the ridge, but a photo from the ridge showing the eastern view was printed.)  If you have a copy with the wrong photo, you have an early first printing.

His knowledge of the book and the highway helped my GRS biography.  Brusca directed me to German Filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky, whose U.S. 40 West was inspired by Stewart’s book. Bitomsky agreed to a long interview about the film and Stewart’s influence on the work; much of that interview is in my book.

Frank is off on a road photographing trip this summer.  He drives from Massachusetts to San Francisco, and then zips back, photographing as he goes.  (I hope to join him for one or two days in Calfornia.)  He will also copy some of the original negatives for U.S. 40, in the Bancroft Library.

All of this is expensive. Just copying the Stewart photographs in the Bancroft would cost more than $5,000.   So far, it’s been self-funded.  But now Brusca has a Kickstarter proposal to help fund the effort.  If you’d like to help, you can do so here.  A small 30 dollar pledge gets you an ebook with all of the 120 photos he’s planning to put in the book.  More important, you become a patron of continuing the U.S. 40 work of GRS, the Vales, William Least Heat Moon, and Frank Brusca.

A Decade of Western History

After his foray to Gettysburg, Stewart returned to the country he loved, and knew best – Donner Pass, the Central Sierra Nevada, and the Bay Area.  During the 1960s he would write one short book and one long book about the Westward Movement:  Donner Pass And Those Who Crossed It; and The California Trail.

Donner Pass, like his short book about Thomes, was a special limited-run book.  Printed by Bill Lane of Sunset Magazine for the California Historical Society, it was a kind of a Stewart potpourri about Donner Pass.  There were chapters about the first wagon train to get over the Pass – the Stevens Party – and the Donner Party.  Those chapters were a re-write of what he’d already put into his children’s book about Moses Schallenberger and his ground-breaking book Ordeal By Hunger.  There were chapters about the building and operating history of the transcontinental railroad, a new subject for GRS.  He included a short history of highways over the Pass.  At the end, there were brief essays about place names, geology, and local plants and animals.  The place name essay was classic GRS.  The natural history essays were atypical for him – he usually wove that information into his longer works – but they were much in keeping with the time.  1960 brought the beginning of the Environmental Movement, with its focus on protecting other species; and  California travelers on Highways like US 40 were beginning to carry guidebooks that described the natural and human history of what they were passing through.

That’s really what Donner Pass seems to be – a guidebook for the auto traveler.  It’s short enough so that the “navigator” in a vehicle can read the sections aloud for the driver and other passengers; and in the best environmental sense it is designed to increase awareness of history and the natural world.  The hardbound edition might not be carried along in a car, but the paper-back edition, with its eye-catching use of color on the cover, surely would be.

You can buy either version at a very reasonable price, and they’re still good guides if you drive old U.S. 40 over Donner Pass.  The old highway, when it’s open in spring, summer, and fall, is a pleasant alternative to I 80.

cover

For decades, Stewart had been fascinated by the westward movement to California.  His research for Ordeal By Hunger took him to many of the sites connected with the Donner Party’s trip from Michigan to California.  In the west, at least, he drove or even hiked many rough, isolated miles of the Trail. (One of those explorations, in the late 30’s, first brought him to the place he would immortalize in Sheep Rock.)  The Anna Evenson Stewart Family Photo Collection includes a color photo of Stewart and a colleague, miles from nowhere on an old section of wagon road, with Stewart leaning on his luxurious Citroen sedan – which he probably bought since a driver could easily adjust the ground clearance on the car.

Stewart also did literary research and interviews.  The Bancroft has one of the finest – if not the finest – collection of diaries and journals from those who made the overland trip before the railroads.  Stewart made good use of that resource.  He even had the chance to interview some of the elderly who had made the trip – notably, the legendary Ina Coolbrith.  Coolbrith was the first Poet Laureate of California, guided Jack London through the books of the Oakland Library, and otherwise helped create a literature of California.  The story of her entry into California, in the arms of Wagon Train Scout James Beckwourth, is one of the enduring and endearing stories of the Westward Movement.  Stewart interviewed her just before her death.

When all was said and done, George Stewart put his decades of research into a book.  The California Trail:  An Epic With Many Heroes  In its several hundred well-illustrated pages, Stewart presents a detailed but interesting history of that great American story, from the first crossings by foot, through the last year with good statistics, 1857. The California Trail is still considered the best book on the emigrant movement into California by overland wagon train.

He worked on his book at the same time his old friend and fellow author Wallace Stegner was writing a book about the Mormon Trail for the same series.  In a wonderful letter, Stegner, who was teaching at Stanford, suggested that since the two men were writing books about the trails on two sides of the Platte River (The Mormon Trail was on one side, the California Trail on the other) they should get together and discuss the books (presumably over drinks and  barbequed burgers).

The book has been reprinted, and is still widely-available.  I’d recommend you look for a first edition – sometimes cheaper than the paperback reprint.  The cover illustrated is for the paperback.

cal trail cover

Distinguished Geographer Dr. Paul F. Starrs Reviews the GRS Biography

Dr. Paul F. Starrs is a distinguished professor of geography at the University of Nevada, Reno.  He’s received many accolades for his teaching and research, including four awards for excellence in teaching and a Fulbright Scholarship.  He has also written or co-written several books – most recently, the wonderful UC Field Guide to California Agriculture. (Every road traveler to this agricultural state should carry a copy of that book.)   He and his colleague Peter Goin also did a fine little book about a Nevada place, Black Rock,  immortalized by George R. Stewart in one of his ecological novels.

Dr. Starrs’ review of The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart has now been published in the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Review of Books.  More an essay than a simple review, his work discusses the life, ideas, and books of George R. Stewart in the context of the biography.  You need to be registered to read the full article – an expensive registry, I’m sure – but you can see the preview here:  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2325548X.2015.985537#abstract. 

It’s an honor to have the George R. Stewart biography, The Life and Truth of George R. Stewart, reviewed by Dr. Starrs.