This is part of the Applegate emigrant trail through the High Rock Canyon in northwestern Nevada. The trail was established in 1846, offering emigrants an alternative to the northern routes along the Columbian river. Why anyone would want to travel this route by oxen-drawn wagon is beyond me. We were in 4WD much of the time and had to negotiate steep inclines and large boulders. Obviously, the emigrants improved the trail as they went, possessed infinitely greater patience than we exhibit today, and were, how shall we say it?…a lot tougher (natural selection acted on these folks in ways we could not fathom today). Nonetheless, the going was rough for the emigrants passing this way. Upon entering the canyon in 1849, J. Goldsborough Bruff remarked:
“We found that generally the bed of the stream was unavoidably the line of travel through this very rugged mountain pass. This pass, for trail there was none- was filled with stumps of Cotton Wood Trees, large fallen trees, stones and rocks of every size. Dead cattle, broken wagons and carts, wheels, axels, tires, yokes, chains, etc- testimonials of its difficult character.”
Bruff would eventually make his way along the Nobles and Lassen trails across Lassen National Forest here in northeastern California, maintaining a wonderful diary with sketches that give us a fantastic glimpse of Euro-American emigrants during the mid 19th century.
Back on the Applegate Trail through High Rock Canyon we came to “Post Office Rock”: a place where many of the emigrants left their names and dates of passage. Sometimes short messages were left for emigrants traveling behind or returning through the route. The trail and the names carefully scratched or painted on the rock of High Rock Canyon provide a brief glimpse into the life of 19th century emigrants traveling across a rugged landscape. They are relics of a presence and activities that took place more than 150 years ago.
It is amazing what context and time will do to the remnants of human behavior. The majority of the names and dates scratched into the stone at the Post Office are, by today’s standards, nothing more than graffiti. But add time and a context, and the words become a priceless piece of history.
Graffiti, however, does exist alongside the historic gems of the Post Office. Here someone has much more recently added his or her own monogram alongside those from the 19th century. Several aspects of this recent addition immediately came to mind when I first saw it. First, it is an act of vandalism and desecration. The mere presence of these words bespeaks disrespect for history and for those who would follow this person to view what had previously been a pristine historical site. It also denotes lack of intellect and a demonstrably absent appreciation of historical context and respect for those who came before. The name “Calvary Chapel” further suggests that this individual holds his or her own spiritual values as more important than those maintained by anyone coming to this place either before or after. That the name of a church would be used to deface this sacred place also hints at the misplaced priorities of a nation. Any group of people who consider the possibility that religion should ascend above respect and deference to those who hold alternative views needs to reevaluate the basis for its assumptions. Consider this: had Jesus Christ himself written his own name on this place it would be considered defamation.
This is from one individual within a larger group. But context plays here as well: the social and cultural context this individual finds himself within clearly promotes the idea that their views should take precedence. And they no doubt justify their actions by appeal to an unseen, undemonstrated higher power. This is the point that Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others have made – appeal to deities of any stripe, without recourse to reason and criticism, allows individuals to justify their behavior in any situation. I have to laugh when religionists claim morality exists only with belief and faith. On the contrary, history is littered with the human debris of religious subjectivity: ultimately anything is permissible if enough people are lead to the idea that “God wills it”.