Contemplating history

Down the ridge
Hike for the fun of it? Probably not in 1917. 

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska – There’s a lot of time between us and the shadowy figures climbing Chilkoot Pass, which is one of the iconic images that represents Alaska and Alaskans.

The first waves of modernization that came at the expense of the land’s original inhabitants happened a long time ago. The stories that have endured are fascinating. Stories of the fools, the courageous and everything between.

But because so much time has passed, it’s impossible to understand the context in which these stories were birthed. Maybe it’s cynical, but one has to wonder how much embroidery has been added and how much that actually matters.

Gunner Kaasen delivered the serum to Nome to save the city stricken by a diphtheria outbreak. Or, Balto and the dogs delivered Gunner Kaasen and the serum to Nome. Semantics.

At book club last weekend, we discussed a book written about Winston Churchill. I didn’t read the book so I just waited for a tangent and pounced. For each historical figure like Churchill there are dozens of books shedding light on some point of their existence. The books sell because they are about people in our stockpile of legendary figures. We don’t always know a lot of details, but it’s a little more than, “that dude did stuff” or “she was the one who…”

Even if it is as vague as that, there is the knowledge that his or her “stuff” was likely much more important to earth than yours or mine. You can’t help but wonder, if given the same circumstances, would a biographer try to make money writing about your life? You know, would you be a dynamic protagonist worth a hardback, or just a flat footnote, mentioned in someone else’s?

Anyway, interpreting history or analyzing figures is scary and dangerous but ruthlessly interesting. It’s a game of historical telephone, and even if the ethics of the writers and tellers are sound, it’s still impossible to get the true story. But does that really matter? If we want to, we can go back and find reasons to chop historical heroes or icons off at the knees or otherwise question their legacy. We can judge history by contemporary standards, or simply enjoy the stories of another time over sockeye, tuna and beverages.

The next morning, I took a hike on a manicured trail, and thought about just how much things have changed. I wondered how the people back then would judge us, rather than us judging them. I wondered how remarkable the old-time ordinary had to have been – the basic qualifications to survive in southeast Alaska were much stricter than they are now.

My goal was to hike for exercise then go record my latest podcast. I smiled at my softness, did an emotional shrug and finished my hike.

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