By Paul Hosford
My wife Lori and I stopped at Julie’s Café recently for a late breakfast. A disheveled man sat alone at another table, and we couldn’t help but overhear him mention to Julie that he was homeless, on his way to family in Kentucky. It was cold and rainy, and he had a long way to go. Julie graciously prepared him a sack lunch and directed him to the local ministerial association for additional help. He vanished out the door; maybe he’s in Kentucky by now.
It’s hard to imagine being homeless, but it’s a fact of life for too many people (the average age of a homeless person is eight!). In contemplating this man’s situation I had to wonder what were his dreams? Even the simplest of homes, a cot to sleep on, a source of heat, would probably be central.
In my past two columns, I’ve written about the dreams of the Native Americans. Their dreams were visions, gifts of the land, that gave them direction in life. As white pioneers supplanted them, though, their “dreamer religion” faded away. The land was no longer seen as a source of spiritual power.
But despite this shift away from the traditional Native American relationship to the land, it did not lose it’s hold on people’s dreams. Only now, instead of spiritual visions, these dreams were of a more practical nature. This land inspired dreams of freedom, of a home and a way to support one’s self and one’s family. This land offered people a path through life that was every bit as important, every bit as real, and every bit as challenging as the guiding dreams it had offered the Native Americans.
So powerful was the dream of freedom that people came hundreds and even thousands of miles to pursue it. They crossed oceans and continents with little more than the shirt on their back, tired and poor, driven by a desire to be free.
It’s hard to appreciate the power of these people’s dreams, inspired by the prospect of owning a little piece of land. It was the motivation of a generation now past, and our desires today have little to do with working the soil. But to our ancestors, freedom was part and parcel to owning farmland.
European immigrants came from a world governed by ancient and entrenched ideas of class and privilege. One’s position in life was governed by one’s position at birth — if you were lucky enough to be born into an aristocratic family, you had little to worry about. Your needs were met. And the way your needs were met was by the labor and efforts of those of lower birth. They tilled the soil, tended the herds, built the roads and buildings, but shared little ownership in the fruits of their labors.
America served as a beacon of hope. Here, with hard work and determination, a man could wrest a living from the ground, build a home upon it, raise a family and one day rest satisfied beneath it. To European peasants and tenement dwellers from Eastern American cities, the endless vistas of the Great Plains were the Promised Land, holding before them the dream of freedom to work for one’s self, to follow the dictates of one’s own heart, to take pride in even the simplest of accomplishments because they were one’s own.
We don’t think about those who failed, those who turned back when grasshoppers devoured not only their crops but hoe-handles and harnesses. We’ve forgotten those who retreated in the face of blizzards and prairie fires, droughts and floods. They left nothing of themselves. But we are surrounded by reminders of those who persevered — those who’s dreams of a better life were so powerful that nothing could stop them. Their legacy is all around us. They built our towns, built our state and transformed empty prairies into a breadbasket for the world.
Like the homeless man on that cold dreary morning, they had simple dreams. But just as the dream of finding his way back home to Kentucky kept that man going, the dream of finding a home — of building a home — kept the pioneers going.
Dreams are ephemeral things; they can’t be measured or weighed. But the fruits they bear can. Families and businesses, careers and accomplishments all arise from the intangible, gossamer wisps of dreams. And while many may have forgotten it, this land has traditionally been as fertile a source of dreams as any crop that’s raised upon it.