In 1849, thousands of people began a journey across an inhospitable and often unmapped continent to follow the dream of California gold. They were leaving all that was familiar behind and exploring unfathomed depths in themselves, as well as alien landscapes and sometimes hostile environments.
Some turned around, the cruel weather, raging thirst and failing livestock too much for them to endure. Many died along the way — cholera, dysentery and scurvy were rampant, and makeshift memorials flanked the routes west. Still they came, in what was to be the greatest mass migration in American history.
The ’49ers headed west in search of their fortune, but I see that wholesale migration as something more than gold fever. The country was full of hope and people, mostly men, who were willing to embrace the unknown rather than stay put to endure the same fate as their parents. The personal freedom that California offered those who would risk the journey was as valuable as the gold that “paved the streets.”
Even now, 150 years later, that same freedom of choice and willingness to try — to fail, even — is the spirit of this sunny state. I am honored to watch my students endure, struggle and succeed with the same pioneering spirit that kept a swarm of humanity putting one foot ahead of the other.
This year, I have lived in California for half of my life. For some reading this, I have known you for almost as long. Every day I count my blessings, and the greatest of these is that I have the freedom to make my own way with the support of people who have like minds.
Each of us carries a little California gold in our hearts, a little of the pioneer — it’s what keeps us going when the going gets tough.
Image credit: Loren Kerns via Flickr (CC)