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Hallo again to all.

Not long ago, we spent some time in York, in and under the Minster, exploring the archeological wonders visible in its crypt, where layer after layer of civilization was built on top of the old. We were suitably in awe of the Roman artifacts and newer bits of stone indicating later construction on that spot. We remember feeling an inexplicable bond with the unknown people whose bones occasionally showed up when digging the crypt, and reflected on the sense of permanence and monument that comes from being buried in the crypt of an ancient church.

Shortly thereafter, we took a weeks-long trip along the path of the Oregon Trail, starting in Independence, Missouri and ending in Willamette, Oregon. The name 'Oregon Trail' is given to the typical route followed by the hundreds of thousands of souls who migrated westward in frontier America, galvanized by the California gold rush and driven by the thought of starting a new life in fertile new land. We took a couple of weeks to travel in a motorcar the path that the settlers traveled in half a year of danger and hardship. We didn't drive on freeways and spend the night in hotels; we tried to take the very path that most of the migrants took, and we did a lot of walking and thinking.

There were no layers of Norman buildings on Roman foundations, but the sedimentary rock of which so much of that land is made showed layer upon layer from millions of years at the bottom of a long-dead sea, each new layer of sea bottom covering and obliterating the layer before. But looking closely, we saw along the Oregon Trail the same thing that we'd seen in the crypt of York Minster: highways built on top of railroad tracks built on top of wagon ruts on top of older wagon ruts. In a few places along the Oregon Trail the wagon ruts are still visible, hardened for the ages in sun-baked clay. Looking at them we confess to having felt a brief urge to drop a pound or two into a donation box, but of course there was no such box. This was all outdoors and largely unmarked.

In many places along the trail, but especially near the continental divide (a day's journey west of Fort Laramie, Wyoming), we saw a number of poignant grave markers, usually of young adults who died of cholera. Their graves are not in the crypt of a great cathedral but in the open expanse of a great high-desert valley, decorated not with stained glass but with cirrus clouds. Graves like this surely existed in Britain a thousand years ago, but there wasn't enough land to leave them alone and the graves are now hidden under a layer or two of progress. There is no shortage of land in the North American high desert; no one has needed to build on top of those graves.

No one will succeed in convincing us that there is any shortage of tickets to the Kingdom of Heaven. There's room for us all, should we be lucky enough to make it there, and if we do, we'd love to get a chance to swap stories with those whose earthly bones lie in an old crypt or under a vast meadow of parched mustard near the Front Range.

See you next week. Right here.

Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 14 August 2005

A thin blue line
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