I was struck by the naked ambition of Langford Hastings (1819–1870) while reading John McPhee’s fantastic geological travel guide Annals of the Former World. You just don’t hear about people ruthlessly misleading people because they want to become ‘President of California’ anymore:
Very few emigrants chose to cross the Bonneville flats, although the route was promoted as a shortcut—“a nigher route”—rejoining the main migration four basins into Nevada. It was the invention of Langford Hastings and was known as the Hastings Cutoff. Hastings wrote the helpful note in Skull Valley. His route was geologically unfavorable, but this escaped his knowledge and notice. His preoccupations were with politics. He wished to become President of California. He saw California—for the moment undefendably Mexican—as a new nation, under God, conceived at liberty and dedicated to the proposition that anything can be accomplished through promotion: President Langford Hastings, in residence in a western White House. His strategy for achieving high office was to create a new shortcut on the way west, to promote both the route and the destination through recruiting and pamphleteering, to attract emigrants by the thousands year after year, and as their counselor and deliverer to use them as constituent soldiers in the promised heaven. He camped beside the trail farther east. He attracted the Donners. He attracted Reeds, Kesebergs, Murphys, McCutchends, drew them southward away from the main trek and into the detentive scrub oak made fertile by the limestones of the Wasatch. The Donners were straight off the craton—solid and trusting, from Springfield, Illinois. Weeks were used hacking up loads in the race against thirst. Even in miles, the nigher route proved longer than the one it was shortcutting, on the way to a sierra that was named for snow.
“To a naturalist nothing is indifferent; the humble moss that creeps upon the stone is equally interesting as the lofty pine which so beautifully adorns the valley or the mountain: but to a naturalist who is reading in the face of rocks the annals of a former world, the mossy covering which obstructs his view, and renders undistinguishable the different species of stone, is no less than a serious subject of regret.”
McPhee paints geologists as artists of scientific discovery, prone to verbose description and a poetic feeling of being everywhere and nowhere in time.