While traveling throughout the far northwest we came across some incredible fellow travelers. Many of them were from Germany. As Americans we tend to see western history through “ethnocentric” eyes. We think only Bostonians, Chicagoians, and New Yorkers settled the west, discovered the gold, civilized the untamable. This was not the reality. Sure Jack London, Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L’Amour told us how great American expansion was but just how many were really Americans?
What we learned from our new-found German friends was that there was a great western literary history from an author from Germany named Karl May. Karl May never visited the “wild west” but his stories fueled westward travel even today. Every German tourist we met got their “western travel bug” from reading Karl May. May created the characters of Winnetou, the wise chief of the Apache Tribe, and Old Shatterhand. German movie westerns were made following the exploits of these characters. May contributed to the popular image of Native Americans in German-speaking countries. Many well-known German-speaking people used May’s heroes as models in their childhood. Even Albert Einstein once said, “he [May] has been dear to me in many a desperate hour”.
When we meet our fellow travelers, listen to their stories, learn their histories we become a friendlier world, a peaceful world. I would like to thank my two new friends, Kai Otte and Sabrina Schmetter for teaching me that. And to the many other German travelers we met whose names went unknown to us. I hope we meet again!