Somewhere close by John Fuller is moldering in the ground, and Sarah Keyes as well. In this long grassy meadow grooved deep by the tracks of thousands of heavy wagons and hobnailed boots and hoofed beasts, many weighing over a ton, the story of the opening of the American West was written.
Of course, nobody knows exactly where in this place John Fuller or Sarah Keyes are buried. That, too, is part of the story, and it adds a touch of disconsolation to an already doleful tale. Imagine leaving home and hearth for the great unknown, striking out toward a bright future half a continent away, only to find an unforeseen death and a makeshift marker that soon totters, falls and rots into the ground even as you return to the dirt from whence you were made, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, forever and ever amen. Keyes had little hope of making the journey, so aged and ill was she, but she went anyway, a testament to hope and faith, if not disbelief. Her trail ended on the banks of the Big Blue River on May 29, 1846, and cast a shade of gloom over the entire encampment.
Maybe Fuller’s story is all the more pitiable, for he was in full health, and young, and might have made the crossing to the Oregon Territory if not for a slight miscalculation when pulling his rifle from the wagon. His mistake must have been a fairly common one, for a note attached to a stick planted in the meadow explained that “The mode was the usual one…the muzzle was toward him and went off by itself.”
Undoubtedly there are others planted here in this meadow, ‘49ers like Fuller or those who came before, or after, who journeyed perilously for hundreds of miles only to fall forgotten in this wilderness. Not too far away at another river crossing are a suspected 40 graves with only a few stones to mark their presence. I sometimes wonder if on certain nights, when conditions are just so, one can hear the rustle of homespun fabric and the creak of wooden wheels as the emigrants drop down from the low bluffs and wend their way toward the river. A friend of a friend once swore that he’d seen a ghostly array of ragged and weary conquistadores defiling down a narrow sandy arroyo south of Corrales, New Mexico, the dust of their spectral passing like a silver fog in the light of the full moon. As he crouched terrified behind a juniper, the clank of metal on metal rose to him, and the murmur of voices in a language he did not know.
There are no ghosts here today, or if they are they’re silent, watchful perhaps from the dark treeline where none but shadows gather as the northern horizon darkens to a purple bruise and lightning forks jagged and bright. What we’re waiting for is unseen yet, just past a low hump in the center of the meadow. A mountain man rushes past, his garb a motley assemblage of sweat-stained leather, knee-high boots, colorful headscarf and one very broad knife encased in a fringed leather sheath. In his hands is a tiny digital camera. If nothing else, the camera grounds me to the present even as I prepare for the past.
Time seems to have become more fluid. Old whitehaired Ezra Meeker, or someone much like him, is pontificating behind me in the shade of a gnarled oak, regaling listeners with his exploits along the Oregon Trail—first taken by wagon in 1852, and then in a reversal of directions in 1906 on a self-described mission to ensure the preservation of the trail. Before his death at age 98 the hoary pioneer had navigated the trip by wagon, train, automobile and airplane, which boggles the mind by any standard. Bonneted ladies with long flowing dresses meander through Civil War soldiers in heavy cotton uniforms. With them and around them are people who have witnessed mankind landing on the lunar surface, accompanied in near-real time spacecraft orbiting the outermost planets, and stared agape at the farthest recess of time, the Ultra Deep Field, a densely-packed corner of the universe with an estimated 10,000 galaxies. Which also boggles the mind.
But it’s not the soldiers or the ladies or old Meeker himself I’m here to see. Just over that hump is something that has not set foot here in 150 years, which adjoins me to the era of John Fuller and Sarah Keyes and the nameless others.
We watch the distant line of trees, startlingly green compared to wan dry grass, shorn low now to highlight the deep ruts. The sky is tormented, growing darker, and the first pulse of a breeze brings with it the musty smell of rain. Already the temperature has dropped 20 degrees. Were we back in the mid-1800s the meadow would be a hive of activity, families battening down the wagons, rounding up the oxen, preparing for a blow. As it is, most of the people are gathered near the food wagon, leaving a handful of photographers strung like a net in a loose semi-circle across the base of the meadow.
What we see when it finally crests the hump and appears like a sail on wind-tossed seas is something Fuller and Keyes would have instantly recognized, her through her dying eyes, Fuller with his wide open and unafraid. A covered wagon rolls effortlessly down from the bluffs, pulled by two massive oxen. They move with sure steps that appear almost delicate, graceful despite their bulk, conducted by the drover with his thin baton of whiplash. Three figures moving in concert across a meadow that once hosted thousands of such contrivances before the long slide of history left them in the shadows. And for the named and nameless ones forgotten in this meadow, surely this is what the resurrection will be like, not the archangel splitting the heavens with a trumpet blast but the Lord of Hosts appearing in an old wooden wagon pulled by lumbering horned angels.
Sometimes it seems like a thousand years have passed since the wagons rolled through, and sometimes it seems like they’ve never stopped.