Saturday, June 30, 2012
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Sucked into the city, spat out the other side and the open road before us. I’m running more on guesswork and a gossamer thread of orientation left behind by Sadie Vail on October 9 at the beginning of one of her more cryptic entries. “We came through Carbondale today,” she wrote, so Carbondale it is, but first I have to find the right backroad because frankly my patience with drivers has reached its limit. Sadie might have pranced her mules and wagons down Topeka Avenue without a care in the world but by the southern city limits I’m white-knuckling the wheel and contemplating gruesome and murderous thoughts. Idiot drivers seemed to be out in force today with an equal mix of crazy-eyed speed demons and witless texters. “Dual fifties up front,” I muttered. “Swear to God, my next car has to have dual fifties, and a rocket launcher in back.” My lovely wife cuts me no slack but rolling her eyes looks out the window in studied disregard.
When I finally breached my meager tolerance for tailgaters I started altering my speed just to screw with them. After all, we’re enjoying the scenery and imagining Sadie’s journey so the slower pace suits us fine and, indeed, makes it crucial to adequately chart the labyrinthine maze of dirt roads spidering the pages of our DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer. I’m armed and beginning to feel itchy, and anyway this selfsame road belongs to me as a citizen of the United States and I’ll drive any damn way I want to as long as it’s legal.
The easy route was to drop down K-75 but it certainly wasn’t the route taken by Sadie and crew so we turned off to follow an unmarked road southward. The complete absence of signage gave me pause but we were on an expotition as Pooh would say and didn’t need no stinkin’ signs. Or at least that was my thinking until we’d passed a dozen small lakes and drove farther than the map indicated Carbondale ought to be. Traffic didn’t taper off as much as utterly expire leaving our single plume of dust without equivalent. The ponds made me think of Sadie’s entry but her spectral presence was strangely withdrawn. After several long minutes of fretting we spied a grain elevator rising in the near distance and at last entered a town whose name went unremarked by any manner of lettering or guidepost.
“Time for the iPad,” I said testily. Lori reached in the back seat and pulled out the device. Within seconds a map showed our location to be downtown Scranton, seven miles to the southwest of Carbondale.
So much for dead reckoning, I thought, and so much for paper maps. Still, we were in Osage County even as Sadie had been.
A quick spin through Carbondale divulged not a trace of their mining history. By 1914 it had run its course but I’d hoped for a crumbling factory or smoke stack, something that would link back to Fred’s overpowering inquisitiveness which compelled him to leave the wagon train and investigate. “We saw the coal fields at Carbondale where they slip coal instead of mining it,” Sadie wrote. “Fred was [so] curious he could not stay in the wagon, he had to get out and go look. He did not see them working.” It’s probable they’d come upon an abandoned mill whose traces would soon bleed into the lush prairie leaving not a shadow of an imprint or memory.
“This is nice rolling land,” Sadie jotted down that evening, and it was, green and verdant where so much of the state we’d crossed had leached to a tawny dun from drought. And yet it was spotty, patchy with areas so desiccated that roadside vegetation turned chalky from a patina of dust as fine as flour and what few lawns we came across in those desertified areas were brittle and sere.
“Roads are pretty good yet,” Sadie wrote. “Then we came to lots of ponds.”
October being prime time for waterfowl migration, it wasn’t long before Fred saw a flock of ducks descending in a wide lazy spiral. He snatched his shotgun and took off in pursuit, the reins back in Sadie’s hands and the mules clopping down the road. Fred dropped to the ground and crawled to the edge of the pond where the ducks had landed and rose in one swift motion replicated by a whir of wings and water droplets scattering like jewels in the late sunlight, the shotgun tracking their blurred motion and banging one from the sky in a crumpled arc that cartwheeled it back into the pond. He was removing his boots to go in after it when a shout alerted him to the presence of a highly disgruntled landowner. Though the man was on horseback and Fred was afoot he didn’t wait to converse nor even let the man approach but hightailed it to the wagon as fast as his legs would carry him.
“Fred did not wait to see what he wanted,” Sadie wrote. “He was in an awful hurry just then to get to the wagon. He left his duck. I was scared but had to laugh at Fred for so was he.”
They drove a few miles more as the sun westered and their heartbeats calmed to their normal rhythms, and came at last to a likely place to camp. Fred unhitched the resurrected mule (“dead,” Sadie called it) and watched in horror as it made a beeline for the road where it parked crosswise in front of an oncoming car. The driver slammed on his brakes sending his vehicle fishtailing and yawing and dredging clouds of dust and gravel that almost but not quite obliterated their view of the vehicle decelerating to a halt just as its front bumper tapped the mule. Sadie didn’t bother to describe the nature of fevered language erupting from the car nor of Fred as he hauled on the bridle. After its bout with colic the mule had used up its extra lives and would forever now be in arrears.
Oddly enough, Sadie closed the day’s entry with a statement that demands clarification. “Of all the pet names I know,” she wrote, “the animals of these boys have the nicest.” Was it written in humor or sarcasm? One can only imagine the epithets heaped upon the obstinate beast as Fred dragged it away, “Sweetie” or “Sugar Plum” probably not among those included. Once again one of the animals had come within a whisker of leaving them stranded, something that undoubtedly filled their thoughts as the mule was secured. There were so few failsafes built in to their equipage, so many things that could go wrong at the blink of an eye, so many variables completely beyond their control, that their continued existence on the trail must have seemed precarious at best. The slightest misstep or miscalculation could leave them marooned on a sea of grass.
But where were they? From Carbondale their route took them southeast toward Overbrook yet from Rossville we had no inkling of their passage, no landmarks to claim or infer, only a void that Sadie had once filled, a vacuum, a nullity all the more frightening for its finality.
(To be continued)
Sunday, June 24, 2012
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Sometime after making camp on the night of October 7 a ghastly shriek erupted from the timber surrounding their wagons. The noise stopped them in their tracks as if time itself had ceased, each in his or her own singular chore, Sadie cooking supper, Lucile playing with a doll, the others cooking or cleaning or building small fires or feeding the horses, frozen into immobility by a wail unlike anything they had experienced, at once shrill and commanding and altogether terrifying.
Fred Vail alone acted. He grabbed an axe and moving toward the sound placed himself between the others and whatever menaced from the forest, the axe raised in a defensive posture. Apparently the move was so uncharacteristic, so unexpected, so wildly unorthodox that the others were reduced to fits of uncontrollable laughter.
“What are you going to do with that?” they asked.
“If that thing comes galloping this way I’m going to kill it,” he replied, gruffly I’m sure, undoubtedly miffed that his show of testosterone and manly manhood had been so soundly snubbed by the very people he intended to save—at his own peril, too, which made the snub all the more insulting.
“He was real brave,” Sadie wrote, whether from admiration or sarcasm it’s hard to say.
On inspection the noise was determined to be a wildcat whistle from a nearby mill. After the scare they settled down to an uneventful evening that by morning had turned to a hard rain.
October 8 was a repeat of all the other days when the group encountered municipalities: the women stayed with the wagons, the men went roving to find supplies, old friends or for the hell of it. One cannot help but wonder how many saloons or taverns were visited by Fred and the two Charleses during these extended excursions while the women waited, and waited and waited some more. Their eagerness to separate from the females at the first sign of civilization certainly indicates more questionable motives if not powerful thirsts. Topeka would be different in that the men went off to “get the mail and Sadie’s coat” with orders for the women to take the wagons through town to the south shore of the Kaw.
So they did. “I drove the mules through traffic of the city,” Sadie wrote that evening. “Think of it! All teams pranced all the way through.”
There’s a distinct measure of satisfaction and pride in her entry. She could just as well written “Think of it! Three women driving three wagons through the largest city we would encounter, prancing all the way through while all those idiot drivers goggle-eyed us in stupefaction. Who needs men?” She had to have been aware of the women’s suffrage movement which at the time was picking up steam with public exhibitions of stamina and strength (as well as through the halls of Congress), meant to show the dominant male gender that women weren’t “the weaker sex” as implicitly and rigidly enforced by the cultural and religious ideals of the time. Political pressure to allow women equal rights had been sparked by Carrie Nation’s hatchetations though the push to enable women the right to vote and assemble went back to the late 1800s. A 12-day, 170-mile “hike to Albany” was staged in 1912, only one such event conveying the fairer sex’s unwillingness to allow conventional mores to continue. “I am woman, hear me roar” would come much, much later but here was Sadie, Goldie and Maryetta guiding their covered wagons through city streets choked with automobiles, pedestrians and animals of various sizes and shapes while their men cavorted wherever, and they did so with verge, aplomb and an abiding sense of contentment.
Apparently the canines had had their fill of being trampled by errant wagons, carts and cars and managed to steer clear of danger. Meanwhile Fred and his male companions scoured the northern section of town for Sadie’s coat and came up empty-handed. Charles Jewell, having reached the end of his tolerance for the balky horse, traded it off for a more docile beast. By the time they returned the wagons had crossed the Kaw and were waiting about a mile on the other side. After some consultation the men returned to the city ostensibly to see if her jacket was in South Topeka which it wasn’t. Nights were getting cooler as autumn settled in, not the most opportune season to be without outerwear, and the loss concerned them.
By nightfall they made camp near a party of negroes, Sadie wrote. It was the first of a successive number of entries enumerating camps of what must have been itinerant workers and their families, many of them Hispanic. During 1900 to 1910 large numbers of Mexicans were imported to build railroads throughout Kansas, also as laborers in the sugar beet fields of Finney County, the meatpacking plants in Kansas City, and the salt mines in Hutchinson, Lyons and Kanopolis. Topeka saw a huge influx during those years. The gradual collapse of the Osage County coalfields around Carbondale and Pomona between 1910 and 1914 probably accounted for some of the camps as families and workers sought jobs elsewhere. It wasn’t exactly the Grapes of Wrath but it probably wasn’t far from it.
Sadie closed her daily log with a whimsical admission that the story of their own exodus was by necessity lacking in details that would put flesh on what was otherwise little more than a skeletal outline. There was so much to see, so many new experiences and details to record as they grew into their roles as modern day pioneers that it would take a full-time stenographer to tell it right. There was also the wagon’s suspension. “I can't write when the wagon is in motion or I could write lots of funny things that are soon forgot,” she wrote. As with most remembrances, diaries and journals there was never enough time for a retake. What went unwritten vanished as if it never happened at all.
(To be continued)
Friday, June 22, 2012
On the fifth morning out Sadie Vail and the others rose early in hopes of beating the rain. “I did not get to write this morning as we started too soon,” she wrote, proving what I’d suspected that she penned her thoughts at all hours of the day whenever she found a free moment rather than the way most people journal in the evening or the morning of the following day. Or at least that’s the way I do it. The problem with my approach is immediately obvious in that details get lost if not set down while still fresh. As we followed Sadie’s trail Lori jotted observations in a small notebook whether her own or mine dictated from the driver’s seat, though occasionally I’d feel compelled to pull to the shoulder and hammer out a lengthier passage in a pocket Moleskine cahiers notebook that goes everywhere with me. Sadie’s own diary would have been a delight to read if for no other reason than to study the flow of her thoughts in her own cursive script, the slant of each letter, the travel-worn pages.
The night had been noisy with trains blowing through on one side of their encampment and automobiles on the other and their horses raising a ruckus at either intrusion. Breaking camp was so hurried that she never had time to wash dishes but threw them in a box for later. The morning was cool enough that she needed a jacket but hers had been left behind though relatives had forwarded it to a Topeka post office where it was supposed to be waiting for her. In the interim she borrowed one of Goldie Jewell’s.
They passed through Rossville and Kingsville and Silver Lake. Fred worked on a lid for his tool box while Sadie managed the teams. The road was level and smooth with the Kaw River to their right and low grassy bluffs rising on each side of the floodplain. The agricultural diversity increased with the addition of orchards and fields of sugar beets, details that Sadie easily noted at her five-miles-per-hour gait. Light rain starting falling around noon when they stopped for lunch. They were 12 miles from Topeka.
Keeping the horses and mules under control must have been grueling as vehicular traffic increased with the approach of the state’s capital. Sadie’s only comment was “I have had to drive today till my hands are blistered. Convict work you know.” Considering the frequency at which she drove later in the trip, including in places she probably had no business doing so, one wonders what shift might have occurred to get Fred out of the driver’s seat and into—what? Several entries mention hunting and trapping for supplemental food, sometimes to comic effect. The most striking aspect of Sadie’s forced recruitment is that in most if not every instance traffic or topographic conditions were unfavorable. It’s as if Fred relinquished his position when the going got tough.
I wasn’t about to relinquish my role as driver but I was willing to deviate from Sadie’s route when hostile conditions called for it. Sadie’s crew had problems with cars in Topeka, and suicidal dogs, and my concerns were no different (minus the dogs, of course), so we left the route at Rossville to drop down to the interstate and bypass the city. In the century since Sadie rolled into town via horses and wagons the metropolitan area has spread like an oil slick devouring everything in its path, utterly eradicating most of what they encountered, so it wasn’t like we were going to overlook or miss some significant waypoint. If not for wanting to find Sadie’s coat or gathering supplies they might have considered avoiding the city altogether, too.
Sometimes I had a distinct sense that Sadie was looking over my shoulder or standing off to the side, her keen analytical stare taking in our every move not so much in judgment but in delighted affection. As we turned off the former Golden Belt Highway to bypass Topeka I could see Sadie nodding her head, a small smile playing on her lips. “Wise man,” she said. At other times she seemed distant if not entirely absent leaving me scrambling to pick up her trace. I was reminded of Jim Corder’s Hunting Lieutenant Chadbourne, a slim book described by Pat Hoy II of Harvard University as part textbook, novel, philosophical and philological treatise—“the only history book that is fit to read.” It details Corder’s obsessive search for a soldier who fell on May 9, 1846 at the battle of Resaca de la Palma during the war with Mexico, a second lieutenant who might have disappeared into obscurity if not for a small historical marker along a Texas highway that caught Corder’s eye. His evocative and illustrative chapter titles capture not only his search for Chadbourne but our own search for Sadie Vail and in some ways provided an underlying framework forever in the back of my mind. Perhaps I’ll Never Find Him opens the book followed by Catching a Glimpse of Lieutenant Chadbourne, But Sometimes When I Look I Don’t See, What Perhaps She Saw, The Tracks They Left and Will I Ever Know You?, all which neatly summarized our own obsession.
I have to confess that at the onset of our journey my interest lay more in exploring new places and seeing new sights than in any intricate, detailed historical recreation of a route taken a hundred years before by a woman I never met. It came as a surprise then to find myself pushing against the limitations of modern highways and landmarks to uncover a past that was forever gone but that could nevertheless be glimpsed or intuited by something as simple as a string of words written from the front seat of a wagon or while sitting around a campfire. The first time I felt her presence was misconstrued as no more than the unraveling of a puzzle, of discovering the right road and the right locale and imagining it for what it was both then and now, the merging of logic, planning, execution and terrain, or, to put it another way, mental acuity triumphant on a physical plane. What I didn’t take into account nor adequately prepare for was that she would come as if summoned.
So we turned off as clouds massed in the east. Sadie was briefly with us and then she was gone. We stairstepped down a series of ninety-degree bends past well-manicured farms and plowed fields stretching to the river and crossed the lazy waters of the Kaw. The air grew hot and humid and the light hazy. Behind us a century past three wagons rolled into Topeka guided by the dome of the statehouse visible from ten miles out. They made camp and plans for the next morning that included searching for Sadie’s missing coat and to get the mail, acts required of the menfolk but not the women who were left behind. “I don’t suppose we will get started very soon,” Sadie wrote that evening. In her mild reproof volumes could be written on what was left unsaid.
(To be continued)
Thursday, June 21, 2012
“Today is Sunday,” Sadie wrote on the morning of Oct. 6, 1912. “I feel better now.” She had a free moment while waiting for the men to return from buying hay in Wamego, and as she sat there she thought of the road behind and the road ahead and judged the terrain against her own desires and longings. Missing from her narrative is a reason for their exodus though now and then a sentence stands out for its simple declarative intent. If as is suspected by family members their journey was to find land to farm then Sunday’s entry was nothing short of revelatory.
Wamego impressed her for its size. Besides the impressive facade of the Columbia Theater with its rousant golden eagle, the downtown area included two barrel factories, grain elevators, a flour mill, three banks, two newspapers and the Union Pacific Railroad depot. Just south of the tracks the Kaw River rolled strong and wide. The land on the north shore had flattened onto a broad floodplain extending in places for as much as a mile. While the going was easier they faced new hurdles now, primarily automobiles and increased horse and buggy traffic which their farm dogs found fascinating—too fascinating, in fact.
“Our dogs are trying to commit suicide I guess,” Sadie wrote. “Every auto they meet they stand in front of it and they have been run over by buggies and the pup by a wagon.”
Their horses weren’t much better, especially when it came to trains and automobiles. The modern world was imposing itself and the animals had no means to cope except to balk, flee or fight. Roadways were the new battleground between urban and rural, old and new, progressively succumbing to motorized traffic which would eventually brook no other form of transport. Sharing the road then as now primarily meant the dominance of one means of travel over another. Tempers and frustrations must have been at record levels.
Driving through Wamego today it’s nearly impossible to get a feel for what they saw. The city has become something of a bedroom community for Manhattan, almost tripling in population while retaining its own sense of place as the steward for all things Oz. Though other towns have capitalized on the Wizard of Oz theme, Wamego has refined it into a pot of gold with its Oz Winery, Oz Museum, OZtoberfest, Emerald City Market and Toto’s Tacoz (shockingly good in spite of its name). Perhaps most shocking of all is that the city has managed to avoid the usual kitsch associated with theme parks though I wonder at times if the average resident wants to puke whenever hearing the two-letter word.
It was a splendid day for traveling as they made their way eastward on the Golden Belt Highway. “We have seen the prettiest country,” she wrote. “The leaves and every thing look so pretty. We have the nicest kind of weather.”
In 1912 the highway was being platted from Kansas City to the Colorado border near Kanorado along what would become Highway 40. Marking the route were 14-by-20-inch steel signs with “Golden Belt” written in yellow letters against a blue backdrop. Other organized highways were being planned at the same time, notably Highway 9 from Chicago to Colorado Springs, known as the Great White Way for its distinctive black-and-white marking. All were part of the Good Roads Movement, a national collective determined to make travel less arduous and uncertain through improved roads and unified highways.
As is sometimes the case with Kansas, the state perversely balked at joining the push toward modernization. A constitutional provision passed in 1859 prohibited the state from financing any kind of internal improvement, ostensibly to safeguard the budget from fiscal irresponsibility but in actuality crippling critical improvements in its infrastructure. Fiscal common sense seemed beyond the purview of its elected officials, proof that what goes around comes around. Not even the loss of federal funding in 1920 could sway the legislature to join the rest of the nation in establishing a transcontinental highway system. Kansas finally acceded to the inevitable in 1929, the last state to do so.
As welcome as better road was, what made the greatest impact upon Sadie was the land itself. “This is fine country, just as level as a floor,” she wrote. “If I owned some of this land I would not go on to ‘Misery’. We have seen lots of fine crops. Mostly corn and kafir corn. Lots of alfalfa and cane.”
And there it is, sandwiched between the splendid weather and dinner—If I owned some of this land. Sadie recognized the crops and named them and in the naming made them her own even if only vicariously. Her eye was on the agricultural bounty rather than the long miles ahead to a state she would not name except in jest. And then what? Surely she knew that the area around Eureka Springs, their destination, was the antithesis of the Kaw Valley, more vertical than horizontal and as heavily wooded as the primal forests once covering the entire eastern third of the nation. What drew them there forever lurks on the peripheries of her diary, unspoken and unnamed as if secretly she harbored doubts or misgivings about the venture and would not admit them into her thoughts. Maybe she felt that writing them down would impart a legitimacy she could not accept and so left them unvoiced in favor of a simple we are going, we are gone.
“We have had dinner and are gone,” she wrote that evening somewhere between St. Mary’s and Rossville. “Tonight is getting cloudy and cooler. I think it will rain. Our dog is still alive. We are camped by a railroad on one side and the Golden Belt road on the other. Two of the horses are afraid of autos and trains. This is the main line of the U.P.R.R. I don't know how much we will sleep. We came through Belvue and St Marys, Kansas this afternoon. I think we all have blisters on our seats.”
(To be continued)
Monday, June 11, 2012
The Louisville school, now closed.
A final flower for Sadie. With it is an antique washboard we brought to represent a few of the things they took on their wagon train. Some substitutions were necessary. Instead of bags of flour, for instance, we took Oreo cookies. It was a splendid compromise.
The IOOF lodge in Louisville, slowly succumbing to the encroaching woods.
Anyone who has ever kept or attempted to keep a diary knows the utter hopelessness of recording a life fully. Whether consciously or unconsciously details are left out, incidents overlooked, emotions ruled unfit for disclosure or posterity, and every word, every sentence, weighed, judged and critiqued by the most damning of judges—our own internal censor. Most of our daily activities are so boring and tedious anyway that it isn’t worth the paper, the ink or, in this modern age, the hard drive space to even make the attempt. Time constraints are also a limiting factor. Best to record details representative of the day, the incidents and thoughts that propel our story forward, and leave it at that.
After 40 years of keeping a more-or-less daily journal, that’s my theory, anyway. Mark Twain would undoubtedly disagree. “An autobiography that leaves out the little things and enumerates only the big ones is no proper picture of a man’s life at all,” he wrote. “His life consists of his feelings and his interests, with here and there an incident apparently big or little to hang the feelings on.” Maybe so, but as he set about to write his autobiography Twain’s opinion evolved under the difficulties of maintaining a coherent timeline. He finally traded linearity for spontaneity which certainly worked for him.
But as with all personal diaries, what’s left out often carries more weight than what’s included, especially if something is alluded to. Sadie’s short diary is no exception. On the third day out after a good night’s sleep the reborn mule was so eager to depart that when given the reins it almost jerked her from the wagon. Another mule managed to get tangled under a wheel and had to be extracted. It’s impossible to read her writing without sensing a rank amateurishness tainting their every move. I’ve often wondered if they were surprised each evening to have made it as far as they had.
The zinger comes midway through her first paragraph, obviously written early in the morning. “All are well but me,” she wrote. “This trip does not agree with me.”
Followed by—explanations? guesses? details? Only an allusion to something that probably happened the previous day: “We did not get stuck today.”
Either she didn’t know or didn’t want known that she was four months pregnant. It’s an odd thing to omit but she must have had her reasons.
The resurrected mule’s energy was needed for the first hill, steep enough that Sadie made a reference to it and, by my reckoning, almost certainly identifying their camping spot. When they reached Westmoreland two miles away Charles Jewell left to get his $18 horse shod. “This is a fine day and nice town,” Sadie wrote, with a pointed “We are still waiting.” While they still waited Fred Vail fashioned a shoe out of oil cloth for their dog which was almost lame. According to Sadie it refused to ride in the wagon, perhaps in self-preservation.
While not geographically true (and not far off, either) it could be said that Westmoreland is the true northern gateway to the Flint Hills. So named by Zebulon Pike in 1806, the Flint Hills encompass the largest intact tallgrass prairie in the world thanks to its underlying limestone chert that made farming all but impossible. Designated internationally as a distinct ecoregion with its own biodiversity, the region stretches in a narrow band from Marshall County in the north to upper Oklahoma. The rolling grassy hills crenellated with pale limestone outcrops resemble nothing more than the surge and swell of the seas that once covered the land during the Permian Period 250 million years ago. Early explorers wrote of bluestem grass reaching to their saddles and of having to outrun wildfires.
Considerably tamed since then, the Flint Hills are still a wild and haunting place, scarcely settled except for the occasional small town or isolated ranch unless one counts the abundant cows. Then as now the road undulated as they headed due south, more prairie than woods and the sky its own exalted presence. Once underway they left Westmoreland and crossed Rock Creek whose rocky bottom once provided safe passage to wagons along the Oregon Trail. Nearby Scott Spring was a popular camping ground for its fresh water and grassy meadows, now a small historical park. An unmarked cholera cemetery was partially unearthed when road crews laid Highway 99, creating unexpected delays while an archaeological survey located graves. Several were moved to the west side of the highway with a marker to note their presence.
The storm clouds building to the east evaporated into a blank haze. We pushed on down 99 cognizant of our departure from Sadie’s trail but hoping to make up some time. Recreating their exact route was never possible nor was I too concerned about an area I knew fairly well, and there was also the matter of what I call the Topeka Vortex, the great sucking gravitational maw of the region’s most populous city. The real adventure would come after we escaped its clutches somewhere to the south, and until then traffic would only build exponentially.
For a while Sadie walked beside the wagon. The wind blew fiercely snapping the canvas rigging and kicking up dust. “I have wore Fred’s cap all day to keep the hair out of my eyes,” she wrote that evening. The convoy passed through Louisville, a small town a few miles north of Wamego. Not much is left but a few hundred people, the downtown business district (such as it is) shuttered and empty as was the old two-story limestone school and the nearby I.O.O.F. lodge. The east side of the town borders heavy deciduous woods dark with shadows and a green creeper crept up the stone façade of the adjoining lodge. Within those shadows lurked rusted hulks of ancient automobiles and crumbling walls of former houses. Fifty years from now the remainder of the town will probably have succumbed to the forest’s relentless march.
A few miles more and they camped for the night. “The wind blew so hard I could hardly get dinner,” Sadie wrote. “We are three miles from Wamego, Kans. I am so sick I can’t hardly hold my head up tonight.”
And here was the last of the day’s unwritten gaps, intentional perhaps but hinting at a more expansive tale. Footsore, weary, suffering from an unnamed illness that left her reeling and a gale that might have seemed personal for its intensity, she managed to cook supper and feed her family. A few quick words jotted into her diary and she was finished: “I will go to bed now.”
Maybe as an aside or maybe as a snide comment, Sadie managed one last sentence. “Fred has piled up the dishes,” she wrote. I imagine them constrained by the era’s gender-specific roles, the man doing the manly roles and the women the womanly roles and never the twain transitioning into true equality. Fred put aside the dishes; he would wash them come morning, or leave them for her, but either way they would get done. Maybe it was just a matter of practicality, the late night, the miles long and steep, the battering by wind and dust and the ordeal of a journey they were undoubtedly ill-prepared to undertake. What came to me as we whipped past fields encroached by two-acre ranchettes each with its own cookie-cutter house was an image of night falling on the campsite, a tiny flicker of flame and the acrid aroma of woodsmoke, the pale shadows of wagons and sleeping livestock cast by the limitless stars ephemeral impressions against the prairie. Fred slips between the blankets beside his wife and whispers a soft goodnight. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” he says, and snuffing the candle brings darkness down like a shroud.
(To be continued)