Each morning they’d rise and concoct a breakfast over a small fire and knock apart their camp in rituals and roles common to the 1800s and in the evening when the sun westered repeat the process in reverse order, footsore, sunweathered and famished, marking on a tattered map the course of their day’s march and the miles yet to come. All day and all night trains screamed past vomiting smoke and ashes that spread like a dark and gritty miasma into their eyes and lungs or rose plumelike into the still October air, the twin iron rails ringing and clattering and humming and their pack animals skittering away. Vehicles were a constant irritation like the whine of mosquitoes, the coalblack coupes, beige touring cars and sleek roadsters with their quadruple rubberized tires and engines guzzling the miles at paces they could only marvel at. The age of the automobile was ascendant yet they inched along with their worldly possessions packed under taut canvas rigging like landlocked mariners adrift on a sea of grass. And if they seemed unmoved by the endless exhibition of speed and mobility, if never once in Sadie’s journal did she express a yearning for faster transport to lessen their journey’s interminable length, they were fully conscious that theirs was a last gasp as the horsedrawn era concluded with a finality and suddenness the infrastructure in no wise was prepared for. Technology exploded exponentially and old ways of life were disappearing though not without the inevitable glitches and miscalculations, the unsinkable Titanic sunk and the proliferation of Germany’s U-boat fleet at Heligoland a calculated rush to war.
Meanwhile they progressed through a land incrementally transitioning to a southern flora, the undulant swells abating and the terrain settling into a smoother plane. The soil was loamy in places and rocky in others. “Some is good and some is not,” Sadie noted laconically. Wild cherries, pawpaws and hickory nuts offered an autumnal bounty they greedily harvested. As they stairstepped toward Overbrook they saw their first burgundy clusters of pokeberries, Phytolacca americana, which they knew to be poisonous.
It was there that we picked up their trail, or their presence as I came to intuit. We parked in an otherwise nearly deserted downtown and walking to the center of the broad avenue looked southward past the grain elevators and the shuttered businesses to a horizon bleeding away to an indistinct demarcation between earth and sky. The heavens had turned gray and heavy with an hint of unseen menace. As there was some uncertainty over the correct road, I put the iPad to use by verifying the route and once again experienced a momentary thrill at seeing the little pulsating beacon pinpointing our current location. Here you are, the beacon affirmed, in case you haven’t a clue.
And here they had been, rumbling down Maple Street at their usual leisurely clip, the steel-shod hooves of their horses and mules echoing off the two-story limestone buildings few of which remain except for the former Masonic Lodge now housing city hall and the police department. A sign in front welcomed visitors to Overbrook while another below it advised “No parking any time.” Mixed messages. As sometimes happened I wondered whether Sadie’s presence was triggered by landmarks that had held particular significance to her or if facades of buildings existing during her passage acted as a sort of proxy, indelibly imprinted with a shadow of her being or at least a glimmer of her memory.
After losing Sadie’s trail for a disturbing 30 miles there was a deep sense of satisfaction in picking it up again. She had to have driven the wagons down this very street. Everything about it felt right. After suffering the quizzical stares of several natives we resumed our pursuit ever southward. Lori scanned the DeLorme Atlas for geological features until drawing a complete blank tossed it in the back seat.
“Nothing on Rattlesnake Hill?” I asked. She shook her head.
There was some confusion in Sadie’s entry for October 10 as if by the time they made camp the details of the day had jumbled and mingled into an indecipherable mélange. “We had a very hard rocky hill to climb this afternoon,” she wrote. “I got out and walked and helped all I could. It was called Rattlesnake Hill.” An Internet search for a hill by that name proved fruitless and would until weeks after our return when new research with additional parameters garnered exactly one hit. The city of Ottawa had a remarkable website with detailed driving tours throughout Franklin County, on which I found a two-sentence description. The hill was, the site said, “an early rendezvous and lookout for the Sac and Fox Indians. Although the road now winds south at the base of the hill, the earlier road is still visible.”
We knew only that we hadn’t topped, climbed, descended or circumnavigated any such hill or elevated rise but we damn sure wanted to know it when we saw it. At Michigan Valley, an unincorporated town about nine miles south, a small weathered sign advertising a local museum immediately triggering a response from Lori. That it was a good dozen miles out of our way didn’t escape nor please me. Museums are for Lori what boutique shops are for other women. Fortunately for me, museums are less expensive.
Still, I balked at the deviation and cited the increasing thunderheads, the miles to our evening destination, all to no avail. She whipped out her cell phone and called to see if the museum was open. It wasn’t, but a kindly lady asked if there was anything else she could help us with.
“Have you heard of Rattlesnake Hill?” Lori asked.
“Sure,” the lady said. “After you turn east on Highway 68 the road does a little squiggle. That’s Rattlesnake Hill.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect but somehow found myself imaging something along the lines of LaBajada Hill south of Santa Fe, a long, meandering and very steep transition into or out of the Rio Grande Valley. It’s still impressive and a major slowdown to truckers but not like it was in the early 1920s when it contained more than a dozen hellish switchbacks. According to a Route 66 history it was so steep in places that automobiles going uphill had to drive in reverse because gravity-fed gas tanks couldn’t supply fuel to the engine. Rattlesnake Hill wasn’t so imposing though clearly visible from several miles distant. We stopped on a side road and studied it for a while, trying to imagine it in 1912 from the perspective of a wagoneer. Being mostly shrouded in trees gave it a curvilinear shape masking its steepness though a narrow swath dotted with power lines provided some definition. It was steep all right, and if the power lines followed the old route then they were forced to go straight up without the benefit of switchbacks, hellish or otherwise.
It was, she wrote, “a very hard rocky hill. I got out and walked and helped all I could.” It’s possible they double-teamed the wagons, taking them up one at a time and letting the mules and horses rest between trips, pushing, pulling, bulling their way to the crest while around them a crisp mistiness filled the air and the skies turned broody. There was no way they could afford to be on the hill when the storm broke so they threw themselves into the effort and clawed their way up and over and thereafter rested for a spell while the mules rolled in the grass.
We drove it three times just to get the feel of it and never could thanks to modern highway grading. The incline barely registers to a modern car though the roadway has changed to a curving half-loop around the lower shoulder of the hill. Everything about Rattlesnake Hill had been tamed. No sign or marker designated its impact on bygone travelers nor its historical significance, neither was there a sign for the narrow creek wandering along its base. According to the iPad it was One Hundred Ten Mile Creek, a lengthy moniker that begged the question, 110 miles from what?
Not Pomona, the next town. We stopped and ate a hearty lunch at Smoke Masters BBQ, whose huge brisket sandwiches were equal in every way including much more flavorful to the fabled hill we’d just crested. The proprietor told us that when she was little her dad and brothers would ride carts down the hill usually ending in bruises, some bloodshed and the utter ruination of the carts. It was great fun, she said, but I’m surprised nobody got killed.
Sadie and crew camped somewhere to the east of Pomona. They had watched sorghum being made earlier in the day and by afternoon Fred opted for a nap while Sadie took the reins. The land unrolled even flatter and the air damper with humidity thick enough to feel on the skin. By nightfall it looked like rain, she wrote. The same could be said for our afternoon.
She finished her day’s journal with the usual “We are all well.” At times I wonder if she meant it as a measure of surprise that they had safely weathered everything the road offered, the hills and the mud, the rocks and the wind, that their mules hadn’t died (and stayed dead), that their dogs hadn’t been run over or attempted suicide, that their horses hadn’t balked, that they hadn’t accidentally eaten a poisonous berry, that their toes and fingers were yet firmly affixed. We are still well, she wrote, those four words encompassing entire volumes of untold stories, narrow escapes and secret emotions left behind on the trail like so much dust sifting off the iron-shod wheels of their wagons.
(To be continued)