Wednesday, June 27, 2012

X. The trail grows cold

       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 The ponds made me think of Sadie’s entry but her spectral presence was strangely withdrawn.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)

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