Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reflections on family, New Mexico and southern Colorado

XXIV. Wherever we are, we're here

The night of October 21-22 would be a long ordeal for Sadie, Fred and Lucile. In their little grove of timber with torrential rain lashing the canvas and running like a river down the rutted road, the horses took umbrage at each other and screamed and fought like the wild animals they were. Huddled inside their tiny quarters the sojourners awoke to the racket and wondered at the cause but none dared venture forth into the liquid night but instead shouted imprecations until the horses wearied and fell back into a dazed somnolence. The cold rain was misery enough without the ceaseless wind moaning through the trees, reasons enough to burrow deeper into their blankets which they did until Fred bolted upright with a groan.

“What’s wrong?” Sadie asked, heart pounding.

“Sick,” Fred whimpered, and hunched over in agony.

There was nothing Sadie could do but rub his back and try to keep him warm. Purdy would have a doctor but the two miles separating them were as good as a hundred, impossibly far under the conditions. Fred’s guts knotted and spasmed as if an internal war were being fought. The precariousness of their situation was not lost on Sadie nor was the certainty of their isolation. She felt utterly alone as she tended her husband as best as she could, softly crooning a lullaby more for Lucile who watched from the covers with eyes wild with fright while the others eavesdropped in their respective wagons. And so the night passed at its own protracted pace until dawn lightened the clouds and a dripping world emerged from the darkness.

Fred staggered from the wagon to a smoldering fire the others hastily assembled, teeth chattering but seemingly better though Sadie hovered over him like a mother hen. Suggestions that they return to Purdy were nixed by Fred who swore they would continue toward Butterfield. It wasn’t much farther than Purdy and anyway he wouldn’t hear of a backtrack. Their way was forward and forward they would go, and forward they went after a lukewarm breakfast.

They forded Pogue Creek and forded it again several miles further along on their approach to Butterfield. For the most part the road held the high ground allowing for good time, though once past Butterfield the land fractured at the descent into the Flat Creek drainage. Every vale, every hollow embraced its own tiny rivulet or crooked stream, the water clouded and foaming from the night’s deluge. What few bridges they encountered were crude structures of roughhewn oaken timbers, and where nonexistent they approached each crossing with trepidation. The men studied the waters as if seeking divination before committing the wagons and their possessions to the riverine flow, and then goosing the horses with a sharp flick of the whip to impart a sense of haste. On either side the woods closed in in solid ranks. Unlike the wooded thickets back in Kansas, those on the edge of the Ozark Plateau were all but impenetrable and darkly shadowed even as their canopies blazed in hues of scarlet, gold and bronze. Here and there the ground was littered with hickory nuts which they gathered by the bucket. 

It was afternoon when they entered Cassville. At the time it was a sleepy little hamlet of less than 800, its downtown ringed with two-story brick buildings each bristling with its own disparate awning. Sidewalks were fashioned from limestone blocks and the streets dirt or mud depending on the season. It wasn’t until the 1930s that an effort was made to pave the streets, and then only after concerned citizens engaged in the nationwide “Good Roads” initiatives. The city, engorged now to almost 4,000 residents, bills itself as the Gateway to the Ozarks, and seemed every inch the gateway with traffic-choked streets.

From Cassville the road began its ascent onto the plateau. The road was surprisingly stable from the underlying stone, a fact Sadie noted several times. “We have had pretty good roads today but our last few miles were rocky,” she wrote that evening. “We have forded lots of streams and came through lots of puddles of water. It has not been muddy, too many little rocks for that. We had some hills.”

Fred felt better but remained very sore, as if someone had beaten his stomach with an axe handle. Their spirits remained high, however, as they climbed out of the valley. Each mile brought them nearer to the Arkansas border and their destination of Eureka Springs, and here, at last, was the Ozark Plateau. It was a milestone of sorts that left them feverish with haste, and only reluctantly did they call a halt as the sun westered behind distant ridges hazy with humidity.

After their evening chores the men built a roaring bonfire. The heat felt good as the day had been cool, but Sadie withdrew as was her custom, opening her notebook to the last entry and settling down to her thoughts. The diarist’s first obligation is to separation, not merely from others but from the anarchy of one’s own introspection. Linearity follows chaos only by entering into a state of stillness. Within that quietude words become form. 

The day had been an emotional rollercoaster for Sadie. From worrying about losing Fred to an unknown illness and the idea of being stranded in a strange land so far from home, to being poised on the edge of the Ozarks with the end of the trail almost in sight, the ups and downs had been but mirrors of the terrain itself. From here on verticality would dominate. Until they reached Eureka Springs the wilderness would swallow them whole. The idea filled her with dread even as it quickened her pulse.

She wrote of Fred’s sickness, of the road and the towns they’d passed, and chose as her final thoughts a little candor. “I don’t know where we are, but we are here,” she penned, here being in a stand of timber illumined by the bonfire, alive with the elongated shadows of the men spinning their tall tales. Where that might be was anyone’s guess; Cassville was behind them, that’s all she knew. Here being good enough description, here with the night sky ablaze with stars and the caterwauling of barred owls, here with the sound of a stream bubbling over rocky shoals, here with her family and closest friends, here where she confided she would like to live.

(To be continued) 

Sunday, September 09, 2012

XXIII. Are we there yet

       All night their sleep was punctuated by the shrill clatter of rails and the foghorn bellowing of trains blasting through Pierce City’s innards, the reverberant echoes rebounding off the rocky ridge at their backs so that the sounds fully and inescapably enveloped them before slowly trailing away down the Clear Creek Valley. By morning they were still weary and unrested but there was no help for it. The menfolk slipped away to town for a shave and groceries while the women tidied up, perhaps wondering why they weren’t allowed the same luxuries, though if Sadie harbored such thoughts she never set them to paper.

They followed the valley in its southeasterly course toward Monett where they turned south to parallel the tracks of the St. Louis and San Francisco. At the time it was a fairly sizable town with a population over 4,000, now twice that and disagreeably modern. Its lifeblood was the railroad which brought prosperity and growth especially in agricultural products such as livestock, tomatoes, apples and Ozark strawberries, the latter making it for a time the “Strawberry Capital of the Midwest.” Monett had a full-scale Harvey House and Hotel which operated at the depot, a magnificent YMCA and a darker past that would forever be known as the Trail of Tears, Manifest Destiny’s wretched excess in land planning that saw the forced removal of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek and Seminole tribes. 

We sidetracked into the city to size it up and found ourselves wanting nothing more than to follow Sadie toward what awaited her and the others. In most ways it could have been any burgeoning city in the United States whether north, south, east or west, a cardboard cutout of a cloned suburbia whose architecture and character could never rise above bland. 

The land itself was achingly beautiful, and changing rapidly. To the east no more than a handful of miles the land splintered in ridges and valleys spiderwebbed with clear cold springs and sluggish creeks, with rounded wooded knolls and rocky bluffs and shadowed hollows. Here and there caves offered a portal into the underworld. The Ozark Plateau and the South were upon them and the topography was one of verticality. 

For now Sadie and the others skirted its westernmost flanks. The road’s grade was fairly level as it followed the railroad tracks but it was hard and stony nevertheless. “We have gone over the rockiest road I ever saw, and we had it all day too,” Sadie wrote that evening while huddled under the canvas rigging. They rolled past a Waldensian Church and the aptly-named Goodnight Cemetery, the New Salem Church, churches seemingly on every corner and each with its own flavor of Christendom, and entered Purdy late in the afternoon. It had been a difficult slog and the number of miles covered were few. By then Sadie was limping after jumping out of the wagon and stumbling to her knees.

The town was the opposite of neighboring Monett. It had never amounted to much, never thrived or grown much past its original boundaries, but a modicum of town spirit remained in a new park and the beginning of an upscale downtown business block. The manager of a new coffee bar saw us taking photos of the water tower and invited us inside to view the historic photographs lining the walls. Due to generous investments from a prominent citizen, he said, businesses were expressing interest in the town. Indeed, the place appeared to be waking from a long deep slumber, but underneath it was a troubling (to me, at least) history of fundamentalism run amok. 

According to a New York Times article dated April 17, 1990, a group of students and parents lost a suit seeking to overturn a ban on school dances. The uproar followed the school board’s decision to allow a century-old ban to stand after a group of ministers fought to preserve the ban in the predominantly fundamentalist population. Though the suit went all the way to the Supreme Court, the Court refused to hear the challenge. A federal district judge in Missouri classified the ban as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. “This was a case about religious tyranny,” another judge said. No matter, the case went down in flames. A school board member was quoted saying “You better hope there’s never a separation of God and school.” 

That I find this so distasteful and frightening belies my roots when I used the selfsame argument as a means to remove myself from an equally distasteful school function. After learning that my fourth grade class was to take up square dancing lessons, I was excused from the activities by a note from our pastor which elaborated on our beliefs regarding the fervent dangers of adolescent contact with members of the opposite sex. Dancing was merely one of innumerable sins that would cartwheel scofflaws into the darkest depths of the flaming abyss, we were inculcated. Playing cards was another, though my parents dismissed the notion so long as we weren’t playing poker. I learned early on to manipulate fundamentalism when it served my ends and to ignore it when it didn’t, and finally gave up on it entirely as being stifling and neurotic.  

Two miles south of Purdy Sadie and the others made camp in a small stand of trees. Clouds that had been building all day burst as they were eating supper. 

“It rained and hailed real hard,” she wrote. “We are not wet yet but may all be drowned by morning. The water is running down the road like a creek.”

Sadie, Fred and Lucile managed to stay dry though the others weren’t so fortunate. “The rest of the folks are real wet,” she wrote. “They are not as well prepared for rain as we are.”  

Sitting there in the cramped closed quarters of the wagon, rain thundering on the canvas, Sadie nursed her bruised knees and rehashed the day’s journey. The pages of her diary were slightly sodden from the humidity and the lantern low, the little flame dancing as flames dance regardless of the strictures imposed by intolerance and fear, her pencil poised as a final thought unfolded through her weariness and pain. Behind her Fred softly snored and Lucile bundled in her blankets barely stirred while she alone remained alert to her own recollections, lost in an unremitting desire to leave something to posterity, a note to a future relative who might look back to find her there in a torrential darkness like none other on the edge of the Ozark Plateau, brow slightly furrowed, pencil raised in a long moment’s hesitation before dropping to scribble her deepest heart’s yearning.

“I will be glad when we get somewhere,” she wrote, and closing the covers of her diary snuffed the lantern.

(To be continued)

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Way We Worked Project: Here, there and everywhere edition

Into the Ozark Plateau, Sarcoxie and Pierce City

XXII. Fish crows and the opening of the South

       We left Mansfield with the sun lifting from the hazy east as did Sadie from the outskirts of Joplin though our modes of transport were so very different, and the roads, too, ours smooth and relatively level to facilitate speed and hers a latticework of straight lines and ninety-degree bends and the Center Creek drainage to cross with its steep ridges and teeth-jarring stony base. “We had five big hills to go up one side and fall down the other and the rocks about shook us to pieces,” Sadie wrote. Our own journey was mundane if not boring to her own adventures which included getting stuck on a particularly steep incline and having to double-team the horses to haul their covered wagon to the crest. For all that she kept an eye on the land and the habitations of its people and judged some of it akin to the best of Kansas and others to what she termed Misery in every sense of the word. 

“The morning breeze is real cool,” she wrote, probably when they broke for lunch. “They have had no frost here. We have seen the nicest roses and lilies and all kinds of flowers here in October, just think of it.” 

Sometime on the morning of October 20, 1912, they passed through the small town of Sarcoxie (called Sarcolie in her diary). The town perched on bluffs overlooking Center Creek, its town square reputed to have once been the former abode of Chief Sarcoxie who chose the location for its spring. Following the upheaval of Manifest Destiny settlers found the land ideal for strawberries, and for a while it was known as the Strawberry Capital of the World. Allegedly the town printed its own currency with an emblem of a strawberry and during the Civil War flew a Confederate flag from the flagpole in the center of the square in an act of contrariness. The strawberry fields were still there when Sadie and her partners passed through, something she noted in her diary. “The land here is not very rough and not much timber, most all prairie,” she wrote. “We have seen acres and acres of strawberry beds and the nicest of wheat fields.”

The strawberry fields are long gone. Now the town boasts itself as the Peony Capital of the World, and if the square is an example of it then the name is well deserved. We pulled into the square and got out to stretch our legs, and while admiring a mural painted on an empty downtown building met a passerby who provided the town’s history as well as offering a peony catalogue available at the bank across the street. Other people stopped to say hello making Sarcoxie the friendliest place we’d stopped in since our departure from Blue Rapids. 

More importantly was the idea that Sadie had been here. We were back on her trail and headed in the right direction though there was no sense of her presence here. The downtown area had fallen on hard times but the central park was manicured and the town mostly clean but we looked in vain for something we could call hers. It seemed emptier somehow, lacking an essential element known only to the two of us. 

The terrain rolled like ocean waves, lush and green and sparsely settled. Where Sadie and the others stairstepped down toward Pierce City the names of the various social structures perfectly described the early settlers’ impressions of the land’s beauty: Prairie View, Spring Valley, Pleasant Hill, Pleasant View, Fairview and Mount Pleasant. Our own modern road followed the former San Francisco and St. Louis tracks to what’s left of Wentworth, a minuscule settlement that wasn’t much bigger in Sadie’s time. Three miles further on the tracks rebounded off steep bluffs to snake down through a narrow cleft of a valley where it looped eastward into the city along the Clear Creek bottomland. 

Like Mansfield, the town was something of a mixed bag architecturally. Its centerpiece was a magnificent historic edifice taking up a city block, though on either side vacant lots bespoke of the destruction caused by a tornado in 2003 that damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the downtown area as well as nearby homes, many of which were later torn down. The patchwork of open lots reminded me of Greensburg which fared even worse with its F5 tornado, and has never fully recovered. On a darker note, the town was infamous for three lynchings that occurred in 1901, an incident that caused Mark Twain no end of bitterness. His essay about the lynchings, originally titled The United States of Lyncherdom, was so inflammatory that Twain himself thought it best shelved until a later date; when it was finally published in 1923, it was a watered down but still stinging diatribe against not only the lynchers but the unpardonable smirch to the state’s good name. “And so Missouri has fallen, that great state!” he lamented. 

Geography dictated that Sadie and crew entered town on the same road as we did, and passed by the downtown area with its superb architecture. The sense of her presence was strong, perhaps best described as the influence exerted by a magnet on iron filings. It was a definite stirring, a quickening of the pulse, a feeling of being watched or perhaps even waited for. At being tugged or pulled, or drawn into. We parked on the main road and thumbing through maps determined our next course but mainly read Sadie’s diary for clues while a few inquisitive faces peered from the glass windows of the police station in an otherwise deserted town. 

It was a Sunday, Sadie specified, and one of the horses was inclined to be balky if given the chance. “We have seen some log cabins but none to my taste,” she wrote. “We came through the edge of Wentworth and we are now camped in the city limits south of Pierce City in Lawrence County. I washed an apron. We have had supper and will retire as we are all very tired.”

She made it sound so ordinary, so normal, that it takes an act of the imagination to center her in her time. The world was moving toward a war that would be called the greatest in history, ways of life were becoming obsolete and a sort of modernity was advancing at a pace that would only accelerate in the coming decades, yet here they were strangers in a strange land plodding along at a turtle’s pace in covered wagons many thought relics of a former century. New Mexico had just become the 47th state of the Union, Robert Scott died a lonely death in Antarctica, the unsinkable Titanic sank, the U.S. Marines landed in Honduras and Cuba and Nicaragua, Tarzan of the Apes was published, the first Keystone Cops film debuted, Kansas, Arizona and Wisconsin voted for female suffrage, the Girl Scouts was founded, and the first aerial attacks in modern warfare were carried out by Italian dirigibles on Turkish troops. And in Pierce City, Mo., little of that mattered.

Trains were the news of the day, endless series of trains rumbling along the tracks a stone’s throw from their encampment, frightening the horses and setting the dog to howling. That itself was a breadcrumb left behind which we eagerly followed. A growing sense that we were on the cusp of finding Sadie and the others, that they were watching and waiting for us to decipher the clues of her brief entries, gave us a sort of preternatural awareness of our surroundings. As we drove through the main intersection we saw to our right a city park nestled against a tall rocky bluff and whipping the car around in the middle of the street made our way across the railroad tracks to a narrow lane on the far side of a white-steepled Catholic Church. A sign marking the edge of the town’s established borders made the park the only possible location of Sadie’s camp. 

“She was here,” Lori said breathlessly, echoed by my own sentiment. More than that it seemed she was here, weary but ebullient over the beauty of the land they had traversed, the changing land flowering at her arrival, the riven uplift of the Ozark Plateau beckoning them onward toward what they hoped to be a sort of Promised Land, and here in the near distance a vehicle approaching with her great-granddaughter staring back across an immeasurable gulf of time. We parked beside a placid lake reflecting the clouds and stepped out into birdsong of a different dialect, green herons and Carolina chickadees and high above a pair of fish crows with their high-pitched jeering calls, and it was not at all difficult to imagine Sadie shouting “They’re here!” to a small knot of people gathered around a cookfire, Lucile with her broken doll, the stray dog, the Charleses and Goldie and the matronly Maryetta, Sadie clapping her hands in joy and for a long expectant moment as real as the clouds in the sky, and as ephemeral, just think of it.

(To be continued)

Saturday, September 01, 2012