Thursday, November 22, 2012

XXIX. Hunting Sadie Vail

The rain was Old Testament in its ferocity. It lashed the house and hammered the windows and surged like a river through the street. It sluiced down the hillside in foaming torrents carrying with it anything not bolted to the ground. It seeped under the doors and through the windows and dripped incessantly from a dozen holes in the roof. The rented house echoed with the sound of dripping water.

Fred, rising at four a.m., peered out the door at what appeared to be a solid wall of water. He imagined what it must be like to try to make his way down the hill in that cascade, what it must be like below where a thousand such currents conjoined into one unstoppable avalanche of water. In such an inundation there were worst places to be than on top of a mountain, he thought, and closing the door went back to bed.

It rained all day, Sadie wrote. Buckets and pans filled. The roof sprang more leaks. A blaze roared in the fireplace but the woodpile outside grew sodden and spongy. Cold crept in and settled like an unwelcome guest. 

“It is still raining and rained all night,” she wrote the next morning. “Fred went and got a load of slabs from the saw mill to burn for 50 cents. It is real cold. We are alive yet and feel fine. I suppose this will let up by and by. If it don't we may be washed off this peak.”

Steam rose like smoke from Fred’s clothing as he huddled before the fire. At the last they were together, Fred, Sadie and little Lucile, Charles Chambers and his mother, Maryetta, Charles and Goldie Jewell, forced by an act of nature into a semblance of civility, not quite fighting for survival but prisoners nevertheless in a rickety old house on the edge of a precipice in a strange town far from home, their hopes and dreams fading by the moment, and the relentless rain keeping them indoors like penned animals.

I picture a pensive Sadie off to the side, her sodden diary open in her lap, pencil hovering above the page, withdrawn into her thoughts as she contemplated what needed to be added to further the story, what happenstance, what argument, what occurrence whose echoes still rebounded and whose implications darkened the horizon like storm clouds. The other men had stayed behind when Fred went out to secure wood, and here they were warming their hands as if somehow deserving of it, and it rankled, it ate at her insides. Who were these people, she wondered. How did things go so wrong. Why am I here when we should be in our own house, just the three of us, away from this hill, this leaky house, these strangers.

How does one write about the end of hope, she wondered. 

But there were no answers, only raw emotions and the cold seeping into her bones. 

The time for words was over. And with that, Sadie closed her journal and put away her pencil. She would write no more.


I had questions of my own as we passed the Land O Nod Inn where the wagon yard once stood. 

Lori had questions, too, most of which concerned our destination. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m going to find Sadie.”

But Sadie was slipping away, her presence a half-seen will-o’-the-wisp. And why shouldn’t she? There was nothing here for her and never had been. The rains hadn’t been a final straw but it wasn’t long in coming; the following January or February, just before their second daughter, Hazel, was born on March 1, 1913, Fred, Sadie and Lucile boarded a train for Blue Rapids. The single-sentence annotation at the end of her diary makes no mention of the others, an absence that might mean everything or nothing at all.

There were no happily ever afters, only retreat. And no trace of Sadie in Eureka Springs, either, except perhaps in one overlooked corner at the northern terminus of the city. We passed the chaotic downtown area, a series of dried-up springs (each with its own miniature park, almost shrine-like), the fire-gutted hulk of the old power and light building, and just before leaving town pulled into a gravel parking lot across from the depot.

Comprehension dawned in Lori’s eyes. “Yes,” she said.

In Sadie’s day, the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad extended 18 miles to Seligman, Mo. and then on to the world at large. Eight to ten trains rolled into the station each day. The original wooden depot, built in 1883, was being dismantled for a new limestone structure in 1913, so it was probably a major construction site as they waited for the train. Now the tracks are ripped up leaving only a few miles for excursion cars that operate in the summer season.

The depot was shuttered, so we slipped through the gate to the tracks. I tried conjuring an image of Sadie, a presence, and could not. There was only the quietude of dusk as birds fell silent and shadows deepened. Not a breath of air stirred.

“She was here,” I said. 

She sat in that depot with her husband and daughter, came out that door, walked across those selfsame bricks and boarded a train long since turned to scrap, and if anything still existed of her aura it was a faint whiff of sorrow, almost of mourning, drifting like pollen in the still air.

What did I expect? I couldn’t say. Our journey started more as a lark, a way to see new country while researching personal history, and if it evolved into something much deeper (so deep that Sadie would forever remain on the periphery of vision), there were questions that could never be answered and a sense of emptiness at all the things unwritten. Unlike Sadie and her companions, I knew the end of the story before we set out in pursuit, by which reckoning there should have been no surprises, no mysteries. And yet there were, such as when we found her at Pierce City and again at Roaring River, her spirit as palpable as the fish crows and the cold, clear waters erupting from the stone. Along the way we tried seeing the road as she would have, the immigrant camps, the burgeoning minefields, the rocky roads and small towns already fading at the dawn of the automotive age, and tried to get a sense of her expectations, too, her emotional state hinted at in her diary, but the pictures we drew were inchoate, vague sketches already shimmering into invisibility. They would not hold or coalesce. In the end I knew no more about Sadie Vail than I did at the beginning, and arriving at the Eureka Springs depot platform a hundred years too late found her already gone on a different journey I would someday take, but not here, and not now.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

XXVIII. Dissolution

The lack of forward momentum, the idle talk in the wagon yard, the idle hands with little to do, the scramble for credible information about land and work, the increasingly apparent lack of opportunities in a city on the fading end of its boom cycle, and, equally important but disagreeably difficult to resolve, their futures whether together or separate, took their toll in the wagon yard. Sadie’s diary rambled from hope to despair, and for the first time injected pointed opinions about her companions. Clearly she was uncomfortable with the admissions for in almost every instance she forcibly swung her attention to something uplifting or positive as if the inclusion might counteract her negativity. For every up, a down. It wasn’t life in balance but life falling apart, the first cracks splintering the facade of relationships grown close through common toil and shared dreams. 

October 26, the yard bustling with activity, cookfires smoldering, men and women setting out to seek gainful employment. Charles and Goldie Jewell accompanied Fred as he hunted down the man who had offered them work cutting and hauling wood. It might not be what they wanted or expected but it was better than nothing. Or so they thought. When they found the man, they were chagrined to learn that the offer had changed; it had an edge to it now, its terms more restrictive and far less generous. The contract called for a certain amount of cords of per week but mentioned nothing of payment. Nor did further discussion bring clarification. The man held his ground, certain that he had them at his mercy, and altogether wrong. They simply shrugged and walked away.

With the bust of the only job offer they’d managed to find, talk turned to the surrounding area and its opportunities. Perhaps Eureka Springs wasn’t the best place to be; maybe someplace outside of town where the land opened up and smoothed out its wrinkles was where they ought to be looking. Land they understood, and farming, and Arkansas soil was the most fecund and rich they’d ever seen. Stick a shovel in the grass and crops would climb it like Jack’s beanstalk. “Anything you plant just grows,” Sadie wrote, reiterating a sentence later with “The finest crops grow here.”

How she knew that is unclear. It might have been advertising hype, unprincipled boosterism to keep the unwary and the gullible coming as the springs dried up and the economy tanked. But the idea stuck, and talk around the wagons centered on broadening their search. 

Charles Chambers voted to pull up stakes and return to Kansas, or maybe continue on to Searcy County, another 75 or so miles to the east. The others refused to even consider his suggestion. 

But something else was at play here, something Sadie failed to elaborate upon either through neglect or deliberation: Chambers was either injured, sick or slothful. And, perhaps, scatter-brained. “Charles Chambers says he feels pretty good now, anyway he is talking about working!” Sadie wrote. Her exclamation point stands as a damning indictment. “He don’t know what he wants to do, and baffles all the rest.”

“We are having an awful time to decide what we want to do,” Sadie wrote, “and what they want to do. If we women say anything the men get mad, then get over it. We laugh a while and then want to cry a while, but we don’t.”

The stress kept them on edge. Sadie’s thoughts wandered across the written page, often contradicting previous passages. “We all feel so good,” she wrote, adding that they sleep soundly and wake refreshed. A few sentences later she wrote of how tired she was from the trip, a weariness not merely her own but of the entire party. “We are all tired,” she confessed, and increasingly irritable at one another.

It was decided to spend the following day looking for land to homestead. Fred would go out, and maybe the Jewells, while the others remained in the wagon yard or tried other venues in town. “I hope we do something pretty soon,” Sadie wrote. 


“Well the boys looked over three homesteads and are not satisfied with any of them, but guess we will take one and settle down,” Sadie wrote the next afternoon. “We may starve but we can't help it. I had a good cry this morning for I wanted to go see for myself but Goldie wanted to stay with Aunt Maryetta and I did not want to go alone so I did not go. We may go in the morning. We have had some of the worst confabs you ever heard.” 

Each dawn brought a new set of arguments. October 28 was the worst day, with strife tearing the group apart and none able to reason with the others. The only thing they agreed upon was that the wagon yard was a seething hellhole they had to escape from. 

Fred, Sadie and little Lucile settled on a brushy homestead outsider of town. The first order of business was to commence clearing. As they worked, Fred had an eye for potential places to set his traps. They were eager to start their new lives in the fertile dirt of Arkansas, even if the place was rundown and leached of promise. The thought that they had come so far for so little ate at their resolve, sharpened their tongues, turned them on one another.

The chaotic nature of their dissolution carried over to Sadie’s writing. Her daily entries grew shorter and shorter, as if the energy required to order her thoughts was too much of a burden. Sentences became disjointed and without foundation. What’s left in those final days are pieces of a puzzle whose parts are mostly missing.

“The other boys rented a house in town,” Sadie wrote. “They started for it and us for the country. But when they got almost to their house they asked us to go and stay all night and start out early in the morning. We all ate supper together. They want us to rent one room of their house and I don't want to, but we may.”

Whatever cohesiveness they’d had on the road devolved into pressure and in-fighting. As darkness fell in a place she hated, with friends who had grown into strangers, Sadie wrote, “We have had the awfulest time today.”

The next day the decision was made to move into the bedroom in the house shared by the others. It was perched on a ridge surrounded by even taller ridges, or mountains, as Sadie called them, and pretty enough except that Sadie didn’t care much about climbing mountains, as she wrote that afternoon. 

“We have not much to put in it, but it is enough till we find out where we are going to settle,” she wrote. “I can't say that I like it yet for I have not seen much of it.”

The only good news of the day was that Fred got a job hauling railroad ties. It would take him away from her during the day, leaving her with people she no longer shared an affinity with, and all the time the baby in her womb grew bigger. 

The next day the rains came.

(To be continued)