Early in that summer of 1905 we came west on a train, Ma, Pa, my sister Pearl and me. Pa worked as a clerk at my grandpa’s store in Ohio. He said he wasn’t ever going to get anywhere being a store keeper. Ma said he was just restless by nature. That he was a dreamer with big plans. Pa said he was felt stifled being indoors all the time working for someone else. Ma gave up her house on a tree lined street, her friends and her church so that we could we head for Oregon where the U.S. Government was giving land away and Pa could try to chase his dream.
I was confused. Miss Lindstrom, my teacher, had taught us about the wagon trains bound for Oregon sixty years before and how so many had risked everything for the fertile soil of the Promised Land. Surely all that land was gone by now. I had no idea what we would find when we got there. Truth of the matter is, I doubt Pa did either.
Other than a trunk that carried little more than our clothes and Ma’s bible, we left everything behind. The train was packed with people just like us. Made me wonder how many other dreamers there were. We got off the train at the end of the line in a place called Shaniko. There, Pa bought a team, a wagon and a milk cow. The wagon was loaded with tools, bags of flour, rice, beans and coffee. Pots, pans and everything else we might need to start a new life went in too. That left little room so mostly, we walked.
Four long, dusty days later, we made it to a new little town dubbed Farewell Bend. Nothing I saw along the way was what I imagined Oregon to be like. Everything was brown and grey. I could tell Ma had reservations. She hadn’t said much since we got off the train. She was most likely thinking of the green elm and oak trees back home.
The next morning, we headed east, out into the desert where the free land was. There were hundreds of folks in wagons just like ours. From talking to folks, Pa wanted to look at the land near a small settlement that had sprung up called Hampton. The dust was thick on the main wagon road to Burns and the sandy soil was deep, slowing our progress. We made Millican the first night and Brothers on the second. There were a bunch of folks camped in a grove of juniper trees a mile or so off the main trail. Most of the men at the camp were gone. They had ridden out to survey the countryside for quarter sections to claim.
There was a spring there and it was good to clean up and wash the grit away. Ma made beans and bacon for supper and afterwards, Pa and me walked over to a fire where a bunch of men were standing around.
One man, a stranger among strangers became a bit agitated. He uttered a curse and said,
“You’re a bunch of damn fools, all of you. This country ain’t good for nothing and in a hundred years it’ll be good for nothing else.”
It had been a hot day and the evening air was still warm. Another man said,
“Well, all you need to grow crops is heat and water. I reckon it may be warm enough for things to grow here.”
The first man responded, “And you could grow crops in hell iff’n you had the water. I’ve covered 100 miles of this country and other than the river in Farewell Bend and that spring yonder, there ain’t no water here. There may be a few damp years with some spring rain that you might make it through but when a drought comes, it’s going to be the end of you. Don’t know where I’m going to go but in the morning, I’m getting shut of this country.”
The next afternoon, we made it to the little settlement of Hampton. I was just twelve but if this is where Pa thought our future was, I had my doubts and I know ma did as well, she just hadn’t voiced them yet. It was hot and still, every once in a while, off across the desert, a dust devil would dance for a moment before it disappeared. The country scared me, it was too big. You could look off across it and see further than you could travel in a week. When we were in Farewell Bend, the Cascade Mountains were still a distance to the west and here we were sixty five miles from town and we could still see them.
Pa set out early the next morning to look for our homestead. He returned just before dark and was all smiles. He reported that he had staked out land off to the northwest near a series of buttes that rose there. He said that there was some pine on top that we could use for a cabin. Junipers, which were the prevailing local species of tree, were just too tough to work with. Also, he reported that there was a wash that ran out of the hills where a pond could be dug to catch the rain water that drained off of the buttes. We rigged some tarps between trees for shelter from the sun until the cabin was built. After Pa made a trip back to Farewell Bend where he bought some chickens, vegetable seed, ten barrels of water and other things we would need, he and I set about cutting trees and hauling logs for the cabin. By the middle of August, we finished a one room small house that had a little loft where Pearl and me slept on pallets. One day, I saw Ma looking at that little cabin with tears on her cheeks. It sure was different than our house back home.
Winter came early that first year. Cold rains turned the ground into a muddy quagmire that a wagon couldn’t get through and before Thanksgiving, there was a foot of snow on the ground. When it wasn’t snowing, it was frigid and the wind raced across the land like it was being chased. It was, by more wind.
One night, when that wind whistled and moaned through the cabin’s cracks like a runaway freight, I heard ma plead. “John, can’t we go back?”
“Damn it Marlene,” was his reply. “There’s nothing to go back to.”
I watched Ma grow grim and gaunt. The doubt simmered in her like lye on the stove. Her disappointment spread like a weed.
I recalled the truth of that stranger’s words when spring came and all it brought was bone dry, soul numbing cold. One day Pa was grubbing the sage out of the sandy soil when he clutched his chest and collapsed, just 39.
I wonder if Pa knew – soon as we arrived in that country – that there were no dreams to be found there. I sometimes thought afterwards that the reality kicked him like a mule and somehow, he just gave up.
Ma made plans for us to go back to Ohio, said I could finish school, maybe work at grandpa’s store. I guess she was hoping I wasn’t restless like Pa.
It was fitting, I suppose, that we buried him there in that barren soil. Soil that was adept at growing only sage and killing every hope and dream that he could of ever planted there.