Authors: James D Houston
To my father and mother, who brought their dreams to this western shore
Think of America, I told myself this morning. The whole thing. The cities, all the houses, all the people, the coming and going, the coming of children, the going of them, the coming and going of men and death, and life, the movement, the talk, the sound of machinery, the oratory, think of the pain in America and the fear and the deep inward longing of all things alive in America.
—William Saroyan, in
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze
from The Trail Notes of Patty Reed
Santa Cruz, California
night I dreamed again about my mother. She was standing in the snow. There were trees with snow-laden branches. She wore a long coat, and her hair hung loose. Her arms reached toward me. She was speaking words I could not hear. I ran through the snow, while her mouth spoke the silent words. I was young, a little girl, and also the age I am now. For a long time I ran toward her with outstretched arms. Finally I was close enough to hear her soft voice say, “You understand that men will always leave you.”
I stopped running and in my mind called out to her, “No. It isn’t so!”
Her mouth twitched, as if she were about to speak again. She wanted to say, “Listen to me, Patty.” She was trying to say it.
I woke up then and spoke aloud. “Women leave you too.”
I was speaking right to her, and I waited, expecting to hear her voice in my ear, as if she were close by me in the dark. I whispered, “Don’t you remember?”
But she was gone.
I dropped back against my pillow and lay there half the night trying to fall asleep so she would come to me again and speak again. I couldn’t sleep. I had started thinking about her life and papa’s life and all our lives, about who stays and who leaves who, and when, thinking how a man can be right there next to you and at the same time somehow gone off by himself, or maybe already gone away forever, how a mother can do that too, thinking then about all of them from those years so long ago, walking in and out of my mind like people in a pageant, ordinary people who did not expect such a crowd to be watching them pass by, papa and mama, my brothers and sister, the teamsters and mule skinners and grizzled husbands on their dried-up wagon seats and their women watching the trail ahead and the Indians who traveled with us from time to time, every kind of Indian you can think of, Sauk and Delaware and Sioux and Shoshone and Paiute and Washo and Miwok, along with all the others we met by accident on the way, though when you look back it seems anything but accidental.
Now, this morning, from my porch I watch the road that runs beside the lagoon and down to the beach. Between the beach and this lagoon there is a rail line that follows the sand. It’s an odd sight. Hundreds of pilings support the track, like a centipede walking from town to town along the shoreline. Beyond the sand the water’s edge today is quiet, like a lake. Beyond the beach, beyond the rail line, the Pacific Ocean spreads and spreads.
When I was a girl there were no trains anywhere yet out here. When we came through the mountains there was hardly any trail. Where the train cuts through the Sierra Nevada now, we made that trail. What a long road we have followed. And it has finally brought me here, to yet another house, where I have become another old woman looking out, looking back.
The ocean I see is not what we came searching for. The farthest border of the land was not our goal, but the land itself. I should say,
goal—the farthest land my father could envision, where he would somehow be his own man at last or be a new man in some new way and have a hand in starting something fresh and bigger than himself. I am not saying this is how it turned out. But these were his dreams. He was a dreamer, as they all were then, dreaming and scheming, never content, and we were all drawn along in the wagon behind the dreamer, drawn along in the dusty wake.
When you are eight years old, of course, you worship your father, as I worshipped mine. We trusted him to get us through these situations no one could have prophesied ahead of time. As long as he was riding beside the wagon on his precious mare, we figured nothing could go too far wrong. That’s how tall he was in my eyes then.
Seventy years and more go by, and everything looks different. I look at where the dreaming led papa, and led us, and I cannot excuse him as I could when I was eight, or eighteen, or even twenty-eight. Yet neither is it my place to judge him, as others have, or judge the way he contended with the trials of that crossing. Some have blamed him entirely, and blame him even now, after all this time, since he was the one who had organized the journey out of Springfield in the first place. Donner, of course, is the name that stuck, the one they have named the lake for and the route through the mountains and the monument that stands beside the route, with its brave-eyed family cast in bronze atop a pedestal raised as high as the snow that year was deep.
Maybe it has been a blessing, in the end, since the name itself causes a shroud to fall around the one who utters it, having become a synonym for disaster, poor planning, and savage behavior that makes the average person shudder and also salivate for the gruesome details of what went on. I have read stories and articles of what happened during that hateful winter until I am sick to death. Newspaper reporters and photographers still come around here to hound and pester me as if the only thing I ever did my entire life was spend five months in the snow. And yet, with all these books and diaries and endless accounts and semi-truths and outright fantasies that have spread around the world, the story of our family has been only partly told, and the story of my father. I have had a hand in that, I admit. Like a good daughter I have tried through the years to paint him as a hero, even when I knew better. And I do not apologize one bit. Why should I? He did some things almost anyone could call heroic. But now that there’s only me and the last few others still alive, there’s no harm saying he did other things that gathered enemies to him like an open jar of jam will gather ants and blowflies, and this cannot be denied.
You take his wagon—a good example of what I’m talking about. Did he foresee that it would be the biggest contraption on the western trail? Did he foresee that his children would be envied and pursued by others hoping for the chance to ride along and test the springs in the fancy seats? Did it occur to him that other men would laugh behind his back, calling it ingenious, but also grandiose, while women would resent his wife for traveling as if she were some kind of Arabian princess?
“If they’d have thought of it,” I once heard papa say in his own defense, “they’d all be riding along like this.”
It takes you half a lifetime to figure out what your folks were really up to when you were young. Eventually you come to know them and what they were capable of. You get to be my age, their very natures lurk within your own, as year by year more and more of who they were is revealed to you. Some things I never heard my mother say with her living voice, I hear her saying now, her voice alive somewhere within me. Her face visible somewhere in my face. I look in the mirror. I say, There’s mama. There’s papa.
Sometimes very early, before it gets light, I will still see him the way he looked the day we left Illinois. In his face I see true pleasure and a boyish gleam that meant his joy of life was running at the full. I see him with his hat tipped back, standing by the wagon he designed himself, the one other travelers would come to call the Palace Car. Everyone else who started west had been content with horses, mules, oxcarts, Conestogas. But not James Frazier Reed. A double-decker Palace Car that took four yoke to pull it, with upholstered seats inside, and a thoroughbred racing mare, and hired hands, and brandy after dinner—that was papa’s vision of being a pioneer. At least, when we started out it was. I have to say this for him, his vision was not like anyone else’s I have heard of.
HEY HAVE BEEN
following the sandy borders of the Platte through level country that changes little from day to day, an undulating sea of grasses broken here and there by clumps of trees along the river. Jim Reed likes it best in late afternoon, the low sun giving texture to the land, giving each hump and ripple its shadow and its shape, while the river turns to gold, a broad molten corridor.
He likes being alone at this time of day, with the mare under him. He wears a wide-brim hat, a loose shirt of brown muslin, a kerchief knotted around his neck. His trousers are stuffed into high leather boots, and his rifle lies across the saddle. He has been scouting ahead, in search of game, and now, as he takes his time returning, his reverie is interrupted by the sight of another rider heading toward the wagons. As the man and horse draw nearer, Reed recognizes him and calls out.