When the Corn Died: Chapter Fourteen
The Westward Trek Continues
The Harper family is about to leave the Rockies behind and enter what is known as the Inland Empire of Washington State. Their new home is about 170 miles due west, waiting for them with open arms, but this is during the Great Depression and rarely did things go smoothly back then.
Let’s see how the Harpers are doing.
EXHALING AS WE LEAVE THE MOUNTAINS BEHIND
We pulled to the side of the road and looked out over the land before us. One minute we were on the western flank of the Rockies and the next we were looking out over land so brown, so dusty and so uninviting that it seemed like a mirage.
“How much further to Wenatchee, Peter?” Evelyn asked me as she wiped sweat from her forehead.
“Well, straight up ahead is the city of Spokane and after that we have about one-hundred and seventy miles of desert. At the rate we’re traveling we should probably reach Wenatchee in about, oh, seven hours, maybe a little less if the truck holds up.”
It was hard to believe all that green gave way to all that brown. The smoke we had seen earlier hadn’t been a forest fire. Instead it was a brush fire and judging from the size of the smoke cloud to our south it was one sizeable fire. The wind was blowing it eastward, towards the mountains, so it was no worry to us. Still, we had our own worries with a godforsaken desert before us and the truck’s increasing tendency to overheat and damn it was hot out.
Our son, Peter Junior, walked up and stood next to us.
“Hard to believe Wenatchee is the apple capital of the world, Pa.” he said. “Looking at this land, it doesn’t seem like anything could grow here.”
“Wenatchee is a different world, Junior. It’s on the Columbia River so it gets natural irrigation, and streams flow down from the Cascade Mountains. From what I’ve read it’s the perfect soil and conditions for apples. Compared to what we’re looking at now it’s an oasis. And I suggest we quit jabbering or we’ll never see that oasis today.”
We all piled back in the truck, Peter Junior, Emma, young Timothy, me and Evelyn. I put the old Ford in gear and coaxed it down the road as the sun climbed on our backs.
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The further west we travelled the flatter the land became and the more desolate it was. Dust devils swirled to and fro while tumbleweeds raced across the barren land. I thought of the lush Iowa soil we had left, soil so black, so soothing in your hands, a symbol of life and bounty, and then I looked at the dusty soil blowing all around us and I admit, I was feeling we were on a fool’s mission. As always, Evelyn read my thoughts. Her hand reached out and held mine.
“Mr. Wyman from the feed store back home, he traveled to Seattle once,” she said. “I was talking to him and he said to be patient on this trip of ours, that this bleakness was a test for the weak-of-heart, and if we passed this test we would be rewarded with beautiful land and sparkling clear waters. Don’t you worry, husband.”
I still wasn’t sure how I got so damned lucky, having Evelyn for a wife, but only a fool questions the decisions of the Lord Almighty.
We drove for three hours and I swear we saw a total of two people. One was an old farmer hauling hay in a pickup truck to God knows where. There were no farms visible no matter which direction you looked. He just materialized on a side road, waved at us as we passed him and then continued on down another side road. The other person was a young girl leading a scrawny, fly-bitten horse along the road we were driving on. We slowed and asked her if she was all right, she said yep and we continued on as the sun climbed into the southern sky and beat down on us with a fury.
Two people in three hours!
I was feeling pretty damned helpless when I spotted a lake off to the south, about a quarter-mile from the road, the only color other than brown we had seen all morning. I suggested we sit by the waters and eat some lunch and stretch our limbs. Nobody argued with that suggestion.
We found us a grove of trees to sit under. Emma spread out a blanket then helped Evelyn set out some lunch. There wasn’t much talking for a good half-hour as we all contemplated what we had left behind and what was in front of us. It wouldn’t have taken much convincing to get me to turn that truck around and head back home, but Evelyn put all that silliness to rest.
“We’ll be all right now, you all hear me? There’s nothing left for us back east. Our future lies straight ahead. Now finish up eating and let’s go see our new home.”
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One Final Turn Northward
Another three hours of dust and we turned north onto State Highway Twenty-Eight. The landscape changed as we began to once again gain elevation. Trees became more plentiful and we crossed small streams. Arid land changed to pine trees, farmhouses could be seen and then the pines changed to apple trees, trees pregnant with fruit, and old trucks loaded with apple crates were a common sight and it all changed again as we crested a hill and looked down on a valley shaped by the gods, the blue of a mighty river winding through a city busy with the living, the color of plenty, differing shades of green calling to us, saying welcome home, strangers, put down your roots and stay a spell.
We got out of the truck atop that hill and looked in silence at the Columbia River and the town of Wenatchee. Stress and fear, real-life entities during the trip, left me at that moment as I sighed loudly. I felt my eyes water up and there was no shame in that feeling. I put my arm around Evelyn, she did the same to young Timothy who reached out for Peter Junior and he to Emma, the five of us looking down on our future, the sun reflecting off the life-giving waters, and it was Timothy who broke the silence.
“Home!” is all he said, all that needed saying, the truth from a child’s lips, one simple word filled with hope.
“What’s next, Pa?” Junior asked me.
“Well, folks, we’ve got about four-hundred dollars left. I suggest we drive down into town, find a place to spend the night and then tomorrow we can find work and begin the next chapter of our lives. Unless, of course, any of you want to go back to Iowa, in which case we’ve got some talking to do.”
My family all shook their heads at the same time.
“Well then, hop in the truck. Like Timothy said, we’re home!”