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When the Corn Died: Chapter Thirteen

Pushing west

Pushing west

Where Are They Now?

When last we read about them, the Harpers were just outside Bozeman, Montana where their old Ford overheated. They are bound and determined to make it to Wenatchee, Washington, and start a new life as apple farmers, but the Great Depression has a nasty habit of shattering dreams.

Let’s peek in and see how the Harpers are doing.


We said goodbye to the Turcottes the next day. They rode along with us for twenty miles then said they were going to follow State Road One-Ninety-One south into Yellowstone. There was supposedly work there with the CCC and they needed money badly for their families back east. And so we shook hands, wished them well and watched as the two brothers took their first weary steps south towards the Gallatin Range. Ahead of us, to the west, stood a couple hundred miles of pure ruggedness, followed by a God-forsaken desert; I heard Evelyn sigh as she looked west with me, then felt her hand on my arm.

“It’s a big country, isn’t it, husband?

“Yes it is, Evelyn.”

“But all that bigness, Peter, simply means big opportunities. Let’s get back on the road and gobble up some of those opportunities before they’re all gone.”

It’s hard to imagine a man finding a better woman than Evelyn.

We took it slow that day, coaxing the old Ford, babying her, really, but she had served us well over the years and deserved some pampering. The peaks ahead of us, and to the south, all had a mantle of snow, an odd sight for Iowa farmers and a chilling reminder of all we left behind and all we faced ahead, rugged peaks, jagged peaks with the ability to slice a man’s dreams and leave him bloodied and broken.

Thirty, forty miles an hour, up one side of a hill and down the other, stopping often to put more water in the radiator, collecting our thoughts and our nerve, always pushing west. We passed the occasional ranch and drove through small towns with unfamiliar names, Logan, Three Forks, Cardwell and Whitehall. We crossed over rivers read about long ago in school books, the Gallatin, the Madison and the Jefferson. We saw the mines of Butte and the old prison at Deer Lodge and we followed the Clark Fork, its waters running shallow and peaceful into Missoula and still more mountains.

Crossing into the west

Crossing into the west

Pushing Further West

We began to have a sense for what the pioneers must have felt ninety years earlier, the enormity of it all, the butt-puckering feeling of insignificance in a wilderness that knew nothing of economic depressions or the vagaries of a stock market, that cared less about the silliness of man. This country always was and always would be, and my family seemed to recognize, as one, that we are all just visitors on this land and we damned well better respect it for the wonder that it was.

The heat lessened as we climbed. Gone were the clouds of dust and choking stench of rotting farm animals. The air was clear and even in August it had a bite to it, a hint that winter was fast-approaching and only a fool would be making this trip a month in the future.

As the sun set ahead of us, and dusk weighed down upon us, we slowly passed a sign that welcomed us to Idaho. We decided it was as good a spot as any to have a late dinner and find comfort in the blanket of approaching stars. Peter Junior and Emma set about making a fire while Evelyn unpacked some plates. I grabbed the .22 and Timothy and I went off in search of rabbit. Our luck was good and my aim true, and twenty minutes later Evelyn was skinning and gutting the rabbit as daylight left us for good and the fire announced our intention to stay for the night.

“A man could get swallowed up in this country,” Peter Junior said to anyone listening as he stared off into the darkness.

“True words, son,” I answered. “I suspect a man learns, right quick, to respect this country and give it its due. That or die young, a fool.”

Do the mountains never end?

Do the mountains never end?

After Dinner

We finished off the rabbit, a feast fit for weary kings and queens, and laid out our blankets for a night under stars so plentiful as to seem suffocating. Evelyn curled up next to me. Peter Junior and Emma, completely tossing aside all pretense, bedded down next to each other, with young Timothy content between them. The quiet was unnerving at first, so vast and unknown, but then it became comforting and I felt myself relax.

“What are you thinking about, husband?” Evelyn whispered.

“I was thinking I was the luckiest man alive, hon. You know, if we stopped and thought about it, this trip of ours, this starting over in a new land, well, it could be downright terrifying, and we would have a right to be depressed, leaving our farm behind us. But I don’t feel any of that. I’m looking up at the stars, and imagining God behind them, smiling down, and I know why He’s smiling. He’s approving of our decision and He’s glad to see a family glued together with love. That’s what I was thinking about, darling. I was thinking about love.”

I felt her hand slide down my stomach and then felt her touch, probing, tentative at first but then definite, and a part of me stood at attention and my breath shortened.

“How quiet do you think we can be, husband?” she said into my ear.

“I think we should find out,” I said in return, and then I kissed her, rolled over on top of her and made love, for the first time in my life, in Idaho.

The Next Morning

Dawn arrives late in the mountains, but by seven we had a fire going and were drinking coffee in preparation for a new day of adventure. As the gray of dawn turned blue we noticed, to the southwest, a plume of golden smoke rising from the mountains.

“What do you suppose that is?” Emma asked.

I was already rising and heading towards the truck as I answered.

“Unless I’m as wrong as I’ve ever been, that’s a forest fire. Gather up the stuff and let’s get the Ford moving west. There’s a town about twenty miles down the road. Maybe they’ll have some information for us and we’ll know what’s going on. Hurry now. I don’t like not knowing the story of that smoke.”

And That’s Where We Will Leave Them Today

But never fear, we will return to the adventures of the Harper family next week. Thank you so much for embracing this family and their story. I admit, I was skeptical when I started out on this writing journey. I didn’t think a story about common folk just living their lives would be appealing to too many people. Boy was I ever wrong!

I’ve decided not to make this into a book, so it will be around for awhile still. We’ll let the Harpers get to Washington and then they can decide if they want to continue telling their story. As is always the case, the characters in my stories make the decision how far a story will go.

Again, thank you! I’ll see you next week.

2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)