Visiting the Old Home Place and the story behind the stories
As I headed out of Vega, I passed by the old 66 café where I used to listen to cousin Arliss tell jokes until the wee hours of many mornings. He always made me laugh and treated me like an equal, even though I was eight years younger.
I headed west on 66 toward Adrian, tried to take myself back in time as I traveled the route I had taken so many times. The first trip was described in Rivers Ebb.
Halfway between Vega and Adrian, Jake decided that the tall concrete silos in the distance had to be the grain elevators the man at the Vega café had described. He slowed and turned south onto a dirt road.
When he had covered what seemed like fifty miles down the road (it was just over twenty) he had seen no lights, no houses, no signs of life. Blowing snow stacked up against the fences on the side of the road, trapping huge tumbleweeds. This country seemed frozen in time, trapped.
The road was covered in snow on that long-ago trip. This time, it was dry, dusty, and rough. I had to slow to about twenty to hold the pickup together. Still, the creak from the wreck I had two years ago came back as the rough road rattled the pickup and my nerves. I stopped and looked down the road. Nothing as far as the eye could see and out there, and the eye can see the horizon.
I had traveled it many times in my youth; why did it still seem so desolate now, so strange? If memory serves, there were at least two houses where the school bus dropped off kids along the twenty-mile stretch. I found one abandoned house. I believe it was where Hubert Bronneman, a high school classmate, lived. The old Parker place was gone. I remember a young boy who claimed kin to Quanah Parker lived there. A rattlesnake bit him on the ankle as he stepped off the back step. The fangs bit directly into a vein and they were at least fifty miles from a hospital. They called it a miracle when he returned to school a few weeks later limping, but living.
Sure that he was lost, was traveling into an uninhabited snow-desert, Jake slowed and watched for any signs of life. Then he saw it—a dim flicker. A small house, Quonset-hut barn, a single cottonwood tree. But it was the wrong side of the road. Miles later and about to give up, he saw the dogleg right his father had drawn on a crude map. He shifted into second as he made the turn. A small frame house covered in stucco that looked like dried mud sat on his right, dim light coming from the windows.
The road has changed little in the decades since that day, but it is even more desolate. Even though the area has had a wet spring, clouds of dust engulfed my pickup as I made the turn. Ruts in the sand were at least a foot deep and felt like mud underneath my tires.
I wanted to go back in time, to visit the old place once more. But it was not to be. The house was gone. The well house, windmill, stock tank, barn and corrals—all gone. The only thing remaining was the shop. New corrals had been constructed closer to the road.
I stepped out, walked through the dust and weeds, hoping to find something of my family’s hardscrabble farming life, some physical evidence that we had lived there, eked out a living from the land. I found nothing physical, but I did feel a strong spiritual presence. I walked to the spot where the windmill and stock tank had been.
A still windmill, coated with snow in the moonlight, stared back at Jake as if he were an intruder in its domain.
With a boot, I brushed the dust where the well-house had been.
Jake followed his daddy into a small cinderblock building beside the windmill. The walls and floor were black and smelled of wet soot and diesel. Rance set the bucket of diesel on the ground and struck a match.
I walked over to where the house had been.
Jake stepped into a small hut-like enclosure attached to the house. A coal-oil lantern (stormy weather had knocked out power) sat on the gray and chrome Formica table that his grandfather hated, but his mother loved.
The shop was locked, but I looked through the windows, trying to imagine Arliss (Bob Lee in my books) sitting at the old desk where he had died. I walked over to the spot where the barn, corrals and loading chutes had been.
Jake felt Scar crouch under him as he watched the young bull. Rance’s voice was not raised, but it carried through the thin air to Jake’s ears as if it had been shouted through two generations of Rivers. “Be a good passenger, Son. Let the horse drive.”Jake took a light grip on the saddle horn and let the little gelding have his head.