A deeply affecting account of the journey west…The writing is assured, and the novel succeeds in rendering not only the overwhelming landscape and the small, hard details of daily life, but monumental sorrow and the meanderings of love in its many channels. --New Yorker
The words and images swept me along. Not since Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 modern-day Western, All the Pretty Horses, has a novel's opening been as mystifying and mesmerizing.
--Bob Minzeheimer, USA TODAY
The tough poetry of Fisher’s novel buoys this chronicle of Oregon migration along on an incantatory wave…Fisher’s depiction of a familiar seeming journey that is not adventurous, as myth would have it, but a daily exercise in folly and survival, is astonishing. A Sudden Country requires a patient reader, but the spell it casts is transformative and rare. The heartbreaking first chapter alone is worth any number of lesser novels.
--Karen Karbo, Entertainment Weekly
This article originally appeared in High Desert Journal Issue 5, Spring 2007.
“My God, what a sight!”
The June sky was barely light and we were already up and handing the panels of our goat pen onto the roof rack of a very long red steel stock trailer when Timothy arrived, the first to see us off. We’d scarcely exchanged greetings before he had his camera out, climbing on the trailer’s fender to shoot the shadowy interior—catching in blurs the dozen moving goats, six hens fluttering for perches, the buckets, bales of hay, fence posts, tools, spare tires, festoons of irrigation hose. Two crated cats were yowling. The old Dodge PowerWagon was already filled with trunks, cold-boxes, spare parts and automotive tools, and the little Chevy truck beside it stood piled high with stacks of bookshelves, dressers, duffels crowded under chair legs. It pulled the two-horse trailer where the mares were loaded, eating hay. Our dogs paced and panted, then scrambled in, one for each front passenger seat.
“You are insane!” Timothy grinned.
I was three months pregnant and felt like I was coming down with something. My husband and I had just sold much of what we owned, crammed the rest into these trucks and trailers, and were headed off the map for good. We were leaving California for some place our friends had heard about, but never seen. Iowa? Ohio?
Idaho. We were patient. I-da ho.
“Where will you stay?” Timothy was asking now. “When will you get there? How long will it take?”
We had no idea. Two of our four vehicles were unregistered. Neither truck ran well. We had tools and parts. We had horses. Once, when our truck had broken down outside of Mesquite, Nevada, we’d lashed the radiator behind Dave’s saddle and ridden into town. We’d done this kind of thing, we said—on a smaller scale—before.
Child of the West
I’d never seen myself as a product of some specific heritage.
My father is an architect, my mother is a teacher. I spent my first nine years in cities on both coasts, and in those years I heard some stories of great-grandmothers in covered wagons or teaching in one-room schoolhouses in Oregon and California, but as a child I had no time for old ladies in long dresses, and presumed that everyone had their share of pioneer ancestors. I meant to be a cowboy. I grew up watching Gunsmoke and The Wild Wild West. At six, a Christmas photo has me squinting on bright sidewalk in a hat and chaps and six-guns, holding up a plastic palomino I named Thunder. On car trips, I’d look out the window at the passing landscape and make all the people, roads and buildings disappear until the world was as it had been once, and I (on my imaginary horse) was alone in it.
When I was nine, we moved to a house at the edge of a small town near Fresno. Farmland began behind our back fence and stretched uninterrupted to the Sierra Nevada mountains, too distant to see through valley smog. On the few clear days of winter when they showed—gleaming ghosts against blue sky—we treated them like rainbows, and called each other out to see.
I wore blue sailor dresses with white socks to school, had a dog and swing-set and a bicycle. But even then I knew the life I lived had nothing to do with who I really was. One evening at a dinner party in a strange house, I happened on a book about Jim Bridger. I started reading. Three hours later, reluctant to go home, I asked to borrow the book and it was given to me. I was found.
Cowboys seemed suddenly uninteresting, those childish heroes displaced by a new pantheon of American mountain men. I learned the names of rivers, ranges, Indian tribes. On maps, I traced the journeys of Jed Smith and Fremont and Joe Walker. I pinned a U.S. map of population on the wall beside my bed and dreamed of riding across places colored pumpkin brown, (where the population per square mile was two or fewer). On weekends I wore jeans and stuffed my pockets full of compasses and knives, matches, candles, rags and string. We drove to the Sierras, where I was eager to lead the family hikes, and hoped secretly for disaster. I was ready. My parents, teasing, called me Jim. In those years I came to know that I would grow up and go away to live in whatever wilderness was left. The wildest one.
I thought these were my own ideas, though even as a child I knew that families handed down all kinds of legacies. I had my share, both good and bad: an aptitude for reading, an inability to catch balls; I had this side’s teeth and that side’s pretty forehead. But I had no notion of ancestral precedent, let alone a unanimous genetic legacy having anything to do with this desire to get away to somewhere more remote. I was entirely different, as I saw it, from my nice-but-boring parents or their nice-but-still-more-boring parents, people who all lived in towns and houses, in retirement double-wides, in apartments with carpeting and drapes.
City on a Hill
We hugged our last goodbyes, took our places behind the wheels, rolled out.
Ten miles from home, we blew a tire. Down on the dusty gravel margin, Dave pumped the jack while I spun the lug nuts off the spare. The goats all stood and stretched to look down through the trailer’s bars like school kids at the zoo.
“We might have too much weight.”
A friend of ours, a fellow teacher, passed and slowed. “You guys all right? You going to make it?”
He wished us luck, waved and pulled away.
We--or I, at least--had quit my teaching job at last because I’d become increasingly an idealist. A dissident. I’d moved straight out of college to take a job teaching high school in the hills of Southern California. But in the seven years I lived there, the population nearly doubled. Land and water were growing scarce, prices soaring. Fences had gone up, the land we’d walked and ridden on had disappeared behind locked gates. I taught Civics, Current Events, Environmental Studies, History, and the more I taught, the more I started to believe that the life I lived was morally and environmentally corrupt: I worked inside all day for money, then bought things that were bad for me, or had bad sources, or bad consequences. I was a teacher and consumer and wanted to be more: more self-sufficient, more capable, less tied to this madly spiraling and unsustainable Economy of Growth. I taught my students about Roanoake and the Pilgrims, lingered too long through Westward Expansion, but never saw my own connection to any City on a Hill. It took me years to recognize how closely modern liberal extremity resembles passionate Puritanism: guilt-ridden, self-improving, rigidly certain of the truths of its enlightenment and intolerably righteous. At the time, I was right there with the holiest, and Wendell Berry was my prophet: my Bradford, Knox, my William Penn.
More recent years have led me squinting through smeared-carbon photocopies where I recognize not only my ancestral family names--Dickson, Miller, Fisher--but see the first familiar motives. John Fisher, a Lancashire glazier and ship-builder, must have been struck through when he heard the words of William Penn, because it galvanized him into selling everything. (His neighbors surely stood on the street and asked, as he filled some dray with trunks and boxes, “Where will you stay? How long will it take?”) I imagine goats and hens, young wife and two small children consigned to the mercy of the seas aboard a cramped and unreliable ship (which undoubtedly carried too much weight). They arrived in an American wilderness so profoundly off the map that there were scarcely names for what he bought--a thousand acres in what would soon become the colonies of Pennsylvania and Delaware.
As it happened, John Fisher was no match for the rigors of the climate. But his family bred and prospered, as did Robert Dickson’s. The Scotsman Dickson, in that same year, had also found his country to be intolerably corrupt, and took his separatist beliefs to the wilderness of Connecticut. His son, born there, would move to land still more remote, in Nova Scotia, not far from the son of Alexander Miller, another pious Scotsman (“dissident” is written by his name) who’d taken up 500 acres near Truro. Two generations later, their descendants married.
Did these first men believe, as I did, that wilderness would somehow save them? That to be in it was to access a kind of virtue, a kind of purity one could find, or at least maintain, among the busy temptations of the Godless? Here, like me, were people not just drawn by the romance of the wilderness, but people hoping to break their ties with what was wrong, to recover something lost.
We drove. Traffic piled up behind us. Our aspirations, already drawing us toward poverty, were drawing us also into a nervous marginality as we broke free, or strove to, from laws and customs and constraints. Vehicle registrations fees were a fraction, in Idaho, of what they were in California. Declining to renew, we’d done our best to disguise the expired stickers but couldn’t really hide them, or hide the outstanding fact that we were, in a land of commuting BMWs and minivans, a dusty, rusty, traveling barnyard.
The Dodge blew through a U-joint before we even hit I-5. Dave pulled off at a fruit stand. I unhitched my trailer, drove the Chevy back for two new spares, and returned to find Dave selling a goat for money enough to cover both the tire and the parts. The man who’d bought our doe flashed a smile of glorious gold-edged teeth and promised in Spanish not to eat her. We shook hands. I helped Dave change the U-joint.
When would we get there? Where would we stay? I had the confidence of youth, the blithe ignorance of someone who had never obviously failed. I wasn't worried. More surprisingly, in retrospect, I wasn’t worried about another question, more often and more seriously asked: What exactly would we do?
We were leaving for a thinly populated county with the highest unemployment west of the Mississippi. We had no money, no jobs, no reasonable plans, just a down-payment on fifty acres of poor land and a cabin with a rotting bathroom floor. I was youthful, but not ignorant. I did know enough to be afraid of other things. Like offices with windows that won’t open. Like high-speed freeway wrecks. Toxic groundwater. Mega-malls.
What would we do?
We’d live, of course. We’d raise food, have kids. We’d make a living.
I never doubted knowing how to do this. Plans, instructions, classes all seemed superfluous. I’d have what it took, I knew, because my ancestors had done these things with none of our advantages, and they’d survived. If I listened and stayed brave, I’d figure it all out.
Already I’d been listening more carefully to my grandmothers. I knew, from my mother’s mother, about “our Hessian,” the first Statelar, who’d come from Austria to fight for General Burgoyne in the Revolutionary War. He’d been wounded, turned coat in Vermont, found a wife, and walked to Ohio when the war was done to take land deeded out by Congress. I knew, from my father’s mother, about Michael Versell, imprisoned for four years in Bavaria for insurgency. He’d escaped, returned home at great peril, and fled with his wife and child to Switzerland. He’d tried a few new occupations (fallen down a mine, gone bankrupt making tools) but at last he’d left his love (she was afraid to come) and sailed with his son and daughter to America. With no money, jobs, or reasonable plans, they also walked--from Pennsylvania out to Illinois—and took a homestead in Galena.
With all that done behind me, how hard could this thing be?
We drove all day and took the nearest route into Nevada. At the top of Westgard pass, we found a little dirt road and parked, loosed the horses and goats to graze. We hooted at the sunset, popped champagne, lit the fire and grilled steaks. We rolled out our bed, looked up at the stars. Up there, it seemed silly even to be buying a place. Public land, uncountable thousands of acres, surrounded us, all we could ever want for free. We could ride horses, herd goats. Dave agreed. He’d be happy, he said, to live that way.
We were passing Walker Lake when Dave pulled over to check the problem U-joint. I pulled in behind him, and was leaning across the cab for water when I saw the flash of blue lights in my mirror. Nevada Highway Patrol.
The patrolman parked behind me, and walked past. My skin prickled. Dave got to his feet, and I watched the pantomime: license, registration. The patrolman checked and returned them, then started walking slowly down the length of the truck. I saw the dents and scratches, flat springs, bald tires. The old bumper sticker still said Free El Salvador! Dave, beside him, was explaining. The officer stepped up to the stock trailer and looked in. The goats reared amiably to see him.
Beside my truck, Dave paused strategically, doing his best to hide my damning license plate. The patrolman leaned to see it. Then stepped up to my window.
“Registration?” He was very young and serious.
I unpinned it from the visor, surrendered it, blushing.
It was hopeless to explain. The patrolman shook his head.
“Look.” He handed back my papers, took off his sunglasses, squinted at the sagebrush, then at us. “I should bring you in. You have two unregistered vehicles, and the one that’s legal probably shouldn’t even be on the road. You’re way overloaded.”
“I know. We know.”
"Okay.” He sighed. “I think I’ll just wish you luck and hope you make it.”
It turned out that Rosa Versell, whose father had made it--escaped prison and death and bankruptcy and walked with her to Galena--soon married a man who also meant to make it. Joseph Hessig had supplied her with a nice house and four children by the time she’d reached the age of twenty-five, but in 1849 he got the bug for California. He put her on a boat for San Francisco with a baby boy and two young daughters, and set out overland with their ten-year-old son. The children on the voyage all came down with smallpox and were laid gently, wrapped in blankets, on the dock when they arrived. All survived. Indians attacked their father’s wagon train, and killed and scalped their brother. Hessig and one other man survived. He and Rosa reunited in the mining town of Cottonwood, then took a ranch near the Trinity River. Their youngest son was also killed in later years, but their middle daughter—my father’s great-grandmother—was another argument for making it.
Northeast on 80, we labored east across the Humboldt sink. As formidable as any place on earth, the sink is a vast flat span of alkali where nothing lives. Sheets of poison water glimmer in the distance. Donner pass stands in the rear view mirror, and I know that Jacob Hessig crossed it, and so did David Gibson. Gibson’s parents had come from Edinburgh to take land near Montreal. At eighteen, he left with his sister and her husband for the California mines.
Crossing that desolation, I had the sense that I was crossing the huge stage of a ghostly play. Men afoot and unprovided often died here in those years. Some earned fortunes (and contempt) by selling others water. Oxen died by thousands--so many in the few years following ‘49 that people said you could cross a hundred miles without touching sand, should you care to walk across their carcasses. Hundreds “saw the elephant.” Some turned back, some died. Most, like Joseph Hessig, paid a heavy price for dreaming, and most, like David Gibson, did not discover gold. But after a few years, both settled into something like a life. David Gibson, still not rich, did discover Mary Catherine Hessig with her smallpox scars, and asked her hand in marriage.
Across this same landscape I was heading to discover my new ground: my morality, my dreams, my life. A pioneer, and not a pioneer. Like the ones that crossed before, I knew how many others had already made it. I had the comfort, and the use, of precedent.
A billboard enticing us to pause in Winemucca read:
City of Paved Streets!
Irony is two removes from suffering, but suffering must precede it. Western irony is not an oxymoron.
For us twentieth-century Californians, going west in spirit had meant going east, then north, and Winemucca was the edge of that frontier, if not well past it. The yearly round of mud/snow/mud/gravel/dirt/dust/mud remained a potent fact of life beyond it, in a radius of desert counties far larger than many small nations. A scan of the map revealed two thousand miles on this approximate meridian with only Walla Walla, Spokane, and Kamloops of any size.
From here on, there would be no corner grocery, no towing service--even road repair was dubious. Legislatures in these states met late and seldom, lawyers are few and doctors fewer. Whatever we were going to need, we’d better have it, figure out a way to make it, or be ready to drive fair piece for it. It had better be important. If something needed doing, we would have to do it, or be neighborly. From Winnemucca to the Arctic, the map is pumpkin brown. These frontier rules apply.
While the Hessigs and the Gibsons headed west, Sylvester Statelar (now the Hessian’s grandson), found his wilderness, like ours, by going north. Contemplating Oregon, he’d left Ohio for St. Louis in the spring of 1847. But in that city he was offered a commission up in Crow Wing, Minnesota, as an agent to the Chippewa. He accepted, traveled north by riverboat, canoe, then foot. He served as blacksmith, helped keep peace between the Chippewa and Sioux, learned both languages, and took a Chippewa wife. She may have died, or left him, or he left her. He later took a farm and, with this wife’s three children, proposed to Sara Elwell, twenty years his junior, whose considered letter of acceptance I now have. They had two more children, and their youngest, James, spent his twenties wandering in the west. On his father’s death, he sold the farm and became a rancher in Montana. My grandmother remembers him catching the caboose with other cattlemen each fall, bound for the sale yards in Chicago. Old photographs show her as a two-year old in a duffel coat among a crowd of poultry. Her mother hated that Montana cold and loneliness. When I’d told my grandmother about our flock (our eggs! our meat!) she’d confessed an abiding horror of those hens.
At sunset we crossed a cattle guard, let the horses, goats, and chickens (who could hate a chicken? CurlyToes, Susan, Hazel all had their personalities!) all run free. With no children yet of my own, my newest baby was a silky Nubian kid goat, an orphan I had bottle- fed. Mudpie curled up in my lap that night as we sat around our fire. In the morning we found him sleeping cozied in the still-warm ashes. He woke to suck my fingers, one side of him now white and slightly singed.
This is how it’s supposed to be, I thought. These rules. Animals and people, together in a pact—it was trust without indulgence, care without sentimentality. We had fed and milked and slaughtered our beloved, and would again. I’d once thought frontier rules were all about sufficiency and independence. But even then I had begun to see that when you stripped away all conveniences of money, all buffers of the law, what frontier rules really honored was one thing: our right and essential reliance on each other.
Calling the Shots
In Nampa at midday we found a supermarket and feed store sharing the same parking lot. I unloaded the horses to let them stretch, then staggered across hot asphalt for groceries while Dave bought hay. I lingered in the produce section, wanting nothing but to sit on cool linoleum. I was surely coming down with something. Dave found me staring dumbly at the avocados (they seemed deliriously expensive) and took me out. We walked hand in hand across the parking lot.
We’d tried, of course, to park discreetly, but there was nothing too discreet about a giant red stock trailer filled with goats and chickens, or about two horses neighing and striking sparks on asphalt, asking for alfalfa. Spreading pools from tipped buckets. Manure, trodden hay.
“What do we look like?”
“What do we look like?” I asked, falling back to brush Dave’s shoulders—filthy as usual, adorned with bits of leaves and grass from crawling under trucks. His hands were lined with grease, boots scuffed and stained. I sported scraped legs, a baggy t-shirt, frayed shorts, old running shoes, and had only changed my underwear since leaving. I’d fallen long ago for Dave’s appreciation of my own hygenic recklessness. My mother said he was just like her favorite grandfather, James Statelar, who’d sold that Montana cattle ranch at last, put his wife and daughter in a Studebaker, and driven them west to a new life on the farm my mother came to love in Corvallis, Oregon.
James’ wife Charlotte had called that shot, I guessed, and by White Bird that same evening I was losing it as well. We were only four hours from our destination, but four hours was too much. All day in scorching heat, the radiators steaming, a long grade just ahead, and I was definitely sick. I begged for rest and a cold beer. Dave relented. We'd rest, he said, for an hour.
I leaned beside him against warm photo-wood paneling, watched the neon Coors light blinking on and off. What had we done? I wondered. What were we doing? What would we do?
Sylvester Statelar never made it out to Oregon, though his son James finally did. But in 1847 Israel Mitchell left for that same state from Cedar Rapids, Iowa with his wife Mary and their six children. Their girls got lost one day while walking, and were frightened enough to think they might die. Oxen perished, a friend drowned. Mary’s daughter, Emma Ruth, eleven at the time, recorded these few facts. In dire straits near the end of their journey, they applied to the Whitman Mission (near today’s Walla Walla) for the winter. The season was late, supplies running low, and a teaching job would save them. It was granted. But when a Cayuse Indian stole Mary’s stockings, she refused to stay.
If she had been more tolerant, or less exhausted (I imagine), less at the end of her tether, I might well not have been born or be sitting in this little Idaho bar. As it happened, Israel—kindly, inexplicably, presciently—yielded to his wife. They went on to Oregon City through winter wind and snow. Their raft broke up on the Columbia and they lost what little they had brought that far. But while they sat stranded on a gravel bar for ten days in November gales, the Cayuse rose in open rebellion, killed the white men at the Whitman mission, and took the women and their children captive. They did not burn the children, as some had at first intended, nor harm the women much, but held them all for hostages.
The Cayuse, of course, had every provocation. They were frightened, angry, desperate--their land swarming with alien whites, children dying of disease. But Mary Mitchell was desperate, too, or Israel would not have listened. That desperation saved her family.
Dave, in the bar, said we should be going. I sniffled, then cried, then demanded. I was exhausted. I was sick. I, like Mary Mitchell, called the shots that night. Instead of heading up the grade, we took our rolling barnyard four-wheel driving up a narrow road around the canyon’s edge, and came out on a beautiful beach. The river was cool and soothing. We took off our clothes and went swimming with the horses, slept through a thunderstorm, and arrived the next day--safe and glad and moderately well--at the property we’d bought.
And, actually, the next seven years were terrible. In retrospect, of course. At the time, we generally felt safe and glad, as we had the first day, and moderately well. Two children were born without much fuss. We learned to farm. We found out how hard it could really be, felt arrogance soften, naivete yield, learned to laugh. I abandoned (as, I am guessing, those first dissenters did) every high ideal I had formed. We drove tractors, lived on venison and potatoes, eggs and goat’s milk. I hoed and planted and began to realize how closely we had re-enacted all those former lives. The grand vision, the embarkation, the journey. The blithe appropriation of land (the farm we bought was a parcel sold from the Nez Perce reservation). The grim struggle. The growing confidence. The success. The parlaying of dreams into cash as others followed, then another journey westward, and another cycle: of vision, appropriation, survival, success.
In seven years, we sold the farm, moved farther west, to an island off the coast of Washington.
We carry history in our bones. Our parents, our genetics, our cultures all shape what we become. But not until I made that move did I realize how much of what we do is shaped by what was done before us. Even now, I’m sure those ancestors would be amused that I’ve found anything instructive in their legacies. After all, most people farmed in years before ours, and many farmers had an eye for land, and moved. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t rather have been architects or teachers, businessmen or writers. But what I know is this: In all the generations on this continent, only a handful of my ancestors ever left to attend schools in a large city, and none stayed in one longer than it took to get that education. None opened businesses in Pittsburgh or New Haven, Columbus, Springfield, Montreal, St. Louis; none, until my generation, sought new or more exciting lives in any urban center. None who’d ever visited New York had stayed. All, without exception, kept moving toward unsettled land. All of them kept moving west.
It’s a hard legacy, and none too innocent. Unsettled never means unclaimed, unoccupied. It’s a history, truly, of encroachment, domination, uneasy occupation. We are always new, have no ancient ties to places. Families scatter, struggle, risk failing in their stubborn isolation. I have reached adulthood guilty, tired, and none too affluent, without even the consolation of a mall, a theater, a decent restaurant to go to when the winter nights come down. But the life I’d never felt I owned as a child is mine with a vengeance now. Warm eggs are waiting under hens outside. Something always will need to be built, fixed, split, turned, fed, mowed, stacked in the clear air with mountains standing hard and close at hand. Our three children roam through miles and households, scarcely calling, or arrive with a band of friends. For generations they’ve been bred, like so many of us have been, to do these things: to dream, to risk, to build, to grow, to love the earth and nurture it, to feel at home in quiet landscapes. I wonder how they’ll show it.