21st Century Oregon Trail

There are countless books written on what to do after an extra-marital affair, advice custom built for the betrayed and the betrayer.  I’m not sure if any of them suggest quitting jobs, selling the house, and moving 2500 miles west to Oregon.  But that’s what we did.  A friend who lived there said, “There’s something to be said about traveling across the entire continent, coming to the point where there is no more land, and throwing all of your problems into the Pacific Ocean.  There’s no choice but to start over.”

Neither of our families were supportive.  We did all the packing ourselves and hired a truck to drive our things across country. When the unmarked semi pulled onto our narrow street, three Hispanic men jumped out ready to load everything inside.  Our neighbor, an old woman whose husband—a crusty old fellow named Peck—had died a few months previous, came over and said, “I guess you all are moving then?”

“Yes, we’re moving to Oregon.”

“Well, you didn’t sell your house to colored people, did you?”

I didn’t know what to say.  I simply answered with the truth.  “No, the new owners are white.”

“Well, good,” the old woman said.  “I hate colored people.”

After that, all I could do was say goodbye and walk across the street thinking, this is exactly why I need to get out of here.

Moving day was the day before our oldest son’s fourth birthday.  We worked all day until 7pm, when the new owner of the house took possession.  She showed up right on time, annoyed that we were still loading the last few boxes.  In the end, I just called it good and left a lamp, a plant stand, and the household cleaners under the sink and in the utility room, and walked out.

We climbed into our Saturn Vue and realized that from that moment until we arrived in Oregon, we had no home.  Just the car loaded with all of our clothes, our tools, our  grandmothers’ quilts, three shotguns and a rifle.  We were headed to Oregon, following that same trail we’d seen marked on maps in grade school history books and in that early-era game on the monochrome green screen of an Apple IIe computer, only now it was paved over with interstate highway and would take days rather than months.  We were excited and scared and told ourselves this was the perfect solution.  In the past, most of our marital problems had seemed to have been solved by a barely-thought-through road trip that forced us to be reliant on our wits and each other.  So this time we’d chosen a proportionate response to a bigger point of crisis.  After all, manifest destiny is just a noble sounding catch phrase for people running from their problems.

The first night we stayed in a hotel in town, and the next day relatives and friends gathered at a Ryan’s all-you-could-eat buffet to celebrate our son’s birthday and to bid us farewell.  This was our least favorite restaurant in town, but so often our choices in life weren’t about what we wanted, but about practicality or duty or matching others’ ideas of what was good.  So Ryan’s had plenty of seating, which usually accommodated the after-church crowd on Sundays, and a variety of medium-grade cheap food so that even if it wasn’t great no one would complain.  After, when we had climbed into the car to go and a crowd stood in the parking lot waving with tears in their eyes, it was easy to pull away.

We’d made a plan with our realtor in Oregon to close on our new house en route so that when we arrived it would be ours.  Our first planned stop was in Columbia, Missouri, where an appointment with a title agency had been set up.  But that evening, we received a call canceling the appointment. The next stop, I told our realtor confidently, would be Hayes, Kansas.  It was supper time by now, and I pulled off the interstate into a Cracker Barrel.  We decided that for the rest of the trip we would eat at Cracker Barrels because it was comfort food and we knew what to expect there.  How could we know that this would be the last Cracker Barrel we’d see for the rest of the trip.

The next day we had a late start as I’d spent the morning catching up with the online classes I was teaching.  It was the income from these plus the lump sum from our cashed-out retirement funds at the university that was bankrolling this adventure.  We drove hard the rest of the day.  Once we passed Kansas City and entered the treeless plains where you could see fifteen or twenty miles of highway laid out in a straight line in front of you, it was eighty-five miles an hour with one finger on the steering wheel.  We pulled into Hayes just before sundown.  The town was a main drag lined with fast food and oil change stations and hotels.  Nylon road construction signs on spring-based frames bent with the never-ceasing wind, lying horizontal until the gusts slackened, then standing upright again to read “Flagger Ahead.”  With no Cracker Barrel in sight, we ordered Domino’s pizza and chicken wings.

That night I woke up sick.  Bad chicken wings.  Puked my guts up for over an hour.  Which meant I slept in the next morning, and we missed our appointment at the title company.  Then my faculty mentor from the online degree factory I now considered employment called, griping about how my student feedback had been turned in five hours late the day before and that I was already running behind for the current day.  I explained the situation, that we were literally in the middle of moving across country, but from this woman’s point of view, there was no leeway.  So I sat in the hotel until everything was caught up.  If this were the Oregon Trail game, my little wagon would have moved slowly across the map, then out of nowhere: “You have contracted dysentery and have been attacked by bandits.  Delayed two weeks.”

That afternoon, I crawled behind the wheel, and my wife strapped our two boys in their car seats, and we headed west again toward Denver, where one more time we’d try to seal the deal on the house.  After a while, the purple silhouette of the Front Range rose up from the horizon, giving the hope that we were almost there.  Needless to say there was still 75 miles to go.  One could only imagine how the pioneers must have felt as their wagons trudged on for days toward those mountains that never seemed to get any closer.

We were staying in a hotel out by the Denver airport, and as we were pulling off the interstate, Cormac, our oldest, covered the back of the driver’s seat with vomit.  But this wasn’t the chicken wings.  Since birth his messed-up little stomach had given him food sensitivities and acid reflux as the outlet to his stress.  But we could see our hotel across the plain, next to the lighted tarmacs of the airport, and we drove on.  Turns out that short distance was ten miles.  Things get skewed when there’s nothing in the foreground between you and where you want to be.

Our hotel didn’t have laundry service, but the one next door did and let Catricia wash the clothes and car seat covers while I sat in the room with the boys, my face buried in my laptop trying to make vague yet positive comments on student responses to canned curriculum, while they watched cartoons.  We all slept well and woke up to sunshine and spring-like weather in the middle of December, then drove into the city, were on time to our appointment with the title company, signed a ream of paper, and were no longer homeless.  Now there was an official destination to our trip.  We ate dinner at a taqueria, walked around for a while wearing only shortsleeves, then headed out on the road again.  I determined that we had to cover some ground and made the bold statement that we’d sleep in Salt Lake City that night.

We stopped to eat in Laramie, Wyoming, and while my family ordered food, I sat in a hotel parking lot and stole their wifi to check in on my classes.  We were finally finding the rhythm of this trip.  We headed out after dark to cross the width of Wyoming, and before long, everyone in the car was asleep.  The highway was empty except for me and two semis.  I pushed the accelerator down a little more.  The road was wide and straight.  And then red and blue lights cracked the darkness behind me.  When I stopped, the boys awoke and started crying.  I tried to talk to the cop over the noise.  He said I was doing 91 in a 75.  I wondered why he didn’t stop the semis who had to be doing close to the same, but I didn’t say this.  Just signed the ticket and drove on.

The only other thing of note in this state happened outside Rock Springs, where there was a sprawling industrial complex lit up with vapor lights.  It reminded me of the lunar base in 2001, A Space Odyssey, and then the name of the place hit me, and I become convinced that it must be the gold mine in Richard Ford’s short story “Rock Springs.”  I was so excited by this that I said it aloud, but no one was awake to hear it.

We rolled into SLC at 2 am and stayed in a Motel 6 just off Temple Square.  It was old and run down, even as Motel 6s go, but the night manager was exceptionally friendly, and the beds were clean.  After all, it was Utah.

We arrived in Boise the next afternoon.  The kids were feeling good.  Catricia and I were feeling okay but were hesitant to count the day as a success until it was over.  We went to a Fred-Meyer, the first we’d ever seen, which we decided was the nicest, most friendly store in the country, and spent an hour or more just walking around looking at all the things that were available for purchase.  Then we sat down and had a leisurely supper—the kids scribbled on their cartoon placemats with crayons, and we spoke to each other like calm and assured adults so that the people looking on might think we were old friends and traveling companions who knew each other well, and then after thinking that, they might even think we were in love, because sometimes it’s easy to confuse those two things.

We left Boise feeling confident that we’d make it to Pendleton that night, which was only a few more hours.  It was just about sunset that we crossed the fabled Snake River, the border between Oregon and Idaho, on a smooth, four-lane bridge that probably still leaves some bitterness in the ghosts of pioneers who came this far only to lose belongings and lives in the crossing.  But we’d done it.  We’d made it to Oregon.  Still, northeastern Oregon is a long way from the Willamette Valley.

We drove into the Blue Mountains and into the thickest fog I’d ever seen in my life, down to 30 mph, only able to see a few feet ahead of the front of the car, the road winding across the crest of the mountains with no view on either side, the tops of trees descending down into blackness.  The temperature dropped to near freezing, and I slowed the car even more.  I gripped the wheel at ten and two and kept my eyes fixed on the lines of the road.  When we finally descended into the valley where Baker City sits more than three hours later—the trip normally takes just one—I said, “We’re stopping here.”  I can imagine that when the pioneers founded this lovely little town they exclaimed something like, “Close enough!”

The next day we left the mountains through the aptly named “Deadman Pass,” then drove for a while across flat grassy tablelands before descending into the Columbia Gorge.  Clouds the color of steel wool drifted above, and fog clung to the dark green fir trees like rags caught in the branches.  The highway ran snugly between giant waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet from the gorge’s wall on the left and the wide slow Columbia River on the right.  One couldn’t help but feel like this path led into some deeper mystery.

At this point, pioneers would still have had to face a decision at the Falls of the Columbia: they could wait in line, sometimes for weeks, to pay for a boat to finish the trip; or they could take a chance on the Barlow Road, a path cut through the forest on the flanks of Mt. Hood, ending in Oregon City.  But we didn’t have to make that choice. The falls of the Columbia had been inundated by the Dalles Dam in 1957, which ended the way of life of Native American salmon fishermen who had gathered at that place for thousands of years.  The Barlow Road was now a paved, two-lane scenic highway, but this time of year, the view of the snowcapped volcano that is Oregon’s highest peak was reserved for people flying in jetliners high above the cloud cover.

The mystery lessened as we neared Portland.  After a quick bite in the city, we turned south down the Willamette Valley, the destination of the thousands before us who’d taken this cross-country trip that, in many ways, still represents the idea of a new start.

And that’s what we were hoping for as well.  But reality was quick to settle in when we arrived at our new home. The front room had been stuffed floor to ceiling with all of our belongings by the movers, who we’d missed by several days.  It was 48 hours until Christmas.  We had no refrigerator.  We had no food.  But we’d made it.  And we had work to do.

This work—of setting up house, of finding jobs, of raising our children, of exploring this wondrous new place with its varied landscapes—kept us busy and distracted and continually moving for seven more years. But even after finding ways to cross deep divides together, the things in our relationship, the things in each of us, that had brought us to crisis and set us on this journey remained and worked back to the surface of the new life we’d constructed.

My guess is the same happened with the pioneers.  They came west to find new lives and they did.  Sometimes with the people they’d left with.  Sometimes with people they’d met along the way.  Sometimes alone.  And sometimes with people who’d already made the journey years before.  But all of them, in one way or another, had to completely strip away what had been before they could start anew.


James Alan Gill has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in several journals including Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Midwestern Gothic, The Common, and Atticus Review.

Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Mark Holloway

21st Century Oregon Trail

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