A Magic Journey:
By: E.L. Jacobs
A Magic Journey: When I was a small boy I made a journey in a covered wagon, going with my parents from their homestead in Oklahoma Territory to the part of Kansas they had come from, and back again to the homestead. This was not one of those painful and heroic passages through wild-Indian country, across deserts where men died of thirst, over mountain passes where oxen were skinned for rawhide so that dismantled wagons could be lowered down the sheer faces of cliffs: there are no heroics in my saga. Yet I have never, I think, taken a more romantic or exciting trip. As I look back on the long ride in a vehicle now vanished, but then to be seen (in Oklahoma at least) in fair numbers, I remember many things that have stayed with me for the same reasons that would have kept stout Cortez from forgetting what he saw from a peak in Darien.
My father equipped his farm wagon with an “over-jut”- a frame placed on top of the wagon box, providing a shelf that extended over the wheels on each side of the wagon, with a vertical board rising form the outer-edge of each of these shelves. Wagon bows arched from the side boards, and the canvas cover enclosed a room large enough for beds at night and for some moving about among our traveling gear in the daytime, in case we wished to retreat to the shade and privacy of the interior. But most of the time my sister and I sat on the shelves of the over-jut, beside the spring-seat where are parents rode, staying out where we could watch the landscape passing, see the skin wrinkling over the haunches of the horses as they put their muscles into a pull, and spy the ground squirrels or the meadowlarks we startled into motion. There was plenty to see.
And there was time to see it. Few horses walk as fast as four miles per hour. Three miles is much nearer their usual speed. At such a pace the landscape is no succession of brief glimpses. All objects come into sight slowly and are kept in view a long time while the traveler approaches. He cannot only select what he wants to see, but has plenty of time to inspect its surroundings. There was then, a chance to savor the flat expanse of wild grass waving to the gusts of the prairie wind; or the prairie dogs sitting, at a safe distance, upright on little mounds before their holes, paws on their aldermanic little paunches; or the indistinct object far ahead that slowly took on the shape of two bony mules standing by a fence, chins resting on each other’s withers; or the cur with his head and shoulders down in some creature’s burrow, his rump elevated while earth and pebbles flew from his clawing forefeet. There was no hurry. One had time to look things over, and if a thing was worth watching, time to stop.
One spectacle worth our stopping for was the sight of some men breaking a patch of virgin soil, soil that had never felt the outrage of the plowshare and was putting up a worthy resistance. The ground was fortified by a growth of running-oak, a low bushy shrub that, according to a farmer, had more wood underground than above the surface. The plow was a sturdy implement with a massive wooden beam, a mouldboard of heavy steel, and a share so thick and strong that it could cut through the roots of the running-oak – if it were supplied with enough power and if the man who held the plow handles had strength to control them. It cut only a narrow furrow, and the roots of oat and wild grass bound the earth so firmly that a man who had strength enough- if any man could ever have had such strength- could pick up the end of the fresh-cut sod and drag away a strip the length of the entire field.
The power for this plowing was furnished by two or three yoke of oxen- my memory is a bit uncertain- chained tandem to the beam of the sod-plow. It was a brave spectacle. I had never seen oxen being worked. Instead of bridles on to their heads with bits in their mouth, and long leather lines by means of which the driver would guide them, these animals had no headgear at all. Nor had they any bulky leather collars around their necks, padded against the slope of the shoulders, such as workhorses wore. The near ox of the lead team, a brindled steer with stubs of hors, and his slightly taller fellow on the off side, a bony red animal, had a massive wooden yoke across their shoulders, held in place by wooden bows coming up on both sides of their necks and fastened through holes bored in the yoke. A chain ran from a rind in the center of this yoke back to the plow: I could not see whether it was attached to the yoke of the following oxen, or whether they had separate chains.
The shouting of the men, the cracking of the blacksnake whip, the deliberate, ponderous heaving of the beasts against their yokes, the forward lurching of the plow with the strip of cut sod curling off the mouldboard to stand on edge against the strip turned upon the previous round- it all gave me a sense of being present at some kind of creation. Half a dozen dogs ranged about, fought, chased rabbits, and made themselves a part of the excitement.
Another thing to stop for was the unhappy Negro with a wagon load of wood stalled in deep sand at the foot of a hill somewhere east of Guthrie. He had three yoke of scrawny Jersey steers, sun-faded little fawn-colored creatures, with a runty, starved-looking brown mule hitched in front of them; but his wheels had settled down in the sand, and the beasts wither did not pull well together or were simply too weak to move the load, no matter how loud the old man yelled or how plaintively his adolescent son whined at them. The narrow iron tires of a loaded wagon will sink perhaps half a felloe’s depth in dry sand, and, as they turn, a little stream of sand will dribble from the rims, much as water runs from a wheel moving through a ford. But these wheels were not turning. Wearily, father and son were unloading a few sticks of wood and piling them by the road, trying to get a concerted effort out of the mule and the little steers, unloading a few more sticks, and trying again.
Some man who came by asked the boy, “Did you try swearin’ at them steers?”
“no, suh,” the boy said. “I wanted to, but Pappy wouldn’t let me.” He added in mournful disgust, “You cain’t drive steers without swearin’ at ‘em.”
There was a great deal to see. And there were things to hear above the chuckling of the wagon wheels and the creaking of the harness. The wind made a rattling among the sharp-edged leaves of a big cottonwood that leaned over the road. The meadowlarks springing up from the prairie grass uttered their quick succession of notes, always sounding startled. Wooden bridge floors rumbled under the iron tires, and the waters of a ford added to their splashing the muffled thump of wheels on hidden stones. The raucous voices of crows came from a little crowd circling above a strip of timber by a small creek, and from one member that flew near enough to show where a missing feather left a gap in his flapping wing. A sudden shower drummed on the canvas cover with a hollow sound like nothing else in my experience.
Our covered wagon was not a sight to attract curious attention. Oklahoma was “new country,” and many wagons on the road were covered like out won. Others, loaded with household goods and with children, had their bare, weathered bows without the canvas-perhaps some storm had torn away the cover. Some outfits had an extra horse or two, tied either behind the wagon or to the hames of the working horses. Children would peer at us from the opening in the back of their wagon cover, where the rope drawstring left a peephole. Usually they were grimy-looking children. Their fathers, when we saw them, had beards ranging from the stubble of a week’s growth to the impressive valance that hid the shirt-front. The mothers would sometimes be sitting on the seat by the fathers, in which case we would see them, drab, voluminously skirted, and either sun bonneted or in need of combing, or so it seemed. In the wagons meeting us we would catch suggestions of movement back in the obscure depths behind the driver and his seat partner. People were on the move over those rutted, washed, and wind-blown roads, going to the brick-red soil and the scrubby black-jack oaks, the wind, the heat, and the dust storms of Oklahoma, or going away. Some of the railroads were still to be built in the Territory, and much freight was being hauled by wagon between points not connected by the existing railroads.
There was, in fact so much coming and going that in many town wagon yards were established to accommodate the travelers. The typical wagon yard consisted of a board-walled enclosure with horse stalls under a shed around one or two sides of the yard. A cookhouse in one corner contained a rusty stove, on which travelers could take their turns. I remember watching with fascination while a grimy woman in the wagon yard at Ponca City tended some sort of dough cooking in a skillet. Her nose was running- or constantly about to run. At the last instant she would sniff and avert catastrophe; then as she bent over the skillet, the threat would renew itself, and she would sniff again. I could see the horror on my mother’s face, but I kept watching to see whether the sniff would, once, be delayed too long. I suppose the woman may have given up at last and used sleeve or the hem of her skirt, but I did not see that surrender. I watched her for a long time- sniff, rum, sniff, run- without seeing her reach any conclusion. There was, for my young mind, suspense and drama in the recurrent threat and fending off of imminent misfortune. Why else should I remember Ponca City?
If instead of cook-stoves in a grimy and littered shed the wagon yards had only little pits for campfires, they were still cheap and available shelters. And, with the glinting of the fires, the jangling of trace-chains, the voices of strangers in the dusk, the coursing of dogs and boys among the wagons, the mild air redolent of wood-smoke, prairie hay, sweat, and strong tobacco, they had their charms. They are, of course, long gone, the need for them past and largely forgotten. But I saw one such yard still in existence at Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1918.
This was a sort of travel to leave in the mind memories of things seen and heard, memories that remain distinct after many years and not always for easily discovered reasons. There was a wagon just ahead of us in a line where we forded a river- the Arkansas, I think. At the back of the wagon a bucket swung from the end-gate, but, to my disappointment, not quite low enough to dip into the water and fill itself. I watched the wheels turning and coming up glistening, a little of the river-water clinging to tire and felloe long enough to be lifted above the surface and run back in little splashings. There were rocks in the ford; a wheel would abruptly rise and tilt a corner of the wagon, then suddenly let it down. My father would pull our team a little to the right or left to miss that particular rock, and perhaps hit another. At last, the wheels would lift dramatically out of the water and roll up the sloping bank, dripping and adding to the wetness of the already slippery incline up which the horses labored. Sitting there on the over-jut, I saw the horses’ heads go down as leaned into their collars, and saw the deepening wrinkles in the skin over their haunches as they pulled.
Sometimes we met Indians on the road, or saw them on the streets of Oklahoma towns. Perhaps because I had seen them now and then near home, those dark, solemn men with long braids made less impression on my memory than something that might seem more common-place- a long straight street in some town entered on a Sunday morning, with no traffic at all except our wagon and a strange little vehicle with a tall, white, box-like body riding high between its four spindly wheels. My father said that it was used to deliver milk, an enterprise of which I knew nothing. One night in some town- Arkansas City, I think- a clanging, bulky vehicle with lights fore-and-aft was drawn by two horses past a place where we had stopped. This must have been the only horsecar I had ever seen, and it was an astonishment to my eyes. In Winfield, Kansas, we trundled down a street between long rows of cedars, and had to wait for a freight train to pass- a most impressive train, for it ran on a curved embankment at some height above the level of the street. We passed through many towns, and here and there some such sight struck in my memory like an etching.
Somewhere we came to a river with a bridge across it and boats tied at the water’s edge below. While we waited, a girl took a jug and walked out on a boat as far from the bank as she could go- probably far enough from the bank for the water to be clean- stopped, and filled the hug with river water. On some country road in Kansas, shaded by a tall hedge, my sister and I walked behind our wagon and rolled green hedge-apples in the dust. Oklahoma, being new country, had no such hedge fences as in Kansas, and the rough green balls of the bois d’arc trees were marvelous objects.
One might suppose that the keenest memories of such a journey would have to do with settings out and arrivals-those moments when long preparation comes at last to fruition and the horses tighten their traces as they take the first step; or when at last they turn into the lane, and the house toward which for days they have been traveling comes into sight. Perhaps for my parents these were the moments that stayed longest in the memory. I do not know. For me they dimmed long ago. But I think I could still recognize the big elm under which we camped one night by the roadside north of Stillwater, Oklahoma. The campfire at dusk was the brightest spot in my world at that moment. There is no other fragrance like that blended from the bale of prairie hay my father broke open for the horses and the sugar cookies my mother took from our food box, a smell later modified and enriched by emanations from the wood smoke of the campfire, boiling coffee, and frying side meat, then tinged with a faintly acrid suspicion of dust when another wagon passed, and with something that came from dew or just from the night itself. There may have been traces of dust and smoke and ashes in the food we ate and in my parents’ coffee; and it is possible, as in all camp-fire cooking, that unclassified items from the air or falling from the tree added their fillip to the flavors. I was not thinking flavors, I suppose, for I remember nothing of them, for that night. But I remember the smells.
And I remember sounds- the horses still munching their hay after we had gone to bed, the chuckle of wagon wheels on their skeins as some traveler passed, the clinking of trace chains, dogs barking far away, and somewhere in the darkness a hen squalling, repeating a raucous cry over and over, sounding alarmed, or frustrated, or captured- I could not interpret her, but she was voicing some kind and degree of distress. My parents speculated on the reason- perhaps a weasel in some farmer’s henhouse.
It is too late to settle the matter now, but I don’t think the intruder, if there was one, was a weasel. A weasel is quick and deadly. There was not in this hen’s voice the pure terror of imminent death that a captured rabbit can put into a scream (as far as my experience goes the most heart-rending cry in nature). The hen sounded annoyed and somewhat frightened. Perhaps she was less hysterical than a rabbit. Perhaps she just didn’t have the voice.
It was a wonderful journey. Not many years afterward, to travel in a covered wagon, in that part of the world, would have had a tinge of the disreputable, would have been a shiftless, gypsy sort of thing to do. But many such conveyances were moving in Oklahoma then, and though many of the people in them were doubtless and unthrifty lot- certainly I saw plenty of frowzy women and uncombed children, to say nothing of the drab, dusty, rumpled woman with the nose in Ponca City- many of them were highly respectable, if I had been concerned with such matters. Many of the people we knew and liked had come to Oklahoma in covered wagons.
But I should have been troubled, in any case, by no such concern. I was seeing and hearing sights and sounds and enjoying moments I could never have known at all except for the very slowness of our travel. Nobody now would stop and make a campfire to fry side meat in a big black skillet and boil coffee in a pot blackened by many campfires, when he could add a hundred miles to his day’s travel in the time so spent- or when in a few minutes he could go on to Stillwater and find a motel with a restaurant near- by. But to us an hour or two more would have meant gaining only a distance of five or six miles, and horses had to have their food and rest. So I heard the hen squalling out her fright, and fancied that large creatures called weasels were blundering around and disturbing her. The hen and the hypothetical weasel were worth the night’s stopping.
And in our slow course through Oklahoma, where men were breaking new ground with undersized oxen where roads angled across sections of prairie grass never fenced or plowed, and Indians and white men mingled in the dusty towns, where streams were forded because bridges had not yet been built, where once or twice one saw men on horseback driving herds of cattle with long horns, very different from my father’s milk cows, there was something exhilarating in what I was too young to recognize as the newness of the country.
Much of it looked, of course, weather-beaten enough. Or so people and their equipment looked. If a wagon cover was white and clean, it had not gone very far; most of the canvas was grayed by the sun, dust, and rain. Some of it was not only gray but ragged, with holes where children’s faces could be seen peering out. Men wore soiled and shapeless clothes; dust and heat and intermittent labor at camp or river-crossing or hill where a weak team needs a boost do not cultivate fastidious tastes in dress. The women- all women in those days- wore voluminous garments, and when they traveled, their dresses were dark or faded. A woman climbing from a wagon seat would gather her skirts in her hand, step perilously down to the doubletree behind the near horse, and make a little awkward leap, permitting her dusty garments to subside about her ankles as her foot touched the ground, putting up her hand to push back her hair, wearily, while her husband went about unhitching his team. But tired, dusty, or unkempt, they were all going somewhere.
I did not then recognize the newness of the country, but I could feel it, traveling in a covered wagon.
It was a magic journey.
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Source: A Magic Journey Originally published Jan. 1968 The American West
Author: A Magic Journey E.L. Jacobs