New fields beckoned ahead. For three months we had not been out of the canyon. As the mountain walls receded, we gave shouts of joy when the sun appeared. As the canyon walls expanded we too seemed to expand, physically and spiritually. The first open space, a quarter of a mile in extent, seemed like a vast unending plain To one who has known the limitless freedom of the open spaces, the mountain canyons, although wildly beautiful, in time become too restricting.
Because we wanted to travel light, our meals after leaving Burke had consisted of bread only. We soon left the open spaces and were in mountains again. No sooner had we started bucking the deep snow in the famous Fourth of July Canyon than a feeling of weakness assailed me. At intervals we rested in the snow, munching bread. In the mood we were in, it seemed this Fourth of July Canyon might have received its name because that was the only date when it was free from snow. Actually, that was the date it was first mapped, in 1861. The canyon had a well-defined auto track up its onetime road but walking was difficult. The feeling that we would have to spend the night there caused us concern, but then we sighted a car ploughing through the white stuff behind us.
"Always got room for men in this canyon," the driver answered to our appeal for help. "And I'm going clean through to Spokane if you want to go that far. " We did. The ride was lucky but we enjoyed it little in our cold and soaked condition.
Our condition was so wretched, in fact, that upon our arrival in Spokane we were almost tempted to take a hotel room for the night. But a man told us of a barn four miles away where he was sure there would be hay and warmth. It was late before we located it. In a house right beside the barn was a lighted window; under the circumstances it seemed wise to knock on the door and ask permission to use the barn.
"Mama, ain't you got a place in the attic for them?" Mama had, and wouldn't listen to our sleeping elsewhere. The family was Irish, poor, and good-hearted. We visited with them for the rest of the year. That is to say, until midnight, when a New Year came in. All of us greeted 1923 together.
What a year 1922 had been. Graduation from high school, then matriculation in our "College on Wheels." As I felt 1922 slipping away, I was almost overcome with emotion. Even at the midnight hour, Win and I began reviewing some of the old year's highlights to that beautiful Irish family. This impelled them to review their lives, too. Then we began prophesying. "What do you suppose 1923 will bring us?" Win wondered. "Can it equal 1922?" We had secret feelings it might. That New Year's eve celebration—and the welcoming of a new 365 days—was one of the most unusual and emotional we had ever experienced.
Despite our hopes to the contrary, travel was poor next day. Two o'clock came and we were still walking. Then we picked up a ride to Kelso, Washington, 450 miles distant! A salesman, driving a high-geared GMC truck, was our benefactor, and we traveled with him for three days, sleeping in the truck at night. Part of the journey was along the Columbia River Highway, now in the grip of winter, yet fully as picturesque as on our former visit. The last fifty miles we traveled by the light of the moon, the truck lights having given out. The driver was anxious to get home and he plunged on through darkness. We reached Kelso safely.
The day before, at Kelso, a large bridge had collapsed into the Cowlitz River, carrying a score of workmen and school children to their deaths. We inspected the scene. Three months previously we had leaned over the rails of that same bridge, eating ice cream cones. There was nothing we could do to help the rescue party, but we stood in the rain and watched two cars being dragged out, and some pieces of clothing retrieved.
The workmen who had died in the bridge disaster had been helping to construct a new model city—Longview—to be a headquarters of the Long-Bell Lumber Company. This was just across the river from Kelso. Although Win and I hadn't planned on looking for more work so soon after our mine jobs, we nevertheless took a makeshift ferry over the Cowlitz and began job hunting. For two hours we waded through mud. At the employment office a man told us, "No work here. Try the next camp, father down."
We tried that. "Sorry boys, nothing now. We'll be needing some teamsters later on."
Our job hunting had been only halfhearted. With each step in the gooey mud, we seemed to be less anxious to find work. Nearly all of our mine wages had been sent home, to swell our college fund. But we had more than five dollars in our pockets. Why worry? Two hours later we had ferried across the Columbia River to Rainier, Oregon, and were headed south.
California was now our goal. The "wonder state" beckoned with its promise of sunshine and warmth. But at the moment we were still in the cold and rain of Oregon. There were floods to the south. At Oregon City we encountered the first effects of what Oregonians described, not as rain, but as "gentle mists, which seldom wet one. " The mists had taken a tangible form. Bridges were threatened by the swirling current of the Willamette River. Houses, barns, and fields at the edge of town were under water, and the highway was in danger at a number of places. Continuing south toward Salem the mist ceased and it began to pour.
"It's an awful night, boys. Get in. I don't care who you are." A fat, round-faced, jolly little man in an Overland car picked us up and we remained with him for the next four days. At times the three of us went through small lakes which reached the running boards but we never stopped. Through Salem we continued to Jefferson, seventeen miles farther south. Just ahead of us, across a big bridge, swept a raging stream of tossing water, while the road on the other side, as far as one could see, was an angry torrent of muddy chocolate.
Back to Salem, through the driving rain, we then tried another route to the south, and made our way slowly through slightly flooded areas. At Independence someone directed us to the highest road in the area and as night settled down we splashed on. We were again seventeen miles from the capital when a covered bridge loomed ahead. The approach was apparently safe. We were going down the other side of the bridge, our driver tired, the windshield mud-splashed, the car lights barely penetrating the darkness, when Win and I in the back seat saw the danger ahead. "Look out," I yelled. "Stop. It's flooded. "
Where the road should have been was a surging, churning mass of turbulent flood water. My frantic yell did no good. Not time enough to stop. We plunged in.
As the driver felt the water rising around his knees, he crazily pulled the wheel to the left and we dropped off into a ten-foot hole. "Tear off the curtains," Win yelled to me. We did so, and pulled our chubby friend over the front seat and out into the water with us. A floundering stroke or two and we were on the roadbed, standing in the boiling torrent which reached to our waists. Our driver looked back at his machine and realized that, unbelievable as it may seem, the car lights were still shining brightly up through the water. I quickly waded back into the river and flicked them off.
The black outline of the covered bridge loomed but a few yards from us and we were soon within its protecting shelter. The driver, Frank Graham, was praying aloud. We broke out into laughter, a bit hysterical perhaps, for the realization dawned on us all how fortunate we were to be safely on the bridge.
The river was rapidly rising, logs were being swept swiftly along and we knew we must act quickly to save the car. It was a mile and a half tramp through the mud before we found a farmhouse. Here was help. With a team, chains, tackle, and lanterns all of us returned with the farmer to the Luckymute, for that was the river's name.
"She sure has gone wild," the farmer observed.
Win removed his shoes and coat and shirt, and dove down to the car, where he fastened the chain to the rear axle. We had plunged into the river in the early evening. It was after one o'clock next morning before the car finally rolled out onto the bridge floor apparently little the worse for its submersion. Due to its position on the edge of the road all caution had to be used to prevent its slipping into a twenty-five foot hole which the farmer knew was immediately beyond the car. A return to the farmhouse for extra block and tackle gave Win a chance to ask the housewife to have a good meal ready for us. At 2:00 A.M. the farmer pulled our car into his yard, we ate a hasty meal, then rolled up on soft hay in the top of the barn for a sound sleep.
Win helped with the milking next morning, we ate a good breakfast, settled with the farmer, then went to look over our car. Everything was full of water except the radiator, which was nearly dry. Graham proved to be a capable electrician and mechanic. He drained water from the gas tank, cleaned the carburetor and distributor, filled the radiator, and stepped on the starter. Five minutes later that Overland was sputteringly carrying us back toward Salem. Mr. Graham never got over praising the wonders of a car which, after more than five hours under water, was able to run without repair. Even the lights and horn worked some of the time.
The adventures were not yet over. We passed through Independence and were within five miles of Salem before we began to realize we were in danger of being shut off from the capital. Where last night a few pools of water disturbed us there were now long stretches where the pavement was flooded. In constant fear of stalling, Graham continued on. Here and there a high spot provided a chance to stop and laugh at our plight, for despite the delay we were all in good humor. At last the taller buildings of Salem were visible. "We're lucky," I said, from my rear seat position. "For a time I didn't think we'd get back here."
A minute or so later our car topped a rise. "Lucky, my eye," exclaimed Win. From his seat beside the driver he saw it first—a solid mile of water, through which the road dipped and disappeared, and on which motor boats were plying back and forth.
That did it. The water was lapping the second story windows of the low-lying farmhouses along the road. No way could the little car weather this flood, regardless of its fine performance the night before. For perhaps an hour the three of us sat there, watching the rescue work, and wondering what to do. There was nothing we could do, but return to Independence.
Again the flood trapped us. Backtracking five miles we found that during the time since we had passed here, the water had risen two or three feet higher. We were entirely cut off from any town and had no food in the car. There was nothing to do and we did it.
Suddenly, our chubby companion let forth with a string of uncensored expressions. "I give up. What'll we do? Where'll we go? No place to eat. No hotel. Where'll we sleep tonight?"
His good humor had suddenly evaporated. Dunking his car in the flood waters had been one thing. But no place to sleep—no hotel or place to eat—that was a different story. That was serious. Win and I made a good try at calming his fears. "At least the rain's nearly stopped," I said. "You can make a good bed in the car. Win and I are used to sleeping along the road."
Selecting the highest hill which our limited choice permitted, camp preparations were soon underway. Win was sent on a foraging expedition while Graham and I tried to make a home in the rain, which had started up again.
"Good news," yelled Win from a distance, as his wet figure came in sight. "Hold everything. We're teally in luck. "
At a farmhouse where he'd gone with his dramatic story, the woman, Mrs. Antrican, had prepared us some food and further insisted that our shipwrecked party make their haymow our sleeping quarters. No second invitation was needed. Graham fairly caressed his little Overland as it carried us quickly to the farmhouse. Just as quickly, our bedding was transferred to the Antrican barn, even aided by a young son of the family. Profusely, Graham, then Win, then I, expressed our thanks.
The three of us were just settling down with the roar of the river in our ears when the young son. Edward, called up to us. "Hey, up there, Maw says you should come into the house."
We all trouped into the sitting room, finding that Mrs. Antrican had made up beds for us in a spare room. But it was not destined that we should retire to these for many hours.
I wonder if we will ever forget that night. Win and I and Mr. Graham entertained the Antricans and several neighbors who were invited in, to whom our stories of life and the world seemed as tales of marvels. Mother Antrican was a middle-aged little woman with noticeably bright, wondering eyes, and a face which expressed human interest and a sense of responsibility for her family. The father was a typical Southerner, bulky but easy of motion. We soon found out that if he retired later than 8:30 in the evening he was no good next day. That night we entertained Edward, the eleven-yearold family nuisance, who talked so much his mother predicted he'd grow up to be a preacher; Mattie, the young married daughter; Mattie's husband, a shadow beside his wife; their dimpled baby; Jenny Antrican, going on seventeen, a slim, little slip of a girl, and the neighbors who had been attracted by the news of the strangers. The evening sped by and at 11:30 P.M.—an hour unheard of by the Antricans—we sought our beds in the warm house.
Next morning the question on everyone's lips concerned the flood. For three days we were marooned at the Antricans. During this time the river kept overflowing, the water rising on either side of us until highway travel in any direction was blocked. Travel by rail was shut off when a big red barn washed up on the tracks. Foot travel ceased when water rose over the railroad trestle. All mail stopped, telephones refused to work. We were on dry land but cut off from the rest of the world.
But Win and I had a glorious time. Mostly it was spent with Jenny Antrican, helping her with her high school lessons, with duties about the house, and sweeping out the country school house just a few rods up the road.
On the morning of my nineteenth birthday, January 9, 1923 we visited this school and made more friends among the younger children of the neighborhood who could still get to classes.
In the evening we resurrected a dozen tricks and feats of magic, amusing the family and their friends. We made fudge. We were entirely at home. As Edward said, when he was rebuked by his mother for not passing things to us first at the table, "Why should I, Maw? They're one of the family. "
As that meal was nearly finished, Mrs. Antrican and Jenny came out of the kitchen, bearing a surprise homemade birthday cake. The entire family joined in singing "Happy Birthday" to me. Literally and figuratively, my nineteenth birthday will stand out forever as a "high water mark" among all birthday celebrations.
On the morning of the fourth day reports came that the flood was subsiding. Jenny was able to return to school. At 9:00 A.M. we departed from this family whose hospitality had turned near disaster into one of the finest experiences of our travels.
- Category: Foot By Foot Through the USA
- Written by Grace McKay
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