Inspiration Found on the Family Farm

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My husband and I attended the Campbell Family reunion in northern Washington.  It is a four hour drive from the Portland metro area and when the car crosses onto the dirt road leading up to the farm, I feel like we are driving through a hand tinted photograph from 1902.

The farm is run by a spry 76 year old cousin and his wife.  They grow slicing cucumbers and blue squash and garlic and string beans to sell at their roadside stand.  This year the corn is tall and sweet and the dahlia blossoms are three to a stem.

Preparations for the reunion begin the day before the event.  Plywood table tops with city council race slogans painted on one side are taken out of storage, handmade sawhorses and bench tops are set up under the cedar trees and the red and white checked table cloths are shaken out and taped under at the ends of the tables to keep from flying up in the wind.

My job, this year and the years before, is flower arranging.  Wading out into the rows of dahlias with a set of clippers, I cut with one hand and hold the bouquet with the other until I can’t close my fingers around the stems.  Then I walk back through the bees and the spent blossoms to a table with 40 jars saved over the year.  The tall jars with the peeled labels held pasta sauce, the short wide mouth jars held preserves.  My husband filled the jars with warm water from a white bucket while I was in the field.  I spread the flowers across the table and trim the ends.  Taking the first blossom I build a story around the dense petals told in golden yellow, white and flaring orange.  I take my time, moving from one jar to the next, taking a flower from this jar and adding it to that jar.   The jars and the dahlias will leave with the uncles and aunts and cousins at the end of the day when the empty pie tins and crusted casserole dishes are gathered.

The white Victorian farmhouse and Buff Orpington chickens and grapevine covered red barn are the inspiration for the novel that will follow Cornerstone in the spring of 2014.  I plan for the book to be out when the green leaves of the corn are sprouted for the next season of growing.

Laurel Hill

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On Mount Hood at the marker for Laurel Hill the worn painted sign with the white letters in all caps reads:

Historic Oregon Trail
Laurel Hill

The pioneer road here detoured the Columbia River rapids and Mount Hood to the Willamette Valley.  The road at first followed an old Indian trail.  The later name was Barlow Road.  Travel was difficult.  Wagons were snubbed to trees by ropes or held back by drags of cut trees.  Early travelers named the hill from the resemblance of native leaves to laurel.

My brother and I took the trail with the stone steps to the old highway, the one constructed for Model A’s.  We followed the remains of the macadam road to a sign that read “Hikers” with an arrow pointing to a dirt packed trail.

The trail bent into switchbacks through the Douglas fir forest, ever climbing.  At the top of the rise, a broad path joined our trail.  It was marked by a an old post with an “Oregon Trail” badge carved or burned into it.   

I looked for a bonneted head to peek out of the underbrush.  No one, past or present, stepped onto the trail to wish us well.

The trees near the chute are young, around 100 to 160 years old.  They creaked and swayed with the summer wind.  The old growth trees were harvested to act as drags for canvas topped wagons and are part of the forest floor below. 

The chute is wide and the pitch is steep.  The flat rock shards and dirt slipped out from my hiking boots and rattled down the hillside.  I could not walk down the hill along the chute without a tree trunk or bush to grab to keep me on my feet. 

I remembered the phrase from the sign beside the highway, “Travel was difficult.”  I imagined rolling a wagon over the lip of the drop off, the branches on a cut tree slowing the speed of the wagon through the chute.

When we were back in our air conditioned car parked on the shoulder of Highway 26, we could appreciate the folks before us who showed us the way with oxen and wagon.

Writing "The Sweetwater Trail"

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The Sweetwater Trail started with a research project into family history and the rediscovery of a great-great-grandmother who walked across the Oregon Trail in 1846 when she was 11 years old.  Nancy Ann grew up to be a well-known weaver in the Canby and Aurora area in Oregon and some of the rugs she wove were recovered from an old trunk.  Her spinning wheel was donated to the Oregon Historical Society in the 1970’s.

I imagined Nancy sitting at her loom, weaving the strips of cloth cut from clothing too worn out to be of any use, and I wondered what she thought of her new life in the Oregon Territory.  Did she miss a boy back home? What did she carry on the trail that when the going got hard, she couldn’t leave behind? Did the constant rain get to her?   

When we found the graves of her parents in a forgotten pioneer cemetery on the banks of the Pudding River – graves covered with ferns and nettles, with trees pushing up between headstones – that discovery led to wondering about why a family would make the choice to sell their possessions, kiss their relatives farewell, and set out across the prairie in the company of strangers to a land described in a pamphlet. 

I read accounts of the early Donation Claim settlers and looked over maps of their journey.  This is a PDF map that was my guide to Rye and Felicity's journey.  I went to the Laurel Hill Chute on Mt. Hood, the scene of a lot of heartbreak after crossing the plains.  Staring down at the steep hillside and the boulders I tried to imagine what it was like to winch a wagon down the slope … a wagon loaded with all my worldly goods, the rope and tree and my own strength keeping the wagon from crashing. 

And so my journey began with the first draft of Sweetwater, with the image of a city bred woman sitting on a crate at the edge of the prairie ….

Welcome!

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I thought I would kick off my first post about my visit to Kilchis Point in Bay City, Oregon.  I was on the Oregon coast working on research for the next novel in the Sweetwater series, Cornerstone, and wanted to get a feel for the life around Tillamook Bay.

I was fortunate – the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum was open.  As a child, I’d passed the museum during the summers when my family would camp at Cape Lookout but never had the time to visit.

The museum was a good place for a writer to explore – there are portraits of original settlers, Native American tools and weavings, a collection of Abraham Lincoln items and a surprise … a large taxidermy exhibit. 

When I mentioned to the docent that I was interested in learning about life on the Northern Oregon Coast in the 1850 to 1855 period, she gave me a map for Kilchis Point, the site of a Native American village and the place where the area’s first pioneer, Joe Champion, carved a temporary home out of a stump.  Here is a link to the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum’s website for the Point as well as a link to a blog with pictures of the trails and some of the foliage.

I pulled into the parking lot at Kilchis Point Reserve after lunch.  My brother and his dog, McDuff, were with me.  We walked the paver trail and stopped to read each of the historical information signs.  But it was the rough cut trails marked by pink plastic flags and the single plank bridge across Doty Creek that took us away from 2013 and we could imagine what it was like walk the game trails between land claims in 1855, the year that Cornerstone is set in. 

I brought back to my writing desk the smell of skunk cabbage bordering a creek, ferns in the rain, and the sounds the wind made in the tree tops … sort of like waves on a beach.  I can’t wait to blend these details into Cornerstone, which will center on Cade Braedon and his lost love, Silver St. Ives, as well as continue with the story of Rye and Felicity Jones.