Crossing a Riven Country, Part One

Photo by Sam O'Leary on Unsplash

IN THE SPRING OF 1919 the McGarritys rode out from their North Dakota homestead, where, back of the house, they left spaded into the prairie earth four graves, their children, born in successive years, the youngest not yet a year old. They themselves, Mr. and Mrs., were both shy of twenty-five.

What they left behind, I do not know. I’m sure they burned the children’s clothes and few wooden toys. I imagine many other household items met the flames—blankets, shuck and feather pillows, spoons that touched lips. The measure of their grief must have been immense, wider than the smoke-stained sky, as impossible as all the many grasses waving on the plains. But somehow they managed to pack a wagon, to hitch the horses, to ride away. Which route they took, whether they followed the Missouri and then the brown roll of the lower Yellowstone, or whether they instead rode south before crossing the border into Montana just north of the Humboldt Hills and aiming, then, for the pass between the Wolf and Rosebud Mountains—here, I travel blind. And whether on such a journey he turned away from her, or she from him, or whether across the unpredictable days of wind and sudden rain and now the prairie summer cranking up, they began to heal, again, I do not know. I don’t even know their given names, or where exactly in North Dakota that house they left was left to rot.

What I do know is the McGarritys found their way to St. Xavier, an outpost town on the Crow Reservation of southeastern Montana, where they took over the dry goods store and in time built a new life. They met another young couple, Michael and Catherine Ahern, who farmed a small spread twenty miles south of town, on a creek called Mountain Pocket, and in time the McGarritys daughter—Nancy, the daughter who came to them after sickness, after their long journey west—would become the lifelong friend of Michael and Catherine’s daughter, Mary, who would years later become Mary Ahern Maxwell, who would become my grandmother.

The Aherns, too, had come through the plague. Mary was born in September of 1917 and fell sick with the Spanish flu not long after her first birthday. Michael, an Irish immigrant, the youngest of a slew of brothers, had known pestilence and want, but this new contagion laid him low. Catherine sent frantic messages north to St. Xavier, where a traveling doctor came through a few times a month. The doctor finally replied with two glass bottles of medicine. One, the doctor stressed in his note, was formulated for the man, one the tiny child, though in his haste or tiredness, he had failed to label which was which. Catherine wouldn’t risk killing her child with too large a dose, and all through the fevering days the medicine sat on the kitchen counter, untouched. Though so many didn’t, they both did—they lived, and by that grace or luck, I, too, am alive. 


The poet Robert Wrigley writes: “Some days, / all I want is no news, none of the time.”

On those days, I look to other stories to try to reckon these past months, our own season of plague and distance, death and injustice. The grieving McGarritys set up shop on the Crow Indian Reservation, bought the dry goods store and the land it sat upon, and so even after it was promised, the borders drawn, not even the ancestral homeland of the Apsáalooke, it seems, was truly theirs. And the 1918 flu, which killed Native Americans at twice the rate it killed whites, was just the latest in a long line of introduced epidemics that had decimated Native communities for centuries. By 1920—my great-grandparents even then making their way on Mountain Pocket Creek, making the life that would lead to me—of what had historically been a thriving nation of 16,000, around 1,700 Crow people were left in all the world.

Thinking of this, and trying to make sense of the sudden images out of Minneapolis and D.C. and so many other places, as I do at least once a year, I pulled the other day James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time from the shelf. One evening, I brought the slim paperback into my daughter’s room to read as she read her own book before bed. I must have made a noise—of grief, assent, or understanding—because my daughter—curious, insistent, so attuned to sadness—asked me to read aloud the lines I’d just read in my head. So I did: “And here we are,” I read, as she curled more tightly in her covers, “at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”


We—myself, my wife, Liz, my ten-year-old son, Walter, and my nine-year-old daughter, Edie—began sheltering in place on the evening of Saturday, March 14, which was when I flew back from teaching an environmental writing workshop in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona, flew back to the North Country of New York State. This academic year I’ve been on sabbatical from my permanent teaching post in Oregon and was lucky enough to secure an endowed chair for visiting writers at St. Lawrence University, which came with a light teaching load, plenty of time to work on my next novel, and a big, rambling house on campus. We’d had a busy year of readings and events for my first novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, and having never lived in the Northeast, we’d been trying as well to see as much of this part of the country as we could. We had this spring trips to New York City, D.C, Maine, France, the Thousand Islands, and the Adirondack Wilderness on the docket—but that cool March evening, Liz and I put the kids to bed and started planning otherwise.

We were, of course, privileged to be able to plan.

I had a steady paycheck and could shift to remote teaching. Liz, who had taken the year off from subbing, is an early childhood educator and could take the lead on homeschool. With the help of the kids’ teachers—who have been phenomenal—we organized math blocks, book clubs, art and creation, community service, writing projects, and social studies. Liz and the kids started doing observation stations, picking one place in the yard to sit with a notebook and observe for fifteen minutes each day. Edie leans up against a white spruce, watches the black-capped chickadees flit to the nearby feeder. In the grassy quad across the street, Walter climbs hand over hand right into a spruce, sits there trying to mimic on the page the sounds of wind, of calling cardinals, of slow-falling late April snow. Later, during our haiku unit, he wrote:

The sun shines,
the snow falls.
What do I call this wonder?

It’s not that we were looking forward to this time, but we found ourselves filling up with it, falling ever more deeply into it. Liz grew up on a goat farm in southwestern Washington State, I grew up on a sheep and hay ranch in eastern Montana—we are both children of landscape, isolation, and enormous afternoons, the kind where boredom compels invention and adventure. The kids wrote and edited a newspaper, they studied photography, they put on elaborate sock-puppet shows. One Saturday they set up a tent in the backyard, got a fire going in the ring, and declared it backyard survival night. When an elderly neighbor, the one whose gardens we always admire, was sick with COVID-19, we wrote and decorated a big get-well card—Edie drew blossoms all over it—and taped it to his kitchen window.

Across the weeks and months, our neighbor got well, the ostrich ferns slowly unfurled, the buds of maple, beech, and poplar began to break. In the afternoons we bike and hike the trails along the Little and Grasse Rivers, catalogue the wildflowers—trout lily, painted trillium, spring beauty. Come evening, we play cards, listen to music, dance.


What country, in this time of pandemic and social protest, will we be crossing?


Yet, as any parent knows, these months haven’t been all puppet shows and spruce trees. The kids miss their friends, miss sports and Battle of the Books. Walter delights in learning math at his own pace online, but loathes having to stop for, say, an art lesson—his Baby Yoda drawing ended up crumpled on the floor. Edie could do without math entirely, and often tries to do exactly that, if she can get away with it, while Liz and I struggle with being, day after day and often at the same time, everything: parent, teacher, playmate, coach, cook, provider, spouse.

And just yesterday we sat the kids down and asked them what they knew about the police, what they knew about racism. We told them the story of George Floyd and together sat in silence for a time. We talked about protests, about our rights as citizens, our duties as human beings. We began to collect things for a help-yourself, donations-only garage sale, all proceeds going to Campaign Zero, whose ten-point plan for just policing we also talked through. At the vigil in the park, we knelt. The bells rang and rang. Walter turned to me. “Nine minutes,” he whispered, “is a really long time.”


We have three more weeks here in far northern New York—two of homeschool, one given to packing and biking to the river in the warm evenings to throw ourselves in the slow, tannic waters of the Grasse. That first week we started sheltering in place, Liz sat down with the kids and made big, colorful posters about what the coronavirus was and the danger it posed, about why we were doing what we were doing—“To protect Nana, and Grandma and Grandpa, and everybody’s grandparents!” Edie wrote in bright blue marker—and how we would do it: by not going to work or school, by seeing just our family, by staying close to home.

But now, our time here in the North Country ending in a far different manner than we expected: we have to do just that; we have to leave this home. We have to plan and pack and travel back to the Willamette Valley, a journey of nearly three thousand miles.

With the Canadian border stilled closed, we’re not sure yet of our route. We study maps, the veins of roads. Which cities, we wonder, will we travel through? What rivers will we tally?

And what country, in this time of pandemic and social protest, will we be crossing? O


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Joe Wilkins is the author of a novel, Fall Back Down When I Diepraised as “remarkable and unforgettable” in a starred review at Booklist and short-listed for the First Novel Award and the Pacific Northwest Book Award. He is also the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, and four collections of poetry, including Thieve When We Were Birds, winner of the Oregon Book Award. Wilkins grew up north of the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana and lives now with his family in western Oregon, where he directs the creative writing program at Linfield University.