“My son Emerson married the young widow of my brother Festus. She was only a few years older than he. They finished raising my brother’s children, and they made their own, and many of us now lie still in Yellowstone country, in an abandoned spot called Farnum after my middle name, after a road in New England somehow significant to my mother. But I’ve forgotten why, because memory seeps into the swallowing land.”
“The sun lit the clifftops across the deep gulf of evening air, saturating the high flats. The bright blaze striped the tops of the imposing walls, illuminating juts and sculpted waterways waiting to cup the next flash flood. A hundred feet below the rim, the shadows cast purple across every Pantone shade of orange. Shallow snow stippled the larger scene, accentuating the river crescents, metering suspended angles of repose. The canyon is narrow. Maybe a big human shout could be heard from one bank to the other on a still evening like this, but it’s also grand and gracious in its sweep, and deep, compartmented by jutting walls and opened through narrow transits into grand sky-ceiled rooms.
The river meandered like a Chinese dragon between the silent cliffs.
I scanned the five-hundred-foot walls for the White House, afraid the sun had already dropped too darkly. But there it was, way down and to my right, neat and square, tucked into an egress the shape of a human eye. Were I a child I would have believed I could cradle the tiny town in my palm. The front ledge was fortressed by an infantry of well-fitted stones, opening at key points to welcome allies or smash enemy fingers. Vermilion desert varnish striped the sheer wall above.”
“Ora, Idaho, was such a pretty place it’s hard to imagine in summer at least how that kind of darkness can seep into anybody raised there. Spend a January and it’s not inconceivable but that’s true of the whole northern trackway of the Union Pacific. Try Bill, Wyoming.
Now it was May in Ashton, not February in Bill and it looked like the whole world was blooming to life. Steve had not been home to see his folks since August, after a fit of family conflict nobody could quite explain. His daddy had driven down to Pocatello a couple times. It wasn’t too far. Tried to coax his son back home. I guess there had been telephone talk and some telegrams. Far as I could see everything was lined up for reconciliation and maybe Steve thought so too, because he was buoyant as we boarded the train for Ashton. Everyone at the yard knew Steve. Men hailed him from every quarter. They all treated me like a queen which nobody ever did for my mama, wife of a section man.”
“But this new country at the foot of the Tetons, this country that more closely resembled our homeland, called us to be Americans. I found myself at the heart of a quiet community tumult. I became a reluctant dissenter. My youngest son, Carlie, was the pivot, our littlest boy who saw only America in that Teton skyline. Our son whose first words were English, who only ever dimly understood the talk of his uncles and aunts, who gazed uncomprehending as his old grandmother sang him to sleep in a foreign tongue.”
“The night after my son Fred married Tuchel’s oldest daughter, I dreamed my cousin Max. He stood in the portal of the Squirrel Lutheran Church, relishing the congenial joy. As always I was taken by his guileless features. I wondered how no one else had sensed his remarkable presence. I took Anna’s hand and turned my face in Max’s direction, intending for once to meet his eye. I looked about for Carlie, thinking to gesture that he was my little son. But I could not locate my American child, lost among the food and frolic, and when I looked back toward Max the portal was dark.”
“I used to think I remembered the Christmas we spent in Mesa, but it’s likely extrapolation from the square Kodak prints, 1965. Marti and I wear stripey jumpers of many colors and black Mary Janes with ankle socks. We’re looking sharp in our white-rimmed sunglasses. Tommy is a baby in our mother’s arms. Dad sports a crewcut and Chinos, Mom a form-fitting floral dress. Gram and Grandpa and mostly-grown Aunt Louisa stand with us as tall two-armed saguaros surrender in the background. Later in Idaho summer, a picnic drive to the transparent plunging Mesa Falls in Island Park below Yellowstone caused me to believe that Arizona and Idaho were a single location. Same word. Same grandparents. Same long drive.”
“The distant view of St. Johns included a huge smokestacked factory to the east. Maybe it made rocks. The town itself was held down with scrap metal: old cars—some picturesque, some not. Gearboxes, factory debris, rusted ovens, wrought-iron bedframes. It was an oddly appealing place. ‘No wonder I’m a such a badass,’ one of my favorite students ever, a soft-featured bespectacled guy from this town told me once. ‘I come from Mad Max country.'”