In the winter of 1877, 33-year-old Alma is suddenly a young widow when her husband Luke dies in a logging accident deep within the forests of the Columbia River Gorge. Alma numbs her fears of destitution and poverty with liquor and laudanum throughout the winter. She eventually pulls herself out of her grief when she realizes that she can’t recall the last time she saw her step-daughter— her late husband’s illegitimate child, Ruth. Ruth is fifteen years old and doesn’t see Alma as a mother or caretaker. And justly so, as Alma has done little to foster their relationship. Out of a sense of obligation, guilt, and redemption, Alma sets out to nearby villages and towns, and then the city of Portland to find Ruth and bring her home.
In seeking Ruth, Alma encounters both guidance and comfort from the natural world and nearby neighbors and friends, including the well-loved and reputed couple, Grace and Frenchie Latourell. She receives advice from fellow travelers, including a wealthy businesswoman who suggests Alma turn her large farmhouse into a boarding house just in time for the new construction of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation line. When Alma implements this plan, interesting characters begin crossing the threshold of her front porch— all of whom provide her with an opportunity to learn more about community, desire, fulfillment, and coping with loss and despair.
Over the next forty years, Alma becomes deeply connected to her home and her makeshift family. She bears witness to the rise of industrialization in the Columbia River Gorge and experiences the heartbreak of losing her home to wildfire. Alma passes away peacefully in the Multnomah County Poor Farm in 1916, with her best friend Grace by her side.
“Isn’t there some other way we can go?” she asked, looking warily at the work crew only a few yards ahead of them. She buried her hands in her muff, although she wished she had insisted on taking the reins. It was, after all, her horse and carriage, but she had demurred to Balch’s point that they’d make an odd pair, her driving with a male companion as a passenger.
Balch slowed the horse and the carriage came to a halt. He looked at her with genuine concern. “I know you don’t relish going by them, but we’ll have to. It’ll put nearly a day on our trip to go by foot over the cliffs and up to Corbett.”
“You’re right. Proceed,” she said crisply.
As they approached the men, she could see their breath float on the still, freezing air. Alma stiffened and felt her heart speed up, her throat clenching. They were taking a break, and, of course, Eli Moffett was among their ranks. He was boasting loudly, as usual, about something he had likely not done or accomplished. He was a nitwit, yes, but Alma could barely stand the man, or his father, George Moffett, who was perched beside him on a stack of train ties. They were both braggarts and cowards— two traits that always seemed to coincide, Alma reflected.
Moffett called out once they were in earshot. “Balch, shouldn’t you be at work today?” Alma noted that the men blocked the path, and while it was likely most of them would’ve stepped aside, Eli and his father saw this as an opportunity to quench their taste for aggression.
“You know I’m on leave, Eli, granted by the foreman,” replied Balch jovially. “And we’re needing to continue on the path. So kindly part to let the carriage pass.”
“Oh, sure,” drawled George. “And what business could you and Ms. Alma have?”
Alma knew the men would detain her and Balch for as long as they could. She attempted to calm herself and slowly spoke. “Our business is our own, Mr. Moffett.”
“Is that right?” said Moffett, staring at Balch. He spat out a large wad of chew that landed near Virginia’s hoof. Alma looked at the phlegmy, brown gob, and knew that she was the one who Moffett wanted to spit on.
Balch’s tone stayed friendly, and he smiled. “We’re on our way to Troutdale for provisions.” Alma was annoyed at his easy tone. He clearly didn’t feel threatened. Not yet anyway. It occurred to her that this scenario had played out many, many times in her life: first, men harassing her and second, other men defending her. If only— just once— she thought, could she have her words regarded the same as that of a man’s. That, or to be left alone entirely.
“Yeah, we’ve heard what kind of business you’ve started up now that your husband is dead in the ground,” said Eli sarcastically. “I look forward to bringing my business to your place, Alma— don’t you boys?” At that, a few of the men laughed heartily.
Alma leaned out of the carriage, holding her revolver close to her hip, and making sure it was there for all to see. “I assure you, you won’t be welcome. Now move out of the way.”
“Supposin’ we don’t,” drawled one of the workers. Alma noticed that time had begun to move very slowly, as it always seemed to in a crisis.
She tried to speak calmly, but her voice shook with rage. “I don’t know. But it would be better for all concerned if you did.”
Just then a large woman stepped out from the end of one of the chuck wagons. “What ya’ll botherin’ these nice people for? Go on, scoot. I won’t serve ya another bit of this slop unless you get the hell out of their way.” They grumbled a bit but eventually broke up their gathering and scattered away from the path.
She and Balch were quiet for a long while after they passed the group. “I wonder what kind of power she has to make them do her bidding,” Alma pondered aloud.
“She doesn’t. She holds the key to what they need, and they needed food right then more than they needed to bother us. Most men will stop being jackasses if they have what they need. It’s simply human nature. Those fellows are just big children in breaches. They don’t have the sense to ponder injustice or the like, nor even consideration for others. They simply exist whatever way they can and hate folks who they believe might have something better or dearer than what they have. And I guess you’re as fine of a target as anyone. They think you have something better, plus you’re a woman to boot. The trouble begins when they’re smart enough to know they’re stupid, and when they contrive that you see they are nothing but dumb beasts, they lash out. I should know.” He pulled his collar back and revealed an angry, red gash across his sternum. “Writing isn’t the only reason I was seeking lodging elsewhere.”
She regarded the wound silently but didn’t ask after its origin. Balch’s explanation made sense, but the nature of others seemed so foreign to her that sometimes it seemed as if there were no good people, no thoughtful people. But then she looked at Balch and thought of Liu and Hettie. Her mother and father. Grace and Frenchie. Thinking of their kindness and consideration of others and the world around them soothed her. Alma could hear the steady rush of the Quicksand River approaching, and this provided even a deeper balm after their run-in with the railroad men. The sky that had started out grey this morning now held just a few dispersed wisps of clouds.
After some time, she spoke up. “I do not believe that most people are solely concerned with themselves. Many can empathize, to imagine that co-existence can occur without force or anger or abject selfishness.”
Balch said quietly, “I quite agree with you. At least on most days.”
When they reached the river, they got out of the carriage and let Virginia take some water before crossing the makeshift bridge. It was a tiresome task that Alma knew well. The poor horse usually got spooked halfway over the rickety bridge, standing unbudgingly on the slippery plank boards. Alma stared at the river, high and roaring with early spring waters. She pulled out her flask and pipe, offering both to Balch. He nodded his head no, waving his hand slightly. He kicked at some loose rocks, hands thrust deep into his trousers. Alma could always tell when a teetotaler was about to give her their opinion. “Go ahead,” she said.
“With what?” Balch asked.
“With the ready speech you have prepared for me,” she smiled. It was true that she cared what he thought, but not for the usual reasons of guilt or shame.
“Well, since you brought it up, have you thought about abstinence?”
“Of course I have. Every morning of every wretched hangover I have nursed a hundred times over. And I’ve tried. It never does seem to stick.”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
She was annoyed but tried to salvage her self-respect with an honest answer. “Both my mother and father, and their mother and father, and likely right on down the line of time were all afflicted with what they called ‘the curse.’ I suppose I inherited it.”
“It is a common malady,” Balch replied. “I can’t say why some have the inclination and others don’t. It was a terror of the community when I was preaching. Most of the horrible things that happened in my congregation were usually fueled by a man full of himself and liquor but lacking any common sense or wit about his inner state of mind. I saw many a blackened eye on the faces of wives, daughters, and sisters come Sunday morning.”
“It must surprise you then to find a woman who drinks so candidly,” remarked Alma.
“No, no it doesn’t. For every one of those men who were drunkards was a woman addicted to laudanum or morphine. They were all quietly obligated to some demon. As I said, it seems to be more the exception to not partake. People of this time are such hypocrites. They believe that a good Christian doesn’t drink, and yet they all do. It’s remarkable to me when some are willing to admit the short leash they’ve attached themselves to.”
Alma replied, “It is a leash, indeed. I think I’d feel naked without it, truth be told. I’m not ashamed and have come to accept that it is simply my lot in life. Some people are born blind, crippled. I was born this way.” She shook her flask in the air.
Balch nodded his head slowly in disagreement. “That’s where you're wrong, I think, Alma. You still do have a choice, even if it seems insurmountable to you. Those that are born without sight have no choice. And also the blind have some other sense that compensates and perhaps even allows them greater awareness. I haven’t ever seen drink do much but make a bigger mess of things. No matter how smart you are, the drink or the drug is always in charge. It mutes what we are afraid of, what hurts us. And then we’re not ever able to face those things that bother us so.”
Alma took a swig from her flask again. “I suppose you are right, she said softly. “I am a coward.”
“Oh, no. I do not mean to say that you are a coward. I mean that the drink doesn’t allow you to be as brave as you could be. You think it helps you. But you, your brave soul, knows it keeps you from being who you truly are.”
This was an odd train of thought for a preacher, Alma concluded. There was no fire or brimstone. No desecration of the body as a temple. Just her. And yet, the words rang true. She had never heard them articulated as such but suspected something of this as the years of drinking had drained her spirit. She had started to feel a bit like an empty husk when sober, but too full and ready to burst when filled with the fuel of alcohol. It was a never-ending cycle that she often had thought wouldn’t cease until her life did, as had been the case for her father and her ancestors. But all that she could think to say to Balch at this moment was, “I was afraid of those men. I can’t explain it… I go into a rage and simply want them dead.”
“You are certainly not the only person to feel that way. And you know, a fight is what they want. Don’t give it to them. Stay steady. Steady grace. That’s the way. It’ll disarm most bullies most of the time, and if it doesn’t, it’s likely there’s not a thing you can do to make them better people. They’re stuck in their patterns too. And that’s neither your doing nor are you here to single-handedly point out the error of their ways. What one does when men like that cross one’s path is always evidence of a person’s deepest character and nature.”
“You’ve never touched the stuff?” she asked, knowing his answer would be honest. “No, I have not. But I have other issues. Similar, but different shabby scraps of thinking and believing that aren’t for my highest good.”
“Now I am the coward, Alma. Perhaps sometime I will have the courage to tell you.” Alma wondered what a preacher could possibly have as sins, but she strode over to Virginia and gently nuzzled her ears, then gave her a strong breath up her nostrils. She carefully placed a blanket over the horse’s head. “Shall we?”
The footbridge was rude in construction and looked to be ancient. It was made from split logs cut thickly and laid on top of one another with large boulders stacked up against it. A railing, nearly falling apart, lined either side, but Alma had little faith that it would keep the three of them from falling headlong into the rushing river. Parts of the bridge were overtaken with water, and there was only about a twenty-foot gap in the rocks to allow the river to flow through.
“We might be better off simply wading through the delta at the head of the river,” suggested Balch.
“That would take another hour. Come on, I’ve crossed this many a time with Virginia.
The main trouble at the moment is the slickness of the boards.” As she set one foot down gingerly, she scuffed at the wood. It was thick with a layer of river slime and moss. In the summer, the boards were as dry as an old bone, but right now, it would take caution to get across. Alma led the party first, holding Virginia’s reins in both hands. She clicked her tongue, signaling the horse to follow.
While not a great height off the ground, the bridge held some intimidation. It was slow-moving, with Balch following up behind the carriage. She slipped twice, spooking Virginia, and she saw Balch eyeing the rushing waters. “On our way back, we should follow the railroad,” he said.
“Newer is not always better. And what if a train should come?” replied Alma.
At last, they reached the end of the bridge. “And anyway, I’d rather come into town on a less obvious route.” Balch was silent at this, although he wondered at Alma’s reasons.
“Grace says that bridge has been there for millennia,” she commented. Balch looked back at the thing. It had become nearly a part of the earth around it, from his estimation.
It was a brief walk from the river to town, following a broad road of cut river rock that rounded an inclining bend. On the left of the road, he saw the construction of a small country home being built. At least three acres of sapling fruit trees surrounded it. All manner of materials were lying about, and the mud lay thick amongst the huge ruts where wagons and workhorses had just recently left their mark. “That’ll be a fine homestead,” remarked Balch, admiring the construction.
Alma stopped and turned to Balch. “Yes, a fine summer home for some very fine rich people in Portland.” She grimaced. “I should tell you that it’s well known in Troutdale that my husband recently died.” She looked down at her muddy boots. “It would tarnish my reputation, and perhaps sully my intention of the boardinghouse even further, were they to see me with a man. I’ve also got some errands to do that will take me some time.”
Balch took her meaning. “I will linger some distance behind. But where should I meet you once we’ve passed the town?”
She snatched a stick from the side of the road and drew a rudimentary map in the mud, marking where they were with an x and then another x indicating a large tree about a mile past the west end of the town. “I’ll meet you in two hours. We should arrive on the east side of the Willamette by nightfall.”
“I’m familiar with the road. I will see you at the tree in two hours.”
Alma climbed into the carriage without a goodbye and gave Virginia a quick lash with the riding-whip. The horse sped up the hill, rounded the bend and Balch watched them disappear around the curve.
Balch decided to spend his two hours inspecting the house since no one was around to observe him. It wasn’t large or grand, but it had a lovely, wide porch. He sat on a stump propped up to give the sitter a full view of the Quicksand River and Broughton’s bluff to the northeast. Southeast and up the river he saw nothing but thick stands of oak and cedar. It was a beautiful scene. A good place for a family to grow up and find comfort, peace, and stability, he thought. He himself had only briefly known such a life. It seemed that after the age of fourteen or fifteen only hardship and trouble had come to him and his family. He thought of his mother and sisters just then, sixty miles east down the Columbia River, near the tiny town of Lyle. Right now, they would be preparing the evening meal and bringing the goats and the one cow in from the pasture. He couldn’t bear being in Lyle anymore. It only served to remind him of Genevra, and his absence laboring on the railroad served them better than his presence would anyway. The book, too, worked to balm his grief, and now this new adventure served as an even better distraction.
Anything new or different to blot out that not only had Genevra not loved him, which had long been a point of great pain, but now she wasn’t even in the world. He thought of her—her dear, sweet laugh and the fuzzy pile of golden curls crowning the top of her head. He distilled every fine aspect of her nature in the heroine of his book. Why he loved her so was beyond his understanding. He felt as if he knew her from some other time, and that their destiny must certainly be intertwined. He still believed this, despite her death. Some love, he had decided, was not meant to be in this lifetime. He wanted to shake the blasphemous belief in another life, another time, but there it was, staring him in the face. It was heaven she had gone to— that’s what he was supposed to believe. And Genevra was waiting there for him, not moving through time and space. He shook his head. What a man of God I am. Now a heathen at best.
But he had dreamt of her so many times. And in the oddest scenarios, as in all dreams, of course, but they were odd in that while he knew it to be Genevra, it never looked like her. In one, they were on what seemed like a huge ship, but when he went to look out the window of the galley, he found himself looking out over the clouds, moving amongst them as if he was inside a massive bird with hard, unmoving wings. In another he stood in a vast, ceilinged marketplace, filled to the brim with every imaginable fruit, vegetable, meat, and cheese. It was brightly lit, so much so that he felt blinded. The stalls were separated by tall shelves, and when he turned a corner, he ran right into her. She smiled as if she knew she would see him there. But she was not a she at all, but a he—and he was dark, the darkest skinned person Balch had ever seen. But it was her, and she was dressed in clothing of the like he had never seen anywhere before. They walked down wide streets together, made of solid smooth rock, and they passed carriage upon carriage that moved forward but were undrawn by horses. He wasn’t sure if it was even the same terra firma he knew.
In another dream, he was a young child, and she was his mother. He watched her move around a kitchen, a kitchen that was in some ways recognizable, but with strange contraptions, and internal running water. He sat in a high chair, picking up slimy, white pieces of fruit. He could hear music coming from a large, wooden box, with brightly lit dials that he could see in the room next to the kitchen. Genevra hummed along to the music and in the same voice that he had heard many times at church.
As usual, Balch pushed these thoughts from his mind. The only cure for his loneliness without Genevra was his book and the slightest reassurance that he had purchased a plot only a few paces away from her gravesite, high on a hillside above Lyle. He knew it was a strange thing to have done, but he didn’t care. Perhaps the proximity of their resting places would have some influence on their closeness in whatever awaited both of them when this lifetime ceased.
He rose from his seat and guessed that at least an hour and a half had passed in his reverie and followed the same path into town that Alma had taken.
Alma arrived over an hour early at their meeting spot, so she stretched out underneath the huge tree and leaned her back against its trunk, sipping whiskey from her flask and admiring the tree’s size and beauty. Its leaves had not yet started to unfurl. It was at least one hundred feet high, and its base took a good fifteen seconds to circle at a quick pace. She ran her fingers over the letters carved into its trunk, as she had done every time she passed it. Someone had recently chiseled a large arrow that pointed southwest and the words “Stumptown.” On one side of the tree were pictographs of which she could only guess at their meaning. It was a wonder the tree still stood, and she hoped it would for another millennium. Looking around, she saw only cows grazing—evidence that someone had likely laid claim to the land but had thus far left the tree undisturbed.
She recalled Luke’s remark the first time they had passed the tree on their way to Portland. “That’ll bring someone a great sum,” he said, nodding at the tree. It was typical of him, to only think of profit, and she told him so.
“You see houses, furniture, flooring, and who knows what else. I see beauty and splendor.”
Luke sniggered. “You’d rather die than see that tree felled.”
“I didn’t say that,” said Alma. “I simply think it has the right to life.”
“A damn tree can’t feel a thing, Alma.”
“How can you be so sure? And anyway, even if it can’t, why not leave it be for others to enjoy?”
“Because nobody but silly gooses like you stops to ponder such stuff. Your daddy filled your head with nonsense,” said Luke.
This incensed Alma. “My father knew more about beauty and the value of life than you could ever account for. He didn’t live for money.”
“Well sure. Because he didn’t have to,” said Luke, his voice rising.
Alma didn’t care if they fought. He wasn’t going to insult her father. “Even if he had been a poor man, he could see that there are higher things in this world than profit. He had a sense of God’s creation as sacred.”
“At least there we agree. God’s creation was intended for man.”
“For him to destroy at will?” she asked angrily.
Luke laughed at her. “He certainly didn’t intend for us to sit on our laurels and marvel at it, starving all the while. Whether it be a tree, Negro, or horse, they’re all here because the almighty made them for us to have an easier life.”
Alma was shocked. “An easier life?” she hissed. “What do you do, exactly, that makes life easier? You may fell trees when the work is there for you, but the rest of the work I do.” She was practically yelling now. “You mean a lazy, ungrateful, boring life. A life where you do as little as possible and blame it on everyone else that you can’t see what God gave you. It’s not ‘horses’ or ‘negroes’ or ‘trees to fell.’ It’s so that you can sit there and feel like you are some kind of king, above nature and all its creatures. Including me. You’ll work me to death if you have your way.”
Luke slapped her then, hard across the face. “You shut up now, Alma. I mean it.” His face was red, the veins in his neck and face standing out. “I’ve done good by you and you know it.”
“I know of no such thing. You are a miserly fool, wasting your every breath in pursuit of some sense of security through money that will never come. I hope you die.” She immediately regretted the last statement, but marched on ahead of Luke, taking Virginia with her.
It was a bitter trip. She had so much been looking forward to it, staying in a fine hotel with Luke, eating oysters in the hotel’s restaurant. That was only two years ago— how life can change so quickly and dramatically, she thought. As if to make it up to her, Luke had given Alma an ample allowance to purchase whatever “necessities she deemed fit,” as he said. She went to the millinery and tried on hats but grew embarrassed looking in the mirror, the fingers of Luke’s hand leaving raised welts on her cheek. She went on to the dress shops, admiring bolt after bolt of fine fabric, and the newest fashions in the pages of the Sears & Roebuck catalog.
She finally decided on a pair of expensive boots that looked sturdy and felt as if they immediately molded to her feet. Boots for walking long distances was what she needed. Good, strong boots.
She looked down at these same boots now, wishing she could afford another pair. Perhaps Luke had been right, she sighed, tipping the whiskey down her throat. She was overly concerned with the more spiritual aspects of existence, and they very rarely held relation to the matters of day-to-day life—the basic stuff of keeping hearth and home together and shoes on feet. She very much wished she had money to enter a store and buy a new pair of boots, but the only one in her party getting shoes anytime soon would be Virginia. Even that expense she wasn’t entirely sure of where the funds would come from. If only she were more pragmatic, she lamented.
On this note, she decided to make use of her idle time by taking out her notebook, a quill, and ink, turning her satchel into a makeshift writing desk. The very least she could do was write a letter to her mother and post it from Portland, where it would travel far faster than a letter from the Gorge.
I wrote to you of Luke’s death, and you have hopefully received that communication by now no doubt. But you must’ve wondered why I have said nothing of father’s death. I am sure this caused pain for you, which you so little deserve. I must say in all truthfulness that I had no idea of his passing.
Alma paused. She could feel tears forming. No wonder she had not written yet. It seemed impossible that her father was dead, she thought. To even write the words made the reality of his death hurt as if she had just learned of it. She grabbed for her flask, and finding none left inside, burrowed in Virginia’s panniers for the bottle stowed away there and took a long draught from its mouth. She went back to her quill and paper.
I am posting this letter from Portland, where I have gone in search of Luke’s daughter, Ruth, who has disappeared. I suppose it is a fool’s errand, but perhaps some good will come of it.
It started to rain hard then; the dark clouds interspersed with rays of sunshine that sent a rainbow across the eastern sky as Alma scribbled below the tree.
You are often in my thoughts. I am sorry I was not there for the funeral. I hope that you will come to visit me. I am opening a small boardinghouse outside the town of Troutdale. Please do visit. There will soon be a rail line running just in front of my home soon and you should be able to make your way here with some comfort. It would be so good to see you. Please extend my love to Lee, Diana, and Flynn. They’ve all grown much, I’m sure.
I do hope you are finding some joy in your lavender garden.
At that last line, she took a large gulp from the jug. Nothing made her feel worse than thinking of her family, who now seemed quite distant, if not lost, and gone entirely. Her mother had no great love for her, and her siblings were too young to have much to hang onto in terms of remembrance. She fell asleep, slumped next to the tree, her journal falling to the ground, and the quill still in her hand.
She awoke with Virginia nuzzling her nose, and Balch standing some paces away.
“Are you okay?” he asked, approaching once he saw her eyes open. He noted the unstoppered bottle lying on its side. Alma drew herself up, but she felt odd and lightheaded and fell back to the ground. She snatched her fallen journal and pen, stuffing them both in her satchel. She saw the paper was wet and her words smeared beyond comprehension from the rain.
“Oh shit! I’ve spilt all the whiskey!” she said but felt more upset about the letter to her mother.
“All the more reason to get a move on,” said Balch, somewhat sarcastically.
She glowered at him, but he approached her and put his hand out, which she begrudgingly grasped and pulled herself up. Retrieving the whiskey jug, she looked straight at Balch while taking the last remnants in a quick gulp. He was right; they best get on.
She managed to mount Virginia and said as confidently as she could, “It’s not too far now to the east bank of the Willamette. Three hours at the most. I know the way to the lodging house like the back of my hand.”