We parked the car at the fork in the trail – left for the grave, right for the old orchard place – and walked the rest of the way, tiptoeing carefully around a couple of large patches of poison ivy. I’ve yet to fall foul of this little horror, and am trying to take great care that I don’t. I have heard hideous stories about its effects.
After we’d spent a little time at the grave we drove on to the old orchard place. There are still remnants of old Jules’ planting, although whether or not they’re bearing fruit I couldn’t tell. The only trees that remain are behind a deer-proof fence – apart, that is, from a cluster by the house that made up part of his experimental station.
I’ve always though of myself as a pretty observant sort of person, but I have come to realise that I’m selective in what I notice. It often takes more than one visit to any place for certain obvious facts to penetrate my consciousness. That’s where it’s good to have a companion, because it was A. who pointed out to me that there’s a cottage of some sort for rent out there – to hunters, I would guess. I had seen it on my last visit, but I hadn’t given any thought to what she suggested, namely that I rent it for a night or two so that I can explore the area on foot and at leisure. I’ve logged that away as something we might do together before she goes home.
As ever, I found a couple of plants that attracted me, neither of which have leapt out at me from the pages of my two reference books. The first is a little yellow flower, which I almost trod on.
The second is this gorgeous grass, which reminds me of a field of barley just before it starts to ripen. I already have a couple of correspondents who have consented to put me right on these matters, so here’s hoping….
After leaving this beautiful valley, which lies at the very core of Mari’s attachment to the Sandhills, we had intended to drive back to Gordon. However, as A. pointed out, there were still other sites to see – if we could find them. So we carried on south for a few miles and were rewarded with the last glimmerings of the sign that once led visitors to the Spade Ranch.
When Mari was seventeen she went, against her father’s wishes, to sit the exam which would earn her a teacher’s certificate. When his thunder had died down it typically gave way to boasting about how well he’d educated his kids. Mari had a number of teaching jobs over the next few years, and during the time of her brief marriage. It was after her separation from Wray Macumber that she taught at the Hunzicker school, and lodged with a family in a sod-house, not many miles from the old orchard place. The house features on some of these old guides, which I suspect were compiled by sister Caroline.
The question today was, does it still exist? Could we find it? I was dubious, A. much more optimistic. We agreed that we’d give it a few miles, and drove on. Nothing. Not even a sign of a sign. Okay, we said, we’ll turn around the first chance we get – like in this ranch entrance here.
And then I remembered all the many times I have knocked at doors in remote places out here, all the many strangers I’ve approached – and the sometimes remarkable results of these chance contacts. Tell you what, I said, let’s drive down to the ranch house and ask if anybody knows anything. You never know.
There was a gaggle of children playing on swings in the yard, so A. got out and asked the eldest if Mum or Dad was at home. A moment later both appeared on the porch, and a moment after that A. was turning and giving me the thumbs up.
We’d passed a ruined house on the way in, but it seemed to be rendered in cement. Of course: that’s how they kept those old sod houses going so long. This was the place, a large square home on two stories, once home to our heroine.
According to the Hamiltons, who now ranch this land, the place has been empty for fifty years, probably more. They told us that some time ago they’d had a visit from a couple of elderly gentlemen, probably in their eighties, who said they’d grown up in the house. The rancher told us that he’d played in there as a kid, but was seriously considering bulldozing it now, such is its state of disrepair and the danger that represents. So these may be some of the last photos of a decomposing relic.
We got to Gordon just in time to find that the library – where we’d hoped to collate some of our material – had closed, ten minutes earlier. Not the best end to what had been an otherwise successful day. Today we rest.