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Friday, 27 May 2011

The Old Jules Trail

I think I’ve got myself a job. Somebody – and it may as well be me – needs to re-draft the Old Jules Trail map. The one that’s being handed out was somebody’s labour of love – I suspect it may have been Caroline Sandoz – but it has caused me difficulties on more than one occasion. Last fall when I took the trail with my partner we ran into problems with the markers, several of which were missing. Some years ago, on my own, I managed to get lost between the old home place on the river and the track that leads to the Swiss cemetery.  This time, the Chainsaw had his Satnav with him – and boy, am I glad he did.

I don’t think you’d make this particular trip unless you’d read, or intended to read, Mari’s masterpiece, by which I mean Old Jules. Many people put Crazy Horse in the same category, and I am sure they are right. It’s actually fifteen years or so since I read that book, and I intend to re-visit it shortly. Mari’s story of her father’s life – his pioneering life, that is; there’s precious little about his youth in Switzerland – contains a fair bit of material on his early days on Mirage Flats, eight miles or so south of Walgren Lake. There really isn’t much to note there now – merely a certain flatness, as far as I could see – but there is a stone marker at the site of the well where Jules broke his ankle.

I have always been troubled by that incident. I feel that Mari deals a little too briskly with a story that might have benefited from closer examination. Jules has just finished digging a well, having been lowered in a bucket to a depth of 65 feet. His Swiss friends who are operating the windlass, Nicolet and Tissot, play a joke on him, jerking the rope as they pull him to the surface. It breaks, Jules falls, and they haul him up, horrified by what they have done. Despite his injuries, Jules is still preoccupied with issues of land ownership. They haven’t yet filed on this property. So, desperate as his situation is – he’s in no condition to travel to Fort Robinson for medical help and will self-medicate with morphine - he sends the two men to Valentine with the registry fees. Two weeks later, they still haven’t returned, and he is at death’s door when he’s picked up by a passing convoy of soldiers and taken sixty-odd miles to Fort Robinson.

The thing with Mari Sandoz is, she always has a massive amount of research material to hand; and she likes to weave it all in. Her aim is to create a full-colour picture of the times she is writing about. But there are occasions in this particular book when she chooses to skip over certain events, to mention them in passing. If she lingered and told you everything she knew she’d end up with a 900-page monster; and let’s remember here that the Atlantic Monthly, who awarded her the $5000 non-fiction prize in 1935, insisted she cut a considerable amount of material to bring it down to 135,000 words before it could be published. So I feel we don’t quite get enough on Old Jules’ feelings towards his partners for their crass stupidity. That’s one problem. My second is the effect on her father of this stay in hospital, which lasted several months over a winter. It’s there – but deftly, almost hinted at, slipped into the narrative in passing. First he writes to Rosalie, the sweetheart he had hoped to bring over from Switzerland to marry him. I’m a cripple, he says; no use to you now. Then, to quote from the text, “he wrote no more, saw no one except the breeds and the enlisted men who taught him American card games, profanity and smut.” And then she moves on.

There’s no question that Jules is portrayed throughout the book as bad-tempered, foul-mouthed and dirty-minded, but we also see his high-minded side, politically engaged, proud of his European cultural roots. Is it the case that the young pioneer, still not long away from Switzerland, still very much the former medical student, was finally brutalised and  corrupted by this entire episode? I think Mari may be trying to tell us so, but I don’t think she pays it enough attention. It is actually very hard to admire the old man as much as – I suspect – his daughter would like us to, and I feel that’s because she didn’t pave the way as carefully as she might have done. But that’s very much her style, to wave in the little details, the clues, a demand that you concentrate. Blink and you miss it.

But anyway… here’s the marker, and here’s me, in a photo taken last September; and here too is where the markers along the trail let the visitor down. So it was a bit of trial and error and a bit of satellite technology that got us to the river place, the homestead that once belonged to Freese, but which Jules took over.

This view looking north was taken from on Indian Hill, where Mari used to sit and think, and possibly rage against the circumstance of her constricted life as a young girl. There’s a small stone plaque there now to commemorate her.

And here’s a shot of a thoughtful Phil gazing out over the landscape and musing on his return to England next day.

From the river place the trail seemed far from obvious.  Do you follow the track that wanders down to the Niobrara, or climb the one to the south, more of a gully at first sight? We tried both and ended up on the second alternative, grateful that the weather was dry – because it was one rough old trail that stretched… I’d guess ten miles, across open pasture to a tiny Swiss cemetery where we found the graves of the grossmutter -  Mari’s maternal grandmother – and Emile Sandoz, Jules’ brother, shot dead on his own front porch by a hired gun in one of the disputes with cattlemen.

Down highway 250, which runs south of Rushville, we passed Smith Lake, cut 12 miles across country to highway 27, and finally came to the trail that leads to the orchard place and Mari’s grave. The orchard place was the valley home, deep in the empty sandhills, that Jules took up in 1910. It’s the place that a 14-year-old Mari was sent, with brother Jim, aged 10, to watch over from May to September, just the two of them, quite alone. And, we understand, it’s the place that so branded itself on her young mind that she wrote a clause in her will saying she should be buried there.

So here’s the grave - again, a picture I took last year when the scorched grasses were swarming with grasshoppers.

It sits in a small fenced-off enclosure, with a ring-bound visitor book, and a pencil, in a mail-box – full of thoughtful entries from all manner of readers from Nebraska and around the world who’ve made the pilgrimage. I think this was my fifth visit, and every one has had new meaning for me as I’ve struggled to piece together two remarkable lives: Mari’s and he father’s. I’m not sure why I’ve struggled. Perhaps it’s that every time I read the books that outline their courses I am distracted by the incidental detail, the asides, the colour, the sounds and scents with which she decorates her portraits of people and places.

The flat valley which the grave overlooks was once full of fruit trees, Old Jules’ greatest triumph.

The first time I came here they lay in rows, dead, felled, the bark stripped by successive years of wear. I took home a single grey twig for a souvenir. This visit there were still a few apple trees in bloom on the far side, and a few more beside the old homestead building towards the eastern end of the valley, where he had his trial orchards.

I took this photo last year. I wondered then, as I wonder now, why nobody thinks to institute a retreat there. The place looks sound, waterproof, dry, and would surely appeal to writers, artists, scholars or photographers, perhaps even musicians. But it may be that only a slightly crazy person would volunteer to spend time alone in… what am I saying? But it would be ironic, wouldn’t it, to start such a scheme in the home of a man who famously denounced writers and artists as “the maggots of society”?

Tomorrow we’ll say goodbye and bon voyage to the Chainsaw, and I will adjust once again to solitude.

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