The following is the essay I wrote in the creative writing class I just finished:
Personally, I've found maps to be problematic for a few reasons. First, once unfolded they are difficult to refold and fit back in the glove box for future use. Secondly, maps assume that I am planning on staying within the lines. A map can only describe the landscape to a certain extent. The rest must be discovered, unearthed with our own small hands. There is a certain story I’ve been told ever since I was very young about a man and a woman, children and wagon trains… the family I come from and the maps they drew for themselves.
It was just after the war with the Indians. Virinda said “Yes” to James. She took his hand. Together they led a wagon train, built the first wagon road around Mt. Rainer, built the first hotel at the hot springs where they settled and raised eleven children. More than 150 years later, I’m told that people traveled many miles on foot, horseback and wagon for her excellent pancakes. Her picture captures her, sturdy and efficient in her calico apron. She looks like she needs a manicure and volumizing conditioner. She looks like she’s had eleven children.
Her family grew and established a life in Yelm Prairie, Washington. James and their sons built the hotel and named it Longmire Hot Springs. The writer in me can't seem to let this one go. If I were there I might have tried to think of something more original… longmireville… longmireopolis? The men became guides to the surrounding trails which they also named. The very first cabin they built still stands today. A tourist website advertises that every August a group of locals perform a “Settler’s Re-enactment” where they dress up like James and Virinda and act out what life must have been like all those years ago. Nearby, her gravestone stands as sturdy as her picture. It reads: “Charitable Neighbor, Devout Christian, Loving Mother, Capable Wife.”
I can’t help but be offended by the word “capable”. Is that really what all her work adds up to? Excellent pancakes, eleven children, living out of a wagon with the very real risk of wild animals, inclement weather and thieves, establishing a town where there once was only wilderness and she gets the word “Capable” carved in stone? This is a stark contrast to her husbands’ epitaph. James has eleven lines describing his accomplishments. Apparently he was a naturalist, humanitarian, explorer and peace keeper. He was a Lieutenant in the war with the Indians and held a seat in the State Legislature.
I understand that they lived in a different time. When I Google her name, I only find that she stood beside James, made great pancakes and named a nearby valley, “Paradise” because she thought the wild flowers were heavenly. When she said yes to James and began their journey west, after the war with the Indians, what where they setting out to find? I can’t help but wonder if there were days that she wanted to turn around and go home to Indiana. Were there days that took her breath away? Were there days that she held it together so that the 30 wagons following them would not leave them alone out there? After months in that wagon, were there days that she resented James and this crazy pursuit? Were there days that she held James together and reminded him what all this work was for? I wonder if she thought she was capable enough. Did she write home to her Mama, “Don’t worry about us, we’re fine. Luckier than most. This rain just pours and the kids are growing like weeds and this place could bring us to our knees. There is no map for this. By the way, thanks for the pancake recipe. It’s a big hit out here in these uncharted territories.”
I had always hoped that I had descended from graceful, gorgeous women. Is that wrong? In reality, I descended from a very long line of adventurers and exaggerators. Every time my father tells this story, it gets bigger. There is an account of James and Virinda spending a night in an ice cave with only the steam from the Hot Springs to keep them from freezing to death. These stories tend to up the ante on any “when I was your age we walked to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways” stories.
Now, I can add capable to this list. Adventurous, exaggerating and capable. Honestly, I will never be responsible for exploring an as yet uncharted piece of earth from the business end of a team of oxen. I have no fear of Indians but I must confess I have never in my life made pancakes. When I am faced with risk or change or danger and on the days when I fear that I am not capable enough, I begin to wonder if my life would be different if I actually learned the art of perfect pancakes or survival in an ice cave. It’s probably not about pancakes at all. She was survived by her story. She lived to tell her story to her children. They lived to tell it to their children. Down the generations, through history, I am capable of standing to tell her story again and make her history my own. I will probably exaggerate. I will probably start with, “Just after the war with the Indians…”