On Ancestors, Asparagus, Saints and Independence Rock

Back in my mid-to-late twenties I worked at a feedyard in southern Arizona. Every late winter/early spring, cattle buyers descended from heaven with boxes and boxes of asparagus bartered fresh out of the fields of the Imperial Valley of California. Gifts to us, the working stiffs trapped with a gazillion flies, and miles and miles of cow shit.

Betty and I were talking about that last night, fresh asparagus and those yahoo cattle buyers. I got to yarning about seemingly random thoughts that jutted up into the bottom of my skull. The month after the fresh asparagus arrived, the men who delivered hay from the Wellton-Mohawk Valley just east of Yuma hauled in boxes and boxes of fresh cantaloupe. We owned so much cantaloupe we couldn’t give it away.

I remarked to Betty how I used to take half a case to my father. He relished cantaloupe and would cut one in half and cram each natural bowl with vanilla ice cream. Betty remarked that we should buy a fresh cantaloupe and fill each half with vanilla ice cream in memory of him, and then eat it.

I remarked that, yeah, maybe we should and right now might be a good time because his birthday was somewhere around the 17th of March. She said, “St. Patrick’s Day?” Immediately I knew that wasn’t right because on St. Patrick’s Day, for most of my adult years while my father was alive, I stayed away from him because I usually spent a goodly amount of time at the El Rancho Tavern or Quick Draw’s Saloon or the Western Bar drinking glass after glass of green beer. So if I remember a multitude of cantaloupe and vanilla ice cream birthday bashes, the date must have been other than March 17th.

I told Betty that it couldn’t be the 17th, so I went to look it up and while there discovered the name of one of my mother’s ancestors who was born in England: Abidnigo Clifford (and I don’t know what led me to spend time looking at that), who had a son, Henry Clifford, also born in England, Gloucester to be more exact, where he and his wife Ann (nee Clayfield) begat daughter Mary near Nailsworth, south of Gloucester, and then they immigrated to America. In Utah, Mary Clifford married Merlin Plumb who begat William Lafayette Plumb who married Mary Elsie Riggs who begat Ruth Plumb who married Dale Walter Rodgers who begat me.

In 2009 Betty and I traveled to a Khe Sanh Veterans’ reunion in Denver, Colorado. We drove from Boise and one of the travel nights we spent in Rawlins, Wyoming. After getting settled in at our digs, we drove north towards Independence Rock. Independence Rock was so named because if you were traveling by covered wagon or hand cart west on the Oregon, Mormon or California Trails, you wanted to be at Independence Rock by the Fourth of July or you were headed for weather problems later in the journey.

Independence Rock is a rounded hump that, incidentally, reminds me of the top of my father’s head. He was mostly bald in his later days, and that big rounded-off landmark was reminiscent of Dale Walter’s pate. Maybe at this point in my life I have become sentimental about Dale. We didn’t get along well when I was young. He was mean when he was young, as was his father, and his father’s father, as was I. By the time my father got over being mean, it was late and I was busy and he died.

Maybe I was thinking of his shiny pate as I stood out there in that little valley bounded by humps and bumps of old mountains, not young mountains like Colorado, and Idaho and Utah, or for that matter, some of the ranges in Wyoming. Lightning cracked and a west wind whipped the sage. Mosquitoes attacked my arms and legs. Summer twilight in the north country lasts a long time and we’d arrived at Independence Rock at twilight’s commencement. I stood out on a little bridge that spans the main part of the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails. The literature said you could still see the wagon tracks in parts of the trail and I looked but didn’t see any. Once or twice lightning stabbed close and the thunder rattled off the old mountains and boomed through my bones.

I stood there imagining Henry Clifford and his daughter Mary Clifford in a wagon passing that way towards Salt Lake City sometime in the mid 1850s. They were Mormon folk at that time and would have traveled with lots of other Mormon folk most likely mustered up at Council Bluffs, Iowa for the trip west. I imagined them singing the words from an old Mormon hymn, “Come, come ye saints, no toil or labor fear…”

I imagined all the sour weather, all the toil of just making sure you had something to eat. Out there in that sagebrush plain, what would you burn for cooking fires, and how would you make a new axle for the wagon if the old one broke? How did you fix wheels and keep the supply of water so that everyone had enough for their needs? What about Sioux and Shoshone and Cheyenne warriors? How did you keep the horses, the cattle, the hogs from wandering off? What about wolves? Grizzly bear? What about smallpox and yellow fever?

Lightning cracked and I jumped and it made me laugh at myself for being afraid of the outdoors, but then I thought, I can get in my car, go to a room, sleep out of the rain and the wind. My food comes from the grocery store. There is plenty of that, or so I assume. Not so, 150 years ago on the Mormon Trail.

Looking down the Mormon Trail I thought about all those relatives of mine who made that harsh journey that they thought would lead them to the promised land. I thought about my maternal grandmother, Mary Elsie Riggs, who journeyed from Zion’s Canyon to Mesa , Arizona in a covered wagon in 1882. That lead me to thoughts of my mother and how sometimes I miss her even though she drove me up the wall a lot of the time.

Out there at Independence Rock, tears started to gather at the corners of my eyes. I hate that. I fought it. It didn’t make sense. History is something you cannot control. Neither is the future. Maybe the promised land is whatever stands in front of you right now. Maybe you can control the personal right-now and I did. I stopped that tearing up. As I walked back to the car I mused on my emotions and how my father used to tell me if I needed something to cry about, he’d give it to me.

Nevertheless, on March 13th next, Betty and I are going to buy a cantaloupe and cut it in half and stuff each half full of really good vanilla ice cream.