Sixteen: The Great Eighty Road

It wasn’t long after their abrupt departure from Happy Valley Orchards that Laura and her family turned south. Mid-afternoon the very next day, they reached a fork in the road. The wide old number road that led from the ruins kept going west, up and over the horizon, and a smaller road branched away. They stopped there while Pa consulted the map. Then he nodded to Ma and began to turn the car.

Their new road was little more than a trail of creetrock gravel. For long stretches, it would disappear entirely beneath soil and grass. That first day, they followed the patchwork path as it meandered through groves of buttonbush and hazelnut. Eventually, they came to a creek, and there they made camp for the night. The banks of the creek provided wood enough for a nice roaring fire, and they all felt their spirits much improved.

Ma boiled up a pot of apple leathers and saltmeat until both were soft and juicy. Then she took a handful of hazelnuts that Laura and Mary had helped her gather, wrapped them in cloth and struck them over and over with a rock. She sprinkled the crushed hazelnut into the boiling pot along with a few pinches of other herbs from her jars.

The stew was sweet and spicy and thick, and it warmed Laura all over. When they had all had their fill, there was hardly a drop left inside the pot. After supper, Laura went to the handcar and returned with Pa’s two-string. Slyly, she laid it on the ground beside him. Pa laughed and allowed as how he could take a hint.

He rested his back against a log and stretched his legs out, crossing one over the other. Then he rested the drum of the instrument on his thigh and picked up his bow. The taut snakeskin across the barrel’s mouth thrummed. He began to sing.

 

A lonely mother gazes out of her window

Staring at a son that she just can’t touch

Walking down the road with no one by his side

But he doesn’t realize he hurts her so much

All her praying only quickens his footsteps

‘Cause he can’t help lying wake nights to wonder

So he leaves to make his fortune the best way he knows how

Trading hither for the perilous yonder.

 

Don’t go chasing waterfalls

Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to

I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all

But I think you’re moving too fast

 

The next day and the next and for a good many days after, they followed that winding little road south. It was tiring at first. Laura’s legs had forgotten what life on the road was like. But soon they remembered. Before long, walking was once again as natural to her as breathing, and it was the moments of rest, lingering in one place for too long, that felt strange.

She told Ma as much. That’s your father’s wanderlust, Ma told her. She made it sound like it was some dreadful disease that Laura had caught.

The familiar rhythm returned. One foot in front of the other, propelling her steadily forward, towards new places and new experiences. There was something soothing about it, entrancing. How far away Happy Valley Orchards seemed and how quickly. More and more, Laura’s questions about days past were crowded out by her curiosity about what lay ahead.

Soon, they would see the Great Eighty Road, Pa promised, the enormous old number road that once stretched the whole length of Old Merica, from Eastern Sea to the Western. Laura imagined walking it end to end, seeing all the wondrous sights and meeting all the strange peoples who must surely live in between those far-flung oceans.

One day, the road wound down through a wooded basin where the land was soft and marshy. Pa had to go slow and careful to make sure the wheels of the handcar wouldn’t sink down into the moist earth.

Laura saw animals she had never seen before. They stopped that afternoon beside a little pond bristled all over in reeds, and Laura watched tall white herons stalking through the water on their spindly legs, trying to spear fish with their long beaks.

Later, she came across a big snake with the dark brown stripes and a diamond-shaped head coiled up behind a log. Pa said it was a viper and warned her to stay well away. Laura took one last look back at the snake. It was motionless as a stone, but its black eyes seemed alert, cold and watchful.

It was good land for game, and in the days that followed they often camped early so that Pa would have a chance to go out hunting. One evening, he came back with the biggest bird that Laura had ever laid eyes on slung over his shoulder. Pa said that it was called a turkey. They roasted it over the campfire that night. The meat was mild and savory, and there was so much of it that they could hardly eat it all before it spoiled. Even Jack had all the turkey he could eat.

“If you think that turkey was something, just wait until we get to the Wastes,” Pa told Mary and Laura, as he carved up the meat, plopping the choicest cuts into Ma’s stewpot and tossing the scraps to Jack. “The wastebirds that roam the plains out west can grow to be taller than a man, to hear some tell it. I reckon that’s an exaggeration. You know how folks are. But they’re mighty big as birds go, you can believe that much. That big tom I bagged yesterday, why he’d look like a woodpecker next to a wastebird if you credit even half the tales.”

As they passed through that moist green country, the Merican road vanished as often as not, swallowed up by clubmoss and creepers. Every so often they passed the burnt orange shells of lectric cars and wagons and plows. Crusty tufts of lichen clung to their shoulders, and branches curled out through their ribs. Laura sometimes mistook them for part of the vegetation.

At first, it seemed to Laura that few people passed this way. A few days later, however, they began to encounter signs of recent habitation amid the wilderness. That was because they were nearing the Great Eighty Road, Pa told her. As their destination approached, they began to come across the traces of campsites, clearings where trees had been felled and every so often a ring of stones arranged around a cold fire pit.

Late one day, they stopped by a cluster of creetrock ruins. Timber beams had been erected against several of the old walls, forming a series of simple lean-to shelters. Pa called out, asking if anyone was around. After scouting the site further, he decided that it had been abandoned for some time, and that night they camped cozy beneath a lean-to.

That was a good thing, because the next day they awoke to a light drizzle.

The rain continued all morning. Mary kept her hood up, but Laura couldn’t bear to shroud her face for long, with nothing to watch except her boots trudging along the soggy road. Inevitably, she would toss her hood back and just let the rain speckle her cheeks and forehead, droplet by droplet, until enough droplets gathered together to drip from her nose or chin. Ma would make her cover her head then, and for a while Laura’s world would narrow once again behind a tunnel of stitched lectric fabrics and buckskin.

Early that afternoon, their road ran straight into a river. When he saw the trail drop off ahead, Pa set down the handcar. Laura followed at his heels as he walked carefully out onto a creetrock precipice that overlooked the riverbank.

Pillars rose out of the water where a bridge had once been. They seemed to get shorter and shorter as they approached the middle of the river, as if slowly wading down beneath its surface. Down in the mud beneath the creetrock overlook, an iron beam, bowed and rusted, slithered out of the water and up onto the banks like a great brown river snake.

It was the widest river Laura had seen since the Mighty Misisip. From where she stood, the trees on the other side were nothing but a distant green curtain. And, unlike the Misisip, which had been eerily still when Laura’s family had crossed it that winter, this river rushed rumbling past her, hissing white foam as its waters collided with the creetrock pillars. Laura watched the ripples of raindrops sweep across the river’s span and knew they could not cross.

Pa did not seem concerned.

“End of the line,” he announced. “The old man warned we’d lose the road at the Yowa River. The going may get a might rougher from here out. But not to worry. Shouldn’t be far now to the Eighty Road.”

They made their way down a muddy trail that ran alongside the river. Pa kept his hatchet handy, tucked through the loop of his belt, for he often needed to stop and chop aside encroaching bushes to make way for the handcar. Their progress was slow.

Downriver from the collapsed bridge, they saw their first people. The side trail had led them back down to the riverbank, near a bend where the waters slowed. There, on the other side of the river, they saw a group of women. They were fishing. Their poles hung out over the water and bobbed up and down as the current tugged them. Pa tried to hail them.

“Bound for Hawkeye Crossing!” he shouted. “How far?”

Some of the women waved. Laura heard one of them shout something, but she couldn’t make out the words over the rumble of the river. Pa tried again.

“The Old Eighty Road! This way?” he shouted, pointing downriver.

More indistinct voices came from the other bank. Pa shook his head and shrugged. They continued down the trail.

When the way became impassable, they were forced to leave sight of the river. Pa dragged the handcar up a path that turned and backtracked so many times that Laura soon lost any sense of which direction they were heading. The sound of the river faded into the distance and disappeared.

“Charles, are you sure this is the right way?” said Ma when they had walked what seemed to be a good many hours. “I fear we’re going in circles.”

“We’re close, Caroline,” Pa assured her. “Did you see those ruins we passed some ways back? The Eighty Road can’t be far off. If we can just make it through this last rough stretch, we may yet lay eyes on it by day’s end.”

Unfortunately, the day was ending quickly. The rain had stopped by then. Light streamed sideways through the trees, painting their trunks in checkered patterns of amber and gray.

Finally, Ma and Pa resigned themselves to making camp for the night. They had just begun to look for likely spots to set down their bedrolls when the little trail they had been following burst from underneath the trees and out into open sky.

One moment Laura’s boots were sloshing up a muddy hill, and the next they came slapping down onto a plateau of creetrock, as firm and flat as could be. She stopped. Her gaze slowly panned up. The gray, lectricmade stone beneath her boots just kept spreading out and out and out. Laura turned in a circle. Behind her and ahead of her both, as far as Laura could see, there it was. The Great Eighty Road.

It was wider than all the other Merican roads they had travelled laid side by side together, as wide as the wide river that had separated them from the fisherwomen.

Cracks arced across the creetrock like lightning forks or else coiled in upon one another like spiderwebs. Little islands of soil and vegetation sprouted here and there from its fissures. Yet, as the Eighty Road unfurled out into the distance, its imperfections were swallowed by the road’s sheer scale. Out into the farthest west and out towards the farthest east, the old number road stretched, straight and smooth, a thick unbroken band of gray, stark against the corridor of trees that framed it.

While Laura gaped, Pa was still struggling to drag the handcar up the final slope. Ma had turned back to help. Finally, the car’s wheels found traction at the road’s crumbling edges, and Ma and Pa joined Laura upon the gray vastness of the Eighty Road. Ma murmured a prayer under her breath. Pa wiped the sweat from his forehead and stared out across the endless ribbon of creetrock with a look of wonder. He let out a whistle of appreciation.

“Well, here it is,” he said. “How do you like it, girls? The road that will take us to our new home on the Wastes.”

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