Goodbye Illinois, Hello Paradise

by Jim Farrar (1986)

Like all tales, this one starts, oddly enough, at the beginning. It does not end, however, quite so easily. This is the story of how my family came to be, and how they ended up on a patch of land that was relentlessly cruel to the people who tried to settle it. What seems strange to me is the fact that my family had neighbors, people who chose, for one reason or another, to share the same misery.

Look at this story, then, as a piece of stone in a human mosaic, as a package that can't be tied off at any one end, and I think you'll begin to get the picture. Simple things happen that turn out to be anything but. For example. . .

Though he'd been born and raised there, my father was never suited for a life in the country. He was happier in the city and, later, he'd take advantage of every opportunity to prove it. This was not without precedent.

Before we sold it, the ranch had been in our family for over a hundred years, having been homesteaded by my great grandfather, a gregarious man of Irish descent with a roving eye, a passion for whiskey and a fondness for politics. The story goes – embellished by the passage of time, no doubt – that Old Wiley, as he was called, became disenchanted with his life as a vendor in Illinois and decided to head West to find his fortune and determine his destiny. It never occurred to him that fortune and destiny do not always go hand in hand.

He married my great grandmother, a shy, unassertive girl of sixteen named Amanda and the daughter of a family friend, bought a wagon, borrowed money from whoever would lend it to him (they must have thought he was planning to open another dry-goods store, though I don't think any of them knew how far he was actually planning to go, including himself) and literally rolled off into the sunset.

Big ideas and good intentions that constantly fall short are evidently something that my father inherited from his grandfather, like a congenital curse.

When he left Illinois, Old Wiley had originally planned on settling in Oregon; instead he landed in Idaho, on the edge of Dry Creek, a twisting ditch that starts in the nearby Sawtooths and goes downhill to nowhere.

My great grandfather's arrival on Dry Creek has been so distorted by family history that it is now likened to Brigham Young's passage through Emigration Canyon into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Both came west from Illinois, which is where all similarity ends, if the truth must be known.

Old Wiley headed west not out of persecution but, instead, out of preoccupation and restlessness; he forged his own trail out of necessity only because he'd failed to read his map properly and had taken a short cut that did not lead him back to the Oregon Trail.

Brother Brigham's statement to his followers when they finally stopped was the famous "this is the place." Old Wiley had simply said "this is far enough."

Whether he knew it or not – and all evidence points to the contrary – Old Wiley had homesteaded some of the prettiest land in the country. In the spring, the mountains form a striking backdrop to the prairie with it waves of wildflowers. Summertime gives way to the steady green of timothy and its deliciously sweet smell.

Old Wiley, however, had arrived just before the outset of winter, a winter which would soon enough let him know he was not in Oregon. He'd built a house and then he'd apparently gone to work with Amanda because, by the time the first snow had fallen, she was pregnant with my grandfather, which would make it a very long winter for both of them, but for different reasons.

That first winter, by all accounts, was a real doozy and they lost the few animals they possessed. Wiley considered moving again, this time to Mexico, but Amanda overruled him, fearing they'd end up in Canada or, worse yet, Alaska. This was where they'd raise their family, she said, they'd make a go of it and would somehow survive. And this was also where a long-standing family pattern of the women having to tether their men just to ensure survival and prevent disaster was begun. Wiley would become a rancher, like it or not.

And so my family became a family of cattlemen. Old Wiley went from dry goods salesman to dreamer to cowboy and, eventually, to philanderer. My grandfather was born in the summer after that first winter on the prairie. They named him Wiley Junior.

And Old Wiley tried to ranch, though he wasn't very good at it. For one thing, he was a poor rider. He kept falling off his horse, and he was more than a little afraid of cows. And for good reason: he'd had two ribs broken by a protective mother when he tried to check on her newborn. He struggled with the ranch for almost fifteen years before he finally gave up. By the time he was ready to quit, Wiley Junior had become a young man and, unlike his father, he shared his mother's passion for the land. He liked ranching and he worked hard at it. The herd grew and the family enjoyed its most prosperous years freeing Old Wiley to pursue other interests.

Wiley managed to get himself elected to the fledgling state legislature up in Boise. This was a job that was more to his liking. He could bullshit much better than he could shovel it and, unlike the prairie, there were bars in Boise. There were also women, which coupled poorly with my great grandfather's overactive libido. Old Wiley was well entertained during those years he spent in Boise.

He was well entertained, that is, until Amanda found out. Amanda immediately filed for a divorce, an unprecedented act for a woman in the early twentieth century. In another unprecedented act, Amanda was awarded the ranch in the settlement.

Which made Amanda the Grand Matriarch of our family. She became the root, the base, of our family tree. Old Wiley is viewed as a twisted Johnny Appleseed, a man who got us out here and then did his best to throw syrup in the gears of the family machine.

But I look at Old Wiley much differently. After all, he's my great grandfather. He's family. And he at least had the balls to pursue something. Like my father, he just didn't know what it was. He didn't recognize it. Old Wiley started it all and then left the stage.

There's an old family joke about Wiley Junior following in his father's footsteps. "No," goes the punchline, "Wiley Junior didn't take after his father, but his mother did."

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