The Train: A
by Mary Jean Munro
[Author Mary Jean
Munro has graciously provided the following background on this piece:
following vignette is one of a collection of stories vaguely heard, and
vaguely told, by people who lived them, or who had, in turn, heard them
from others. The stories
are all loosely based on fact. They
are taken from notes intended for use in my (as yet unpublished) novel, O’Halloran
Land, and often include characters from the novel.
I discovered that many of these little tales did not fit within the
book’s framework, I began this growing collection.
It’s my belief that some history is too valuable to lose, and
can be told only through fiction, so I’ve made an effort to capture
some of it. The work is in
progress and probably has no end, as it had no beginning of its own.
particular vignette takes place at the start of the 20th
century—probably around 1905—and is my ‘take’ on something told
to my husband and me by the man who lived it.
It is as accurate as this sort of thing can be, which means that
it is not accurate at all, and is not intended to be.
Emotions are the basis for nearly all recorded history anyway, I
setting is that mountainous area of San Luis Obispo and Monterey
Counties north of Cambria and San Simeon, in the years prior to the
building of Highway One. The
area was at that time extremely remote, with only a stage route
connecting San Simeon and San Luis Obispo.
The families who had begun to homestead along this portion of the
coast were few and widely scattered over rough terrain.
(Editor’s note: For a sense of the isolation of this part of
the county in the early days, also see Brooke
Stoner’s ‘Lost on the Upper Nacimiento,’ first published in
the Overland Monthly in February 1889. –Lynne Landwehr)
am well acquainted with the area, and I believe I have an understanding
of the types of people about whom I write.
During the 1950s and early ‘60s, my husband and I lived on
ranches in Jolon, then in Cambria, over a period of several years, and I
grew to love both the countryside and its inhabitants.
There are so many wonderful stories connected with these people
and the area!”]
Train: A California
was six that year. Six by only weeks, but his father said he was big
enough to help drive the hogs to market. His mother didn't like the
idea. She said it was too far, too dangerous. After all, they'd be
three days away, maybe four. First day, they'd have to get to the Old
Mission trail above the San Carpojo, then follow along Plaskett Ridge
and into Long Valley before they could reach Jolon and her sister's
family. It would be all right there, with her sister to see they got a
good meal. Maybe there'd even be space in one of the cousins' beds
for a night's sleep. Then there was still the long drive over the next
mountain to the King City railway depot. No, Turner's mother didn't
like the idea at all.
thought it would be a fine adventure. He'd been off the home place
only once before, to visit his aunt's family, and that was a dim
memory. He'd heard that as many as a hundred people lived in King
City. He didn't believe that, but he'd like to see it, if it was true.
Besides, he was tired of hearing the older boys brag about doing the
man's work he couldn't do, calling him ‘Baby Brother’ and such.
That wasn't right. He hadn't been the baby since Polk came along, and
then the new baby sister. Yes, it was time to set that notion to
it was time to go, the older boys were in high spirits as they drove
the family's hogs through the gate and into a morning still smelling
of dew. Turner tried to keep his excitement to himself. He'd noticed
that his father was going at the job in a business-like way, and he
had a mind to follow the example. He was quick to prod adventuresome
pigs back on the path. His lively bare feet raised dust to his knees.
midmorning, his dust was only ankle-high, and he lagged behind, out of
sight of the others. The steep trail now wound through redwoods so
tall and thick that the sky was hidden. It was cooler there, but the
air seemed ominously still. Turner had never heard such stillness;
even the grunts and squeals of the pigs were hidden in it. The sound
of silence pulsed in his ears, hurrying him until he sighted his
the trail opened at last to blue sky, the brush and trees were
familiar again. The sun could be seen moving to the west. Turner's
early excitement returned, and he wished the trip could go on forever.
He'd heard them say that they'd reach his aunt's house near dark. It
was already past noon, and he knew he could go on for hours more. He'd
been told that if he was tired, he could ride his father's shoulders,
but he wouldn't do that. Little children were carried that way.
afternoon was fine. Game was scarce now that folks were settling the
mountains, but they'd had a glimpse of deer off over one rise. They
couldn't leave the pigs, so they'd had to let the game get away.
Turner's father shook his head over the missed opportunity. It would
have been nice to carry meat to relatives. They'd seen quail and
pigeons, too, and a big flat-faced badger that challenged one of the
shoats that got too close.
dark, Turner was drowsing on his father's shoulders. He'd been swung
up to that perch without much protest after he'd given his big toe a
fearful stubbing. When they reached Jolon, his aunt bustled him into
the kitchen, where he had to keep his foot in a basin of hot salt
water while he ate his soup. When he awoke next morning, he didn't
remember finishing his dinner or how he'd gotten into the warm nest at
the foot of his cousin’s bed.
day promised clear and sunny when the party set out on the last leg of
the journey to market. Turner didn't want his bandaged toe to keep him
behind with his aunt, so he hurried to the trail before his father
could order him to stay behind. He didn't mind that the trip was
getting to be a hot and thirsty one. He saw that sweat made muddy
rivulets down the cheeks of his father and brothers, and that the
bandanas around their necks were soaked through. Turner trudged on,
mopping his own face and trying not to limp. It was a relief when they
topped a rise and saw the long stretch of railway tracks leading to
the cluster of buildings that made up King City.
in town, Turner clung to his father's pants-leg as they made their way
to the holding pens near the tracks. He'd never before seen so many
people at one time. There were ladies and girls making their way up
the wooden walkways, and men sitting on benches or leaning on
storefronts. There were buggies with families, and men on horseback.
He thought there must be a hundred different folks that he could see
all at once. His grip tightened on his father’s clothing.
on these sights, the boy hardly heard the talk between his father and
a man with notebook in hand, pencil behind an ear. He was scarcely
aware of being hurried along toward the train station and the tracks
beyond. Once around the building’s corner, Turner's eyes widened.
His hand dropped from his father's garments as he stared at the
monstrous black object that waited there amidst belches of steam and
smoke, seeming to vibrate with malign life.
was never known if Turner heard the conductor's shouted orders to the
engineer, but at the first noisy blast of escaping steam and the
screeching of metal from the moving train, the youngster fled. For hours,
his father and his brothers searched for him. Only the next day, when
the worried family returned to Jolon, did they find the boy. He stood
at the gate with his hand tucked securely into his aunt's.
He'd run all the way from King City, and by Jove, he’d never go back there again. Someone else could get the
pigs to market.”
2001 by Mary Jean Munro.
Jean Munro was born just over the San Luis Obispo county line, in Santa
Maria, but she grew up in the Arroyo
Grande Valley, on land that was cleared by her great grandparents,
George O. and Barbara Jones Taylor, and that land continues to be in the family to
the other side of her family, Mary Jean’s paternal great-grandfather,
Williard McNeil, settled in Pozo and raised a large family.
His son Frederick (who was Mary Jean’s grandfather) married a
California native named Angelina Custodia Smith.
Angelina’s unconfirmed family oral history claims that through
her mother, Francesca Lopez, she was a
descendant of Pio
Pico, well known in the history of Mexican California.
The claim may be true—Angelina’s mother, Francesca Lopez, is
said to have been expelled from her family when she married one Nicolas
Smith, a Mexican from Baja California, whose ancestry is traceable to a
shipwrecked British sailor, but who was decidedly not ‘Spanish.’
All Mary Jean knows for certain is that Francesca Lopez left
Santa Barbara with Smith, and that their daughter Angelina (Mary
Jean’s grandmother) later laughingly complained to her children that
she had been “cheated out of half of Santa Barbara’s State Street”
by her mother’s disinheritance.
Custodia Smith McNeil became one of history’s first "motel
maids” when she worked at San Luis Obispo’s Motel Inn—the first
“motel” in the country, and in the world. She was employed
there from its beginning in 1925, and for many years she was Supervisor
of the motel's custodial staff.
Mary Jean’s Munro’s
family background has strongly influenced her writing.
As she says, “Interest in the human side of history is my
inheritance. I couldn’t
avoid it, even if I wanted to.” The
cattle ranching so lovingly detailed in Mary Jean’s novel O’Halloran
Land (available from www.1stBooks.com)
is just one facet of Mary Jean’s life experience.
She is currently writing a novel about a woman working on a
fishing boat during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
She indicates that it’s a way of life almost entirely lost, yet
one with which she is well acquainted. --Lynne Landwehr]
to read an excerpt from Mary Jean Munro's
novel entitled O'Halloran Land.
to return to
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