Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001






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The Train: A California Vignette
by Mary Jean Munro

[Author Mary Jean Munro has graciously provided the following background on this piece:
      “The 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  They are taken from notes intended for use in my (as yet unpublished) novel, O’Halloran Land, and often include characters from the novel.
      “When 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.
     "This 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 believe.
     "The 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)
      “I 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!”]


The Train:  A California Vignette

“Turner 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.

“Turner 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 rights.

“When 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.

“By 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 father ahead.

“When 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.

“The 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.

“By 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.

“The 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.

“Once 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.

“Intent 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.

“It 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.
All rights reserved.


[About the author:
       Mary 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 this day.
        On 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.
        Angelina 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]


Click here to read an excerpt from Mary Jean Munro's
novel entitled O'Halloran Land.


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Copyright © 2001 Lynne Landwehr.  All rights reserved.