In the late winter of 2014, I found myself on an empty 40-acre farm in Cleveland, Missouri, about forty minutes south of Kansas City. It was originally purchased by my grandfather in the 1980s and was slated to be sold by the bank along with the estate of my Aunt Margaret, who had recently passed away only nine months after being diagnosed with astrocytoma. I was teaching in the University of Missouri’s English department, so during our spring break I drove to my aunt’s farm and unlocked the gate with my key — a key the bank didn’t know I had. The water had already been shut off to the farmhouse and the furniture had been emptied out. I brought eight gallons of water with me, groceries, a sleeping bag, a camping cot, a TV tray, a kitchen table chair, my laptop, a collector’s set of Alfred Hitchcock movies, a table lamp, and a few books. Luckily, the electricity was still on so the baseboard heat still worked (it was still below freezing that early in March). The kitchen stove and refrigerator also worked.
I stayed in my aunt’s farmhouse all week. I wrote for several hours every morning, went for a walk in the woods in the afternoon, ate dinner while I watched part of a Hitchcock movie, then wrote again until going to sleep around midnight. I completed the first 55,000 words of a novel in that timeframe, nearly doubling what I had written in the previous nine months. About two weeks after that, the bank sold my aunt’s farm.
I had stumbled on the idea for the novel while visiting my aunt the previous year, right before her diagnosis. I was up late watching TV and a story came on about a Dr. Charles Robinson from Boston who, in 1849, joined a company to travel to California during the Gold Rush. Travelers had to pay $300 per person for protection and supplies if they wanted to journey with the company, but Dr. Robinson (who was broke) offered his medical services in exchange for free passage. I thought, “What was it like being a doctor in 1849 and traveling out to California during the Gold Rush?” That was the nugget for how the novel — and Joshua, its protagonist — began to take its shape.
To say Joshua is a protagonist, though, speaks more to his position as the main character, and less to the way he functions in the novel. I had long been interested in the idea of writing an anti-Western with a decidedly anti-hero. I wanted to write a main character that really messed with a reader’s heart and mind. Someone you’d want to be sympathetic for — really sympathetic for — and, perhaps, couldn’t help but be sympathetic for, even though what he does and who he becomes as a character is revolting.
Even more than that, I wanted to write a book that felt very American, and for it to be set in the mid-nineteenth century because I saw so many similarities between that time period and the 2010s. Growing up in Texas, I have always loved Westerns and loved the idea of the West, but I hate the way we romanticize and glorify that period and all the strife that defined it. That unbridled idea of freedom that categorically defines the Old West has bared its teeth in so many ways during the last decade.
Stark and loud warnings of government takeover. Formerly fringe radicalism growing more and more mainstream. The National Wildlife Refuge System — a symbol of America’s frontier ideology — caught in a literal standoff with Western ranchers over grazing rights. And of course, you also had the early days of Bitcoin and an emerging cryptocurrency landscape, which is itself a kind of weird, almost Wild West venture.
Against this backdrop, I was deep into archival research of the California Gold Rush — a period in American history that fundamentally (and in a very short time) reshaped our country, our landscape, our population, and our culture. To get a sense of what it meant to journey on the California Trail, I read and re-read The Emigrant’s Guide to California. I even hand drew a topographical map complete with my own key of the entire Trail (from Independence, Missouri to Sutter’s Mill), taping 10 sheets of paper together to create a map that was about 10 feet long and then taping the entire thing to my bedroom wall.
Being able to recreate that journey hinged on seeing the gradations and changes in the landscape. But even with all of that reading and drawing and looking, my writing still felt incomplete. So I decided to fly out to California, rent a car, and drive to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, CA. Nothing supplants field research.
I camped for four days in sun-drenched Coloma, toured the remnants of Sutter’s Mill, hiked in the thirsty hills around the American River, and took gold panning lessons from a park ranger. The rangers give you gold pans, show you how to do the panning, then turn you loose on a single trough baited with gold flakes — what the 49ers called “color.” But it turns out most people who take gold panning lessons out there are children. The park ranger humored me for about twenty minutes until I started to, as she put it, “find too much gold and take some of the experience away from the others.”
On that same trip, I also visited Placerville (formerly Old Dry Diggings), and I took a detour to visit my new girlfriend who grew up in Sonoma County, and who eventually became my wife.
Like all stories about the process of coming up with a book and writing it, there’s that seed that’s sown and the water you give it from that moment onward. And then there’s the soil that nourishes it and pushes it into the plant it one day is, which is a far more complex amalgam of matter, history, and circumstance that you don’t always understand but that always becomes felt one way or another. I think back to those fourteen days and nights in rural Missouri. So much of the book is about loneliness and isolation — internally and externally, mentally and physically. It’s also about the senses, and the way our lives as physical beings manifest and evolve and devolve with our choices. The anti-Western felt to me like this element of isolation, a reckoning of manifest destiny, and it enabled me to explore how the depth and impact of the choices made out in the vastness of the West can harden and twist even the best intentions. The more I situated Joshua in the vastness of that landscape, the more I realized I had to experience the entire scope of that vastness firsthand. Though this time, I wasn’t alone.
When my wife and I got married in her hometown in June 2017, she and I and our greyhound made the drive from Missouri to California for the wedding, following the California Trail. From Independence, Missouri to Scott’s Bluffs, Nebraska; up-and-down in Wyoming and over South Pass; glancing Idaho; into Utah; Nevada; and finally, the gold fields of California. I took lots of photographs and dictated lots of notes to my wife while she jotted mostly legible descriptions into my small Moleskine notebook: “From Ogallala to Lewellen, Nebraska: land much more dynamic, white sand, short grass, squatter trees. After Lewellen land gets flatter again. Still hilly to the west.” These are the sights and experiences likely impacting a 49er. Then of course there were other sights/experiences, such as the “giant metal jackalope N of Douglas, WY off I-25,” my wife and I were impacted by on our 21st century journey but a 49er couldn’t be.
Over time, a place and a life inside that place evolves. What we experience today can only contain the memory of a prior moment. And over time, a book evolves too. It begins in an old, vacant, Missouri farmhouse and ends on a Tuesday, seven years later, when it touches down in the world.
Child in the Valley
By Gordy Sauer
Hub City Press
Published August 24, 2021