The Snake River

A Trail of Tears

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 28 Feb 2023



          By early summer we settled in the recess of a river valley on the eastern slope.  There was a fine meadow and steep wooded hills all around.  There were fish in the river and in a small lake nearby.  The hardships of the journey and the reduced diets we had cost us some twenty five members, mostly those who were sick or had suffered some effects of the plague.

          We planted our seed and, at my suggestion, built a single longhouse to shelter the whole tribe.  We used heavier timber than before, not only for the longhouse but in the sturdy palisade that surrounded it, even though we hadn’t encountered a single sign of other people on our trek there.

          We planted for a late crop of vegetables, especially potatoes and corn, and after a long summer reaped a fair reward.  But the winter that came after it was hard and miserable.

          Although our shelter was solid and warm, and the food sufficient, the plague again visited, infecting ten of our number.  I had become devoted to this family by now, especially the children, as they were to me, and it was hard to see them go.

          For some odd reason, though I lived on reduced rations and worked hard, I remained healthy and fit.  I attribute this to the years of good nutrition I enjoyed previous to leaving the city.  Though I toiled in the dim basements of food centers, I ate the best, and as a messenger I enjoyed both fresh air, exercise and an equally good diet.

          At the end of winter we voted to pack up and go further east.  I had urged that we stay in that region, since there was no one there.  But my companions were driven by the vague hope of meeting up with other civilized beings, and it seemed impossible that we would make it on our own, if we kept dwindling at this rate.”

          At this point Jonathan left off his narrative and went to bed.  It was late in the night.  In the morning he decided to continue and see where it would take him.  He knew that he was skipping over a great deal.  But it was not easy, after more than two decades of abstinence, to write at all.  He realized that he should tread lightly, letting the wounded portions of his memory come slowly back to life before he set it to task before he undertook to describe the real extent of the horror that had engulfed mankind.

          “As soon as the first warm days of spring arrived, we prepared for our next move.  We had a fair supply of food and about sixty able members left to carry it.  But even in leaving we had some bitter choices to make.  First, we decided to burn the camp that somehow harbored the plague.  But along with this went the greater portion of our baggage.  What weighed our group down most in these desperate times was its own humanity.  The year before we had exhausted ourselves by dragging heavy bundles of clothes and pictures and knickknacks and tools and even chairs and bicycles, along with heavy litters for the sick, across the mountains.

          By now we realized our folly.  The four pack horses we had then were dead, eaten along the way to sustain us.  But in the fire that we made of this extravagant baggage we recognized the loss of a part of ourselves, in the pictures and books and pieces of technology that burned.  It was as if cruel nature were winning the battle and degenerating us despite our efforts, turning us into the savages we were trying to flee.

          All those relics had been preserved in the hopes of a better life over the mountains.  We set out this year over more mountains with many of our hopes lost in that black plume of smoke, though we were better fitted out for our journey than ever before.  We still had one working computer and its precious disks and a few other remnants to remind us in our rags of what we were.

          The sick were a more complicated matter.  Each litter required two strong men, and reduced by a hundred pounds the food we might otherwise bring.  After some debate we settled on three litters, which was far saner than the eight we dragged the year before.  No one was left behind, and the few who needed it most took turns being carried.  For those who died along the way there was a brief pause and a decent burial.

          We had maps but no precise destination this year.  We followed waterways, mostly dry riverbeds across the deserts of Nevada, to the east and to the north.  We ended up, by early summer, in the white, tree-covered hills of Idaho, full of game and rivers.

          We travelled cautiously, in a tight little column like the year before, sending a team of scouts ahead to warn us of everything in our way.  We skirted every town and roadway for fear of rovers.  But we encountered no one, nor any sign of people, until almost summer.

          It happened as we were approaching the crest of a bald hill.  I was near the head of our column.  Our scouts were nowhere to be seen.  A group of Indians in a column longer than our own suddenly appeared, marching straight towards us on the same dirt path that we were following.  We had not a minute to react.  We met them in mute astonishment.

          But more astonishing still, after a moment's hesitation, they proceeded to file right past us in perfect silence, as if we were no more than pedestrians passing on a street.  As soon as they had gone by, I dropped my load and ran back with two others to confront their leaders.  They stopped, out of kindness I suppose and spoke between themselves in their native tongue, which was completely foreign to us.  They were wearing their ancient dress and had women and children and even a few babies with them and seemed to be well.

          After a few minutes one of them told us to be on our way.  I begged him for any information he might have of other white men like us.  He said we were all spirits now, paying the price for our folly and returning the land to them.  "We will not harm you" he continued, "because we see you are passing away by yourselves.  But we will have nothing to do with you, because everything you touch has the contagion, so go and meet your destiny."

          While I pleaded on for at least some information, they spoke a few more sentences between themselves in their strange tongue, and then bowed to us as a sign that our interview was over.  We were powerless to do anything but walk away.

          In one respect, as I thought on it afterwards, I was secretly heartened by the appearance of these people.  It meant that an alternative model of human life showed some prospect of thriving, and that the religious intolerance so spiteful towards any form of diversity would be foiled in its mad schemes, for a long time to come.

          A few weeks after this encounter we descended into a valley which seemed rich enough to support a winter camp.  There was a small river here and another lake, and such steep hills on every side that we seemed to be hidden from the rest of the world.  There was an abundance of fish and small game which we hunted poorly with our crude bows and arrows.

          We again built a longhouse and a palisade.  We planted crops, picked berries, and enjoyed a slightly more comfortable winter than the year before.  We now numbered fifty three.  Only seven were lost during the journey, five from disease and two scouts, mysteriously.  It was a cold winter, but we had enough food and wood, and we enjoyed social hours as pleasant as any in the years before.  We felt comfortable and secure.  Only six of our members fell ill.

          Our number might even have enjoyed one small addition that winter, had the baby, which I fathered, survived.  But that was not to be, and probably best for the world that we live in.  The mother died soon after, and along with her all the parental ambitions I have ever known.  The plague had touched her a few years earlier.  That it never touched me I have often found reason to curse.

          Spring came and we began to spend our days and nights debating our next move.  One set strongly urged that we stay here, as a permanent camp, and send out scouts to contact others instead of jeopardizing the whole tribe in aimless wandering.  The other group, with which I agreed, voted that we all go on in a body.  There were bound to be better camps than this in such an expanse of deserted territory.  Then there was the incident of the two scouts the year before.  How many more might we lose by sending them out in all directions.  The rule that there was safety in numbers more than ever applied.  We agreed on one point; our best chance of a decent future depended on our joining up with another group.  We were no longer numerous enough to thrive on our own.  In the end we left together.

          This spring we left the structures of our camp standing.  We even hid a few tools and supplies there; in case we did return.  When we set out we carried hardly any provisions with us.  We didn’t have many left and yet we were more confident than ever.

          There were streams and rivers throughout this region and the fish abounded.  It didn't take long, after the disappearance of man, for them to regain their former plenty.  A few of us had become adept at catching them.  Our diet and our health improved.  We ate fish every day.  Nature seemed to be shaping us into her own scheme, and we gladly accepted it as our best chance of survival.

          A few days travel to the north lay the deep gorges of the Snake River, which we descended and started following at a leisurely pace towards its source.


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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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