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They Came in from the Road: 06/19/17

They Came in from the Road  by Marjorie Starbuck

When I travel, I travel light. I don't bring along many books because a life time of travel has taught me that I don't tend to read much while on the road. On the trip I took with my children to see their grandmother in Idyllwild, I figured I would need something to read because we would be heading to bed early and there is no wifi up there. What I didn't expect was for my youngest to get sick, thus keeping us housebound for the first half of the trip.

Being stuck in a house with nothing to do but photography and reading, I did a lot of both. I read through the paperback I had brought — Traveling Light by Lynne Branard. And I had read through most of my ebooks.

So I went down the mountain to the next town to the library. Like so many libraries, the Idyllwild public library has a Friends of the Library. The Friends maintains a cubby hole of a book store. There among all the books that I had either already read or had no desire to read, there was one oddball — a trade paperback with a sketch of a rural road and a little shack; They Came in from the Road by Marjorie Starbuck and Elizabeth Platko

My road narrative radar picked up on that one immediately. Already I could see that it was situated snuggly in the "road not taken" category — a complement to the "all roads lead to" category. From the cover art, before I even read the blurb, I could see that it was a rural setting (as is often the case with a road not taken story).

What I wasn't expecting, and what the blurb on the back didn't make obvious to me, is that this story of a young family: mother, father, two daughters, living in a small house in the highway maintenance yard in Wyoming was a roman à clef. It was almost autobiography, except that the two sisters were young enough to not remember the details. So they embellished their story and called it fiction.

Although I've read histories of the early highway construction (in the days of the Lincoln Highway and the earliest of the numbered routes) and have read memoirs of crossing those early highways, I have never read a book from the point of view of a maintenance worker or his family.

This is the story of the earliest days of highway 26, that runs through Casper Wyoming — but along one of the passes where it gets snow and rain and needs regular plowing. The girls lived there at a time when the road wasn't reliable enough, nor was communication reliable enough, for the father to commute in. He had to be close to where the road was likely to fail and keep it open.

The people who "came in from the road" are those early travelers of the highway. Some were locals who saw it as an easy way to go on long distance bar hops. Some were itinerant and the paved road was just another path to drive their horses along. Most, though, were long time homesteaders or they were coworkers — other people there keep the road open so that passerby wouldn't get stuck.

As this book is embellished from memories, it doesn't have a strong plot arc. The story reads more episodically, with each chapter being almost a self contained story. For someone interested in early highway narratives or early twentieth century Americana, or Wyoming, They Came in from the Road is worth reading.

Four stars

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