My sonnet, “Old Photos,” was recently published in the Wisconsin Review. It focuses in part on family archives and the pressure one feels to put them in order for future generations. The 1931 photo of my grandparents—featured above—is one of these documents.
Irving Wergeland and Merle Waite were avid skiers, who often entered skiing competitions held around Tahoe and Donner Lake. It is said my grandmother even qualified for the Olympics one season, but could not afford to go. My grandparents were skiing buddies before they were man and wife. They left behind a pile of ski jumpers, skiing goofiness, and winter scenery. The snow in the Sierras was clearly deeper back then. One family photo displays my grandmother standing next to a snow bank thicker than she was tall. Californians would be pretty happy with a similar snowpack round about now.
My grandfather was a full Norwegian, though he grew up in California and eventually attended U. C. Berkeley. I’ve begun speculating that perhaps my great grandparents—Ole and Anna—ended up raising their children in Truckee, so they could be near good skiing. I find their choice of town especially intriguing, because we recently learned that after they left Norway around the turn of the twentieth century, they eventually docked in Vancouver, British Columbia. I don’t know if they sailed on to San Francisco from there—or if they traveled overland. Perhaps they took the train.
I do like to imagine the family heading south on various wagon trails, as they would have made their way through Washington and Oregon in order to reach Truckee. I’ve wondered if they stopped in the city of Ballard—now a Seattle neighborhood—once teeming with people from Scandinavia. I’ve wondered this, because I used to live and work in Ballard, though by that time, it had become a much different place, one beckoning hip young families. The 1920’s era cottage I once owned would not have been in existence. No doubt the burgeoning logging and fishing industries were more than evident.
No matter what their mode of transportation was, it must have been some trip. The Wergelands were from a region with no lack of mountainous scenery—they enjoyed ocean views. So what did they think of the Puget Sound, the Olympics, and Mount Rainier? Did they spot the intact Mount St. Helens? Did it rain for days? How did they cross the Columbia River Gorge? Did they make their way over to the Oregon Coast? Or did they head down an earlier incarnation of I-5? Did they have to pass over the Siskiyou Summit as they entered California? Did they think to check out the giant redwoods before they settled?
As a girl growing up in the Sacramento Valley, I found their Sierra Nevada world truly exotic. I never got to live there, but we did visit relatives on occasion, and to me it was a fairy-tale realm. I experienced snow for the first time near my father’s childhood home. This was a rare treat, because I could play softball in hundred degree heat without batting an eye. To me, any sort of sledding was on par with Marriott’s Great America, home of the Tidal Wave and The Turn of the Century roller coasters. If my father had announced he was moving back to Grass Valley, I would have dropped my Davis life in a second and started packing.
I never had the pleasure of meeting my Norwegian grandfather. He died of a heart attack before I was born, in 1945. Yet, he’s left behind documents suggesting he had a poetic bent and would have been simpatico with John Muir. I recently stumbled upon one piece he wrote, probably in the thirties, about the pitfalls of the movies. He was quick to lament how people were wasting their time watching the silver screen when they could be out hiking—or skiing—in the Sierras. Though my father was only eight when my grandfather died, he grew up with a similar sensibility, one he eventually passed on to me.