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This week's short story, "The Last Trip to Bradford" by Terry Dunham, a tale about bittersweet homecomings and the persistent pull of one's native landscapes, was selected by writer Lise Erdrich for the 2009 mnLIT series.
By Terry Dunham
September 29, 2009

Photo courtesy of the author

The Last Trip to Bradford

It is 124 miles from the Pennsylvania State University to Bradford, where she lives. I shoot black & white photographs out the window along the way. Low light floods across the earth, bouncing off snow now a week old and icy where exposed to wind. A hawk surveys the ground from a telephone pole, a pair of headlights rises to meet ours; the morning awakens quietly.

My journey's purpose, though I don't yet know it, is to say good-bye to the woman whose strength I am just beginning to appreciate. Bradford is the town that has held her for so long with its mountains, valleys, and whispered secrets.

Northern Pennsylvania, heir to the oil industry's pioneers, has a haunting beauty, a timelessness and a pull, that some find irresistible. Halfway into the trip, the climb begins. We ascend the mountains and leave the world of books, exams, and daily schedules behind.

By the time we drive back down into the valley, I am once again bewitched. It is as if the very air contains an intoxicant. I see images almost as if they are stills.

A cat with tail curled neatly round its body watches us drive by from its spot in the sun on a wooden front porch on the edge of town. Bed linens hang from a clothesline strung out a second story apartment window.

Against the soft pattern of late Victorian wall covering, her voice wavers, yet still has its familiar bite. She is smart, fiercely independent, and restless, yet attached to things of the past. Born in 1905, she earned her master's degree at Columbia, then returned to Bradford. She was always single. Issa never speaks the question, but she asks again and again, "Why did you leave, Michael?"

Fairy tale-like, Tunungwent Creek branches and circles the town, gently hemming in the perimeter. Not far beyond the Exchange Building, the American Legion, and Broad St., the land begins its gradual then abrupt climb into the mountains.

The town that lulls and keeps some forever, rocking them in its deep snowy valley, pitches out those made restless and confined by the steep Alleghenies. Conflicted are the adventurers, bound by commitment, who stay.

Many left to follow the trail of oil, to chase and mine the deep treasures of the earth. But who is to say that the strength and stamina required of them, the forefathers of the petroleum industry, is not outweighed by the steely perseverance of those who remained?

I walk with the Maloney curse. But I, like Michael, leave Bradford.

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Author Terry Dunham says: "With a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in drawing, the early part of my career was spent in design and illustration. Moving to remote parts of the country with my mining engineer husband, I adjusted my career accordingly, leaning on photography and writing skills as well. I have called the Northwoods home for 19 years, working as development director for the Duluth Superior Symphony as my last job. I have recently turned to creative writing, with a particular interest in the history, people and homes of the mining towns in which we've lived. At our wedding, a toast was made suggesting we artfully mine the riches of life, and I think that may now be my task."

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