Saturday, July 30, 2011

There's Always a Trail

Norman Maclean had a river. I was born on the banks of the Snake, one of the true rivers. As a child of the Northwest, I'm always disappointed by "rivers" that don't match up to the likes of the Columbia, Snake, and even the Snohomish and Quillayute. And while rivers were our nation's first thoroughfares, my rivers were always for crossing, or finding a way around (the Quillayute on Scout 50-Miler hikes). My two sets of grandparents lived on opposites sides of the Snake where it forms the Idaho/Oregon border. So maybe you could say the river ran between them, as well as perhaps other things. But it was always the trails that ran through my life.

Me in 2003 Searching for Old Ft.Boise
On the banks of the Snake also meant just off the Oregon Trail just after the crossing at Old Fort Boise. Long vanished, I had a hard time figuring out why the mysterious Fort Boise was so far from Boise City. Well, the Boise River runs to it. The main Oregon Trail descending from the high Idaho desert to the trees (!!!) of the Boise River Valley, follows the river down to the Ft. Boise crossing of the Snake. And as a native son, I pass all the shibboleth tests of Boise with an "s." (Please, people!)

My Nephew and two of my boys, Oregon Trail ruts above Snake River Crossing, Keeny Pass, Oregon, 2003
Having been born in Oregon, if only just barely across the river, I wondered as a child why the trail didn't end there but went on. It made a lot more sense as I put the geography together and realized how green the western side of that state was as well as western Washington State where we lived. As pleasant a place as it is along the Snake River in Treasure Valley, it wasn't much until the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation tamed and ordered some of those waters for farming and it become a prosperous and comfortable place to live.

My maternal grandfather went up to that country along with a few other Utah Mormon families in an unofficial migration during the 1940's. There wasn't much in Utah for my grandfather as one of the oldest sons of a large family trying to make it out on his own. This was especially true in that he was on his own, his father having lost the farm in South Bountiful to the bank who graciously allowed them to stay on until it could be sold as there were no buyers until there was some, slow recovery out of the Great Depression. Grandpa went up to Oregon in the middle of WWII, and as my mother tells the story, a man from the Draft Board came to check  him out as to why he had come from another state. My mom and all her five brothers swarmed the car as was their usual practice without much other entertainment on the farm. The man wrote on his paper, "This man is no draft-dodger."

My paternal grandfather was never a farmer but a good operator in many fields: minor-league professional ball for the Ogden Bees; flour-mill worker; car salesman; and foreman at the Ogden Munitions Plant once the war got going. He saved and took his money up to Eastern Oregon just after the war as part of that same Mormon migration for opportunity. The money was to invest in a grocery store in the same town near where my other grandparents farmed. Plans were changed somehow and Grandpa went back to Ogden to get the family to take them up to Oregon to run the "pool hall." The Olympic Club has carried that slightly more palatable term for a bar for many years within the family. And, perhaps not surprisingly, there are no pictures of it that I am aware of in the family collections. My aunt found one on the web that at least shows the sign and is nearly contemporaneous.

Nyssa, Oregon 1944
History isn't always pretty. That photo resource is from a Library of Congress collection from the Farm Security Administration on Japanese mobile farm workers. In fact, if you do a simple "google" search on my home town of Nyssa, Oregon, along with a few references to "Thunderegg Days" and the Amalgamated Sugar Co., what comes up most is this info on these Japanese-American farm worker photos as well as info on German P.O.W.s, some of whom, so I'm told, worked on my Grandpa's farm.

And people are not just born but sometimes die on trails. We just arrived at Philmont Scout Ranch, Cimarron, New Mexico, today. Yesterday while traveling across Wyoming along parts of the Mormon and Oregon Trails, I was explaining to my fourteen-year-old boy about how the names for water sources mean something in that high desert country. It's no accident that the gully through Rock Springs, Wyoming is called Bitter Creek. And there is a stream for good reason named the Sweetwater even if it was that ice-crusted source that chilled the bones of the hand-cart pioneers on their way to Zion, or to death on the Zion-bypass to Heaven.

This was not a good year for rainfall in New Mexico. We saw the charred hillsides of the Raton Pass fire. Los Alamos burned again. The Santa Fe Trail Route between Raton and Cimarron was so easy to follow along the highway because there is no grass this year, just parched ground better revealing the ruts. And there are a few hungry antelope.

This brings me to another thought on the end of trails. We lived in Santa Fe a few years during which time, Wallace Stegner, a favorite author of mine, was in a terrible car accident there. I bought a blank card (not wanting to offend with any Hallmark platitudes) and I wrote up a rather lengthy get well message along with a thank you for all his good writing.  I particularly noted his Big Rock Candy Mountain, in which he described a father who for many reasons (some noted above) very closely matches the story of my paternal grandfather. And that's about as far as I'll go with that. Anyway, I took the card up to St. Vincent's Hospital and asked them at the front desk if they would deliver it to Mr. Stegner. The woman there said it was kind of funny because they had another card dropped off for the same person! She handed the other to me and said I could just take it back to the nurses station that was attending him. I noted the return address corner of the other card indicated St. John's College. Made sense. I went to the nurses station and stood around for a minute with no one there. I had an unfortunately straight view into a hospital room where a man was stirring and moaning in great pain. He looked familiar from the dust jackets of my library and I was also pained. A nurse finally came and I explained my mission. She said that was Mr. Stegner right there, pointing to the man I had seen. I said I had no interest in disturbing him and left the cards with her.

He died there in the City of St. Francis's Holy Faith.

A few weeks later, I received a thank you from the Stegner Family for my card. It was so beautifully and graciously written. That was very pleasant but no surprise.

Wallace Stegner, 1909-1993

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