Bandon, Round Two

Tonight from my room, I can really hear the ocean kicking up.  It was very windy today, so windy I couldn’t hold the camera still enough to get clear shots when I was down by the beach.  I’m glad I decided to stay over in Bandon one more night.  I had a day to rest and relax and not drive, and I don’t have to sleep on the sofa bed in my brother’s travel trailer tonight.

I’m staying at the Best Western Inn at Face Rock, down towards the end of the Beach Loop Road.  So I drove down to the south end as far as I could go before I hit a flooded area, and then I drove back the other way.  The bicyclist rode right through.

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I went down onto the beach this morning, when it was just sprinkling, but the wind was so strong, I couldn’t stay long.

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I did get some photos of Face Rock.  For those who don’t know the story, here it is.  One night when the moon was full and shining on the water, Ewauna, the daughter of Chief Siskiyou, who was visiting the coastal tribes for a big potlatch, went down to the sea they called Wacoma and went swimming.  With her went her dog, Komax, and she carried a basket containing her cat and kittens.  The evil sea spirit, Seatka, was not pleased that she did not fear him.  He tried to make her look into his eyes, but she would not turn her face from the moon.  Komax bit Seatka on the hand and howled, his nose to the sky.  Angered, Seatka threw the basket of cat and kittens into the sea.  The princess, dog, and cats all turned to stone.

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When it started to rain more earnestly, I decided to follow the Beach Loop down into the port area.  I went down Jetty Road first and saw some amusing things.

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You can also see the lighthouse from Jetty Road.

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There are lots of shops down in the port area, and I spent the afternoon in and out of a few. I visited with Peggi Towne at the Olde Towne Seafood & Market.  There’s a farmer’s market there on Fridays and Saturdays, and during the week, Peggi and her husband, John, sell fresh fish and local meats.  It’s a wonderful place, and I enjoyed talking with Peggi and hearing about the market.

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Just a little farther down was a little tackle and bait shop that also sold fried seafood.  Oh, yes, I did.  I believe the owner’s name is Diane (according to Peggi), and when I asked for a substitution on the combination plate (I cannot eat oysters), she gave me the best calamari strips I have ever eaten.  They were so tender, it was almost like eating tofu, only it sure didn’t taste like tofu!

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I ate in my car, because it was raining and windy again, and a visitor landed on the hood of the car and tried to stare me into a share of my lunch. He stayed there for a good five minutes, watching me eat, cocking his head this way and that, then flew off, then came back and landed on the roof of the car.  I could hear him walking around up there.  When I was finished, I threw my two shrimp tails out the window, but I don’t think my friend got either of them. A crafty raven flew down and got one, and I think a mature seagull got the other.  I felt sorry for my friend, but I didn’t have anything else to give him.

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After lunch, I was driving around the shopping district down by the port and saw fudge advertised.  Well, I ask you, what could I do?  I stopped in at the Big Wheel and bought a piece of fudge and some Christmas gifts.  The clerk who helped me, Gayla, took me into the driftwood museum attached to the store.  All the art in the museum is made/carved from driftwood. There are some wonderful pieces in there.  Thanks to Gayla for telling me about them.  And there are some really imaginative interpretations of Face Rock, Howling Dog, and Cat and Kittens rocks by a painter named Jill Stockford.  I didn’t feel right about taking pictures of her paintings, but if you’re ever in Bandon, stop in to the Big Wheel, go into the driftwood museum, and take a look at them.  They’re quite enjoyable.  And buy a piece of fudge.  It’s killer.

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After that, I walked around the corner to an antique store, Neat Old Stuff, where I got something for myself.  I rarely buy myself souvenirs.  I rarely buy anyone souvenirs.  But when I see something I’ve been hankering for for years at a great price, I’ll buy it for myself.  This was my present to myself for this trip.

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I enjoyed my conversation with Eric, proprietor of Neat Old Stuff and part owner of Black Dragon Antiques.  He really does have some neat old stuff in his small shop.  I also bought some books at the used bookstore right next door.  This is a terrific used bookstore, and I can’t remember the name of it, nor did I take a picture to remind myself.  But if you’re into bookstores, this one in the port shopping area is well worth your time.

After that, I thought I’d look around the main part of town a bit, and as I drove up the street, I spied Face Rock Creamery.  Tara had told me about it.  She said the cheese was fantastic and the ice cream portions were huge.  Well, I had to stop.  And while I was there, eating mocha with chocolate chunk ice cream, I had a delightful conversation with a local couple also eating ice cream.  I never learned his name, but her name is Sue.  She told me how she prepares long-neck clams, and since I have some in the freezer to deal with, I’m going to try her baked method.  Sue, thanks for that, and for giving me your email so I can check the details with you later on.  Now, I have to buy some ramekins!

At that point, the rain was coming down in serious fashion, and it was getting dusky.  I decided it would be a good idea to come back to the hotel and get dried out, then go out for a light dinner, a salad maybe, since I had that big, fried seafood lunch.  I ended up going down to Lord Bennett’s and ordering a Caesar salad with crab and shrimp and taking it back to my room in a box, where I’ve been stretched out on the bed, noshing and reading and listening to the ocean.  And now, I’m going to drink some decaf coffee and eat some of that delicious fudge!

Tomorrow, it’s on to Crescent City, and a big, family crab feed with my sister and brother and whatever other family members decide to show up.  It can’t get better than that.

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Beaverton to Bandon, and Beyond

This is a post about didn’ts. But don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not a negative thing at all. While this trip has been primarily about research for some writing I’m doing, it’s also been about having thinking time away from my normal routines and work. It’s been about reflection, something I think we do too little of, and I’d been feeling the lack, lately. So when I write about the things I didn’t do, or the things that didn’t happen, it’s a way of taking stock of what did happen. And I’m going to work backwards with this post, because I believe things happen, or don’t, for a reason.

I didn’t make it to Bandon before dark, like I’d planned. I’ve been planning to make it to my hotels by dark because I am in the early stages of macular degeneration, and when it gets dark, headlights, streetlights, reflectors down the middle of the road and on the verges, highway signs that reflect my headlights—all this light causes a severe halo effect that is very uncomfortable. Not just uncomfortable, it’s hard to see. My eyes just don’t process all that light when it’s dark. Weird. But I did make it to Bandon before it started to do more than sprinkle, and after I unloaded my car, I was barely even damp. And although I didn’t get to see the ocean on the way in, I heard it. And I expect to sleep well tonight, with that sound an undertone in my sleep.

I didn’t make it to Bandon before dark because I didn’t make it to Tara’s house before dark. I knew when I hit Roseburg at 4 o’clock that I would barely make it to Myrtle Point before dark. Tara’s house is 20 miles down a narrow (but paved) lane that is pretty scary at times when a big old truck is coming around the corner at you halfway over the line on your side, and you’ve got nowhere to go except over the side of the road. But I didn’t go over the side of the road, and I found Tara’s house, even in the dark, because she gives really good directions. It was too bad that I wasn’t able to see her place, because she and her husband, Joel, have big plans for growth that I’m really interested in, and I wanted to see and hear all about it, but it was too dark. I’d planned to get there at two or so in the afternoon, but if I had arrived when I’d hoped to, I’ve have missed meeting Joseph, Tara and Joel’s son. (The other two boys, Aaron and Isaac, weren’t home.) Joseph is a very enterprising and very entertaining young man. He helped carry in a box of home-canned goods I wanted Tara to choose from, and he immediately started investigating the contents of the box. Tara says Joseph is something of gourmand and has the makings of a gourmet cook. So Joseph and I discussed pretty much everything that was in the box, and he chose some things to try. And then he proceeded to fill up the empty spaces in the box with things his mother had canned. Some of them, he’d even helped with.

Because I was so late, Tara ended up feeding me dinner. And boy, am I not sorry about that. It was delicious. She’d roasted Brussel sprouts with almonds, and also roasted some butternut squash (with basil) from the garden, and Joel had grilled some steaks. Oh, did that homemade food taste good after what I’ve been eating in restaurants this past week! And Tara just had a knee replacement about 3 weeks ago. Or was it that long? I would have felt guilty that she’d cooked for me, except that it all tasted so good and I was so full, there wasn’t any room for guilt. I had to leave shortly after dinner, because I still had an hour or so of driving, over the river and mountains and through the woods, in the dark, to get to Bandon. I wish I could have stayed longer.  But now to the reason I was late getting to Tara’s house in Dora.

I left Beaverton later than I’d planned because I had to get some new windshield wipers put on my car. (I discovered on I-84 yesterday when I tried to clean the dust off with my windshield washer and wipers, that my wipers were like Lay’s potato chips with ridges. Rain-X wiper blades just don’t hold up in the heat and cold.) So to Napa I went, where a young woman put the blades on for me and told me where to find the road I needed to head out to Scholls. Scholls, if you’ve been following along, is where the farm was where my family lived and worked when I was seven years old.

It was a beautiful drive, only about 15 minutes or so from Beaverton, and as I got out of the suburbs and into agricultural land, I started to get excited. The landscape was looking vaguely familiar. And all of a sudden, there it was. No, not the farm. Here’s another didn’t. I didn’t find the farm, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. I didn’t find the farm, but I found the school I attended during that year we lived in Scholls. It’s called Groner Elementary School, and I recognized it right away, although until I saw it, I couldn’t recall what it looked like. It was in this school, in a second-grade classroom, that I heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot. Someone brought a radio in for the teacher, and we sat at our little desks and listened all day to the news. I remember that my teacher was crying, and when we went outside for recess that day, all the female teachers were crying. I remember feeling very worried, very unsure about what was going to happen to us, to all the children and our families, because our president had been assassinated. I learned a new word that day.

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I parked my car at the school and went into the office. I talked to the school secretary (only they don’t call them that any more), and told her my story. She said yes, if I lived in or near Scholls, I’d have gone to Groner Elementary. I said, “The school hasn’t changed much, has it? I recognized it right away.” And she said no, it hadn’t. I took some pictures, and then went on across the new bridge (and I knew it wasn’t the old bridge, which had replaced the original ferry) to Petrich’s store.

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Tom Petrich wasn’t there, but I talked to Pat and Linda, who were working in the store. They both did their best to help me with suggestions of where I might look for the farm (the store is at a crossroads, so there were three possible directions to start with), and Pat even walked out with me to the parking lot and pointed out some likely places. We decided I should head down the Scholls Ferry-Sherwood road, and he told me about a dirt road on the third curve that might lead to where the farm might have been.

I headed off down the road to Sherwood, and as soon as I hit that first curve, I knew where I was. I knew that land, the curve of the road, the way it straightened out and then curved again a little farther down.

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But the only drive that led up to the left where the old farm house should have sat was paved, not gravel, and there was no sign of the house.

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The land has all been planted in fir trees to provide privacy for the homes that have been built in the fifty years since I lived there. I have no evidence other than memory and my gut to tell me that was the place, but both of them shouted “Yes!” as soon as I saw it. And while I drove around for another hour, looking for other possible sites, none of them said “This is it,” like SW Scholls Drive did. I drove back by it again, and took more pictures. And I think that was the place, although back then, the road up to the farm had no name.

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I went back to the store, and Tom Petrich was there. I talked to him for a while, and he couldn’t remember how long the homes and the seed and feed business on SW Scholls Drive had been there. It’s been 51 years since I lived there, and 50 years since his family bought the store. At lot can change in 50 years in the Pacific Northwest. Fir trees grow fast, as do alders and brush. The fields that were planted in green beans back then are planted in berry bushes and fruit trees now. But what doesn’t change is the curve of the road and river and the slope and lay of the land. So while I didn’t find the farm itself, I’m pretty sure I found the place where it once was. And I think I found the church we attended with Mama when we lived there.

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I found something else, too. I found out why finding the farm was so important to me. I found the reason in telling other people about what I was doing and why. I realized that one of the reasons I loved the farm so much was that my dad was happy there. My father was a sawmill worker and logger, but he was a farmer and rancher at heart. I think the farm was a chance for him to do something he really knew and loved. It was bad luck that sent us back to California dead broke after a year, not his skill as a farmer. I remember him plowing the fields with the tractor, taking us kids up with him, and planting the seeds. I remember him telling us how deep they had to be planted.   His green beans grew up tall and strong, pole beans that had to be strung on twine fences. The vines bore beans we had to hire a crew to pick. And Dad was in charge. It wasn’t his land, but it was given into his charge, and he loved working it.

Not everything went well the year we lived on the farm. I remember overhearing my parents arguing about money, often. They were living on my mom’s savings, waiting for the profits from the crop to come in. When there weren’t any, my dad had no choice. We packed up and went back to California, where he could get work in the mills and the woods. It was the end of his dream. And with the cushion of the savings gone, life got a lot tougher for our family. Debt was a specter that haunted my parents for the next 20 years, and as the eldest child in the family, I felt all the insecurity they wouldn’t talk about in front of us.

That year on the farm, when Daddy was happy, and Mama could grow so many gigantic tomatoes in the garden that my brother and sister and I could eat all we wanted without asking, and we could raise chicks, and play in the barn, and splash in the cement fish pond as our swimming pool in the hot summers, and climb the fir tree on the corner of the lawn above the road, and rake up all the leaves from the maple trees in the yard into a pile and then throw ourselves into it to hear them crackle, and pick strawberries in our own U-pick field and apples and filberts in the orchard, when we could coast the go-cart down the driveway and the little hill, making sure to slide into the ditch at the bottom instead of the road, when we could ride with Daddy on the tractor and in the truck that hauled the pickers to and from the fields to the barn, when we could row an old leaky boat up the Tualitin River and float back down, fishing both ways, after a picnic on the river bank on Sundays after church . . . well, what kid wouldn’t love that life and remember it fondly?

But there was another reason I wanted to find the farm. I believe I thought that if I found the farm, and could take pictures of it, I could please my father. It’s been a long time since I let myself care that much about my father’s happiness. Alcoholism has sharp claws and lots of them, plenty to dig into the person who drinks and plenty left over to tear at those who have to live with it. My dad’s been burying himself in a bottle for a long time. I thought if I found the farm, it would be a way to connect again with the father I remember, the one who was happy. The one I loved.

I can’t show my dad pictures of the farm. I can show him the pictures I’ve taken, and he’ll probably just shake his head and say, “I don’t know. No, that’s not it.” Or, “You’ll never know, Jean.” And maybe that’s true, as far as it goes. I’ll never be able to prove I found the farm. But I know. And maybe that’s enough.

 

 

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Pendleton to Beaverton

Today’s post is not about places as much as it is about the people I talked to in those places. I left Pendleton today about noonish and drove along the Columbia Gorge on I-84 toward Portland. It was dusty, terribly windy (gusts expected up to 70 mph, I heard), and dramatically beautiful once the dust cleared (the wind did not abate). My friend, Vivian, called the Columbia, “The Mighty Mother River,” and she is indeed. She is majestic, and today, for the first twenty miles the interstate traveled along her banks, I couldn’t see her, the dust was so thick. When I finally did see her, she was covered in white-caps. It made me think of goose-pimples.

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But before I left Pendleton, I visited the Pendleton Woolen Mill and Store, and I strolled around on Main Street, Pendleton. The mill and store is beautiful, so many lovely things, but I couldn’t afford most of them. I did find a washable pure wool blanket, a second, with a small stain that I am sure I can get out, for 40% off. I bought it for the guest room, which is always cold. It’s a creamy natural wool, and I’m so pleased with my purchase.

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I struck up a conversation with the clerk who helped me pick out the blanket. (If you followed this blog during the trip to Great Britain, you know I like talking to people.)

Lacie grew up in Pendleton, left, and came back. She told me a story about her grandmother and grandfather’s farm, how it was left to the wrong side of the family, and now is not being utilized as Lacie would like, if it had come to her. She told me about the way her grandmother and grandfather grew up, and where they went to school, and where her father went to school. I asked a lot of questions, and she answered every single one as best she could. She was utterly charming and helpful, and I enjoyed meeting her so very much. She also sent me down to the Heritage Center Museum to see the Byrd school. This was the school her grandmother attended out near Pilot Rock. The building has been moved to the Heritage Center and set up with chalkboard, teacher’s desk, wood stove, and pupils’ desks as is would have been when it was in use. I loved seeing it.  The interior picture was shot through the grimy glass of the door’s window; that’s why it’s so blurry.  Thanks to Lacie for being so patient with me and all my questions.

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From the Heritage Center, I walked down Main Street. In the first block, I saw an older gentleman leaning against a post in front of a small store front. “Good morning,” he said, and I stopped and said hello. We exchanged pleasantries, and he ended up leading me into his store, called George’s Handmade Boots and Shoe Repair, and showing me his workshop. George Ziermann is an old-school craftsman. He makes hand-made-to-measure boots and shoes. Every boot and shoe is made on a last, and when George measures your feet, he measures them both, finds the last closest to your measurements, and then alters the last to fit your feet. Thus, your boots or shoes will fit you perfectly. George told me that his shop used to be in Baker City, Oregon, but when the bootmaker in Pendleton died, George bought out his stock and continued making a Pendleton boot on the pattern that had been used in that area for many, many years. When the Chamber of Commerce found out that George was still making the Pendleton boot, only in Baker City, they asked him to move to Pendleton. He did, and has been making boots in Pendleton for three years. George doesn’t own a computer, but he let me take his picture at his work bench, and holding a pair of boots he’s working on that are partially made of basketball leather.

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George is ready to retire. He does a lot of work for veterans, and he’d like to see his shop made into a workshop where he could train disabled veterans to make boots. He’s got more work than he can handle. He told me he’s so behind, he could train several apprentices at once. But what he really wants is to see the workshop somehow funded by the V.A. and self-sustaining, and turning out bootmakers who know how to make boots the way he does.

I asked George if there was a diner in town that had been there for a long time. I need one for my story. He looked at me a little oddly and said that he hardly got out of the shop enough to know what was where, but there was a little diner just down Main Street that had been there for a long time. I couldn’t miss it, he said. There was a statue of Betty Boop outside on the sidewalk.

I left George with the promise that I would talk to a grant writer friend of mine and see what I could find out about his dream of a bootmaking training workshop for veterans, and headed down to the Main Street Diner. There was Betty, and inside was a sweet young waitress named Osa. Osa told me a little bit about her life while I had an early lunch. She’d moved away to Tacoma to go to college, and ended up coming back home afterwards to get her bearings. I asked her if she’d stay in Pendleton, and she said she didn’t think she’d live out her life there, but it was a good place, with family there, to regroup. When I mentioned that George had sent me there, she said, “Oh, we love George.” George was wrong, by the way, about how long the diner had been there. But that was okay, it was perfect for my needs. Osa said that lots of locals, the old men, come in for coffee in the morning. She knows them all. That was the kind of place I was looking for.

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I was planning to leave town right after lunch, but I had to find a restroom first. It turned out that I’d parked right in front of the Chamber of Commerce, and there were restrooms there. I ended up chatting with Pat Beard, Event Recruiter, about Susanville Frenches and Oregon Frenches. He told me some stories about Pete French, who built a round barn at Frenchglen, Oregon. There’s a hotel there now, Pat said, and showed me the place on the map. Pat had to go to a meeting, and just about that time, in walked the Executive Director, Gail Nelson, a charming, pretty woman who seemed happy to answer all my questions about farming in the area. She and her husband recently started growing organic wheat, after cleansing the land for three years by growing organic alfalfa on it. They also partner with the university’s ag department in growing experimental crops like quinoa. Gail was a wealth of knowledge, and I really appreciated her time.

I enjoyed my time in Pendleton very much, and I’m so glad to have met all the people I talked to during my day and a half there.

When I finally got on the road, I could see the dust cloud up ahead, and I knew it was going to be ugly driving. It was. The Columbia almost made up for the nasty driving conditions. I had decided to stop at Maryhill Museum, on the other side of the river, and to see the Stonehenge War and Peace memorial, but when I got that far along, I was so tired from holding the car on the road, and worried about it getting dark before I got to my hotel in Beaverton, that I had to forego the museum. I did, however, visit the Stonehenge memorial. I couldn’t pass that up, having been to Stonehenge itself in July.

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The memorial is impressive. It was built by a man who had more money than he knew what to do with, so he collected art and displaced royals and built things like this monument to soldiers and sailors who had sacrificed their lives in war for the cause of peace.

I got a real thrill crossing the Columbia on this bridge, twice.

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While I was on the north side of the river, I stopped at Maryhill State Park to find a restroom. It was so cold and windy, even the geese were grounded.

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After hours of fighting the wind and dust, the glare of the setting sun on a dirty, smeared windshield, and Portland rush hour traffic, I finally made it to my hotel in Beaverton. It’s by the far the least nice of those I’ve stayed in on this trip, but at least I did not have to drive anywhere for dinner after I got settled into a room. There is a Black Bear Diner just a parking lot away from this Comfort Inn. I headed over there for dinner, and the place was so crowded, I ended up taking a seat at the counter next to an older gentleman who had placed a cap on the counter in front of him that said Korean War Veteran. The woman on his other side, about my age, greeted me, and of course we fell into conversation. Their names were Stu Edmonds and his daughter, Becky. Becky and Stu had gone out for dinner on Veteran’s Day to the Black Bear because they were running a special for veterans.

At one point, when Becky had asked me what I was doing in Pendleton, and I’d told her I was doing research for a story about a daughter and her farmer father who was getting older and not doing very well, Stu said, “Have you ever lived on a farm in Pendleton?”

And I said, “No, but when I was a little girl, I lived on a farm just a few miles south of here, in Scholls, and tomorrow I’m going there to try to find the farm.”

Stu and Becky chuckled. Becky said, “We know about Scholls. Dad’s cousin, Tom, owns the store there, Petrich’s store.”

I couldn’t believe it. Of all the people I could have sat next to, I ended up beside these friendly folks who just happen to be related to the person I’m seeking out tomorrow to hopefully tell me where the farm is.  I’d plan to stop at the store and see if I could find someone who might be able to help me find the farm.  “Small world,” Becky said.

“Tell Tom hello for me,” Stu said. “I haven’t seen him in a long while. But if he’s at the store, he’ll know where your farm was.”

Stu and Becky got up to leave before I was finished with my dinner. We said our goodbyes, and Stu put a hand on my shoulder. “I hope you have a good trip out to Scholls tomorrow,” he said. “It sure was nice to meet you.”

It sure was nice to meet you, Stu and Becky. You were certainly a Godsend. You lifted my spirits at the end of a very long and tiring day. God bless, and good night.

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Eastern Oregon and “Hard to Love”

Today I drove from Ontario, Oregon, to Pendleton, Oregon, on Interstate 84. Oh, I took a few detours here and there and almost drove myself mad listening to the old Garmin Nuvi chant, “Recalculating. Drive 400 feet and turn left, then turn right.” I started humming the Hokey-Pokey just to drown her out.

I passed along the wide and rushing Snake River for quite some distance, driven almost to distraction by the fact that I couldn’t stop and take pictures of it. Because I was on the interstate. Only emergency stopping on the interstate is permitted. My need to stop and take pictures was approaching emergency status when an exit to a state park appeared. I whipped the chili pepper (that’s what my friend, DeAnna, and I called my car when I first bought it almost 10 years ago) off the freeway and down a little road past a burnt-out motel to the entrance to Farewell Bend State Recreation Area on the Snake River’s Brownlee Reservoir. It’s called Farewell Bend because it was here that the settlers on the Oregon Trail left the river behind. It’s a beautiful area, and after the drive I took through the desert yesterday, I was glad to see so much water.

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Of course, I have to confess, the main reason I whipped the chili pepper off the interstate was that I had gone about 30 minutes without seeing a rest area, and I needed one. I’ve become a bit fixated with rest areas on this trip. I’ve started taking pictures at each one. It’s become a theme of the trip. Can I make it to the next restroom? And now, just because I can, I’m stopping at every single one, even when I don’t need to.

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Another frustration of driving the interstate is that you can’t stop and take pictures of interesting signs. There’s a big chunk of eastern Oregon that’s on Mountain Time. Signs announce this and instruct travelers to set their clocks one hour ahead. This is a total waste of time since one drives out of the Mountain Time Zone and back into the Pacific Time Zone in about 5 miles. I whizzed by another interesting sign just where the interstate crosses the Powder River. (And from somewhere in childhood memory, I heard a cowboy voice say, “Powder River, let ‘er rip!” This must be from a movie, but I have no idea which one.) Anyway, the sign said, “45th Parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the Equator.” Now, isn’t that nice to know?

Baker City sits snugged beneath some beautiful, rugged mountains with snowy tops. To the east, over in Idaho or right along the state line maybe, there are some even taller, more rugged, snowier mountains. I was glad I was ripping along the valley floor.

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However, after Baker City, the interstate winds through some canyons and over some passes. And because it’s an interstate highway, it is thronged with semis and other kinds of heavy trucks. It makes me more than a little nervous to tear along at 65 mph on a curvy two-lane freeway beside a big truck that’s leaning my way. I was a little white-knuckled through the section near La Grande, but it was at that point that I started to see trees. Not just sagebrush and other little bushes, but actual, real trees. Pine trees, no less. And fir trees. I started to breathe a little easier. It felt like coming home. And then, the interstate winds down out of the mountains at a 6% downgrade, and those big ol’ trucks are all doing their best not to run away down the mountain. Yeah, that’s a little nerve-racking. I stopped at an overlook above Pendleton to take some pictures of the Umatilla River valley, where Pendleton lies.

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I got into Pendleton early, about 1:30, and actually got into my room at the Best Western right away. I must say, the Best Westerns have been really good so far. They’re a lot nicer than they were 10 years or so ago, when Dennis and I were staying in them a lot.

I needed to do a little online research before setting out again, and glory be, my laptop worked! I think I’ve figured out the trick to it—it involves making my computer completely vulnerable to any low-skills hacker in the same building. But I’ll take the risk. Online, I went to a real estate page and found some properties for sale out in the country around Pendleton. Armed with addresses, I went back out to the car, put them in the Nuvi, and off we went. She got excited a few times when I didn’t go the way she wanted me to, and eventually, I turned her off and just wandered around, but I had a wonderful afternoon, looking at farms, driving down gravel roads around farms, making farmers in big pickup trucks wonder what the heck I was doing driving around their farms, then finding my way back to Pendleton via the back roads and Old Highway 30 (Nuvi wanted me to take the interstate again).

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When I write a story (or a novel), I need to be able to see the place I’m writing about (unless I’m making it up entirely, for a fantasy story, say). You can do a lot on the internet now, see pictures and videos, and all that is great and helps, but it’s not the same as getting out there and seeing how the landscape looks yourself. How it smells. How the wind feels in your hair. The way the land makes you feel. And now I know how Chris Hanson, the character in “Hard to Love,” will feel as she drives out to her father’s farm about 5 miles outside of Pendleton. I know that she’ll appreciate the beauty of those golden and green fields even as she sees the bleakness of them. The way they go on and on, seemingly endlessly. She’ll remember what it was like to grow up there, on that farm, riding the schoolbus to high school in town. Some part of her will be nostalgic, but I know she’ll feel trapped there, under that wide, blue, November sky, and it won’t be because of the landscape. It’ll be because of the situation waiting for her in that old white farmhouse.

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The characters in this story were born quite a few years ago, not long after my mother passed away. I wrote a short story called “Mama’s Day,” which was published in The Dead Mule of Southern Literature. The story was my way of honoring my mother. But a while back, I started thinking again about those characters and their story, as my own father’s situation began to change. I decided those characters had more to say about aging parents. Here’s the beginning of the story. I’m not putting it on the Short Stories page because that page is already too long and has to be reorganized this winter.

Hard to Love

Christine Hanson scanned the letter from her father’s estate lawyer and sighed. She picked up the phone to call her sister, but it rang in her hand. Chris checked the caller I.D. display. It was her sister, Candace.

“I was just about to call you,” Chris said. “Did you get a letter from Dad’s estate lawyer today?”

“I got mine yesterday, Sis. I talked to John about it last night.”

John was the middle child in the family, younger than Chris by two years. John was the reason she was known in the family as “Sis.” “Sissy” was as close as baby John had been able to get to “Chrissie,” which was what her mother had called her, and John’s version had stuck. John had also nicknamed his baby sister “Kid.” John had no nickname. His father, J.D. Willis, said nicknames made a boy soft—his boy would not be a Johnny.

Born in the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, J.D. Willis’s parents had been illiterate, as was J.D. himself. None of J.D.’s brothers had full names. John Willis, Sr. had been unable to write his own name, so he’d wanted to make it easy on his boys, or so the family legend ran. J.D. had two older brothers, J.B. and J.C., and a younger brother who, for variety’s sake, was named J.Z. J.D. had wanted to name his son J.P, but, uncharacteristically, Louise Willis had put her size 5 foot down firmly on that point. “His name is John Paul,” she had said to her husband. “If you want to call him J. P., go ahead, but my son is going to have a proper name on his birth certificate.” In the end, he had simply been called by his first name.

“What does John think? What are we going to do?” Chris asked.

“John and I both think we shouldn’t do it,” Candy said.

“But if we don’t, Dad is going to be really mad at us.”

“Do you really think that matters now?”

Chris wasn’t close to her father, none of his children were, but she didn’t want an out-an-out war with him either. Ten years before, when their mother was in the end stages of Alzheimer’s syndrome, J.D. Willis had brought a “housekeeper” into the family home. Polly Ware had moved into the downstairs bedroom of the farmhouse near Pendleton, Oregon, and hadn’t left when Louise Willis died a year later. She’d stayed on and on, working part-time as a waitress at a local coffee shop during the day and taking care of J.D. at night. Neither Chris nor Candy nor John liked to contemplate her home duties. She did very little housekeeping; that much was clear whenever any of them visited their family home. She was a hoarder who had gradually taken over every room in the house except for J.D.’s bedroom. Her junk cluttered the small rooms until there was no place for the kids to stay when they visited. They had taken to staying in a motel in town whenever they made a duty call on their father.

Chris knew, only because J.D. had told her once when he was drunk, that he had twice asked Polly to marry him. Both times, she’d refused. Nobody could blame her. J.D. was a seventy-six-year-old alcoholic whose body was rapidly aging under the abuse. He was severely arthritic and mostly confined to the house these days. After his wife’s death, he had sold off his farmland piece by piece, leaving only ten acres with the house and outbuildings. He had promised Polly that his money would be hers if she stayed and took care of him until he died. None of his three children knew exactly how much money there was because J.D kept that to himself, but they knew that for at least eight years, the money had been buried in coffee cans in the yard between the house and the barn. Two years ago, Polly had finally convinced J.D. to invest the cash with Edward Jones in some kind of annuity or trust account. Chris, Candy, and John were dumbfounded that the woman had managed it. J.D. was a late child of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and had memories of bank failures programmed into his mind by his elders. Their mother had never been able to convince her husband to trust a bank or open either savings or checking accounts. All of Louise Willis’s bill-paying had been done in cash, in person. J.D. wouldn’t have it any other way.

Polly had managed J.D. better than their mother ever did, convincing him to put in a second bathroom at the back of the house adjoining her bedroom so she didn’t have to share with him. Chris and Candy couldn’t blame her; J.D. wasn’t too good at hitting the hole after he got older, and when he got drunk, which was nearly every day, he often got sick. The only reason the bathroom was usable at all was because when he sobered up, he cleaned up after himself.

But that was all the cleaning he did, or that was possible to do, because every room was full of cardboard boxes and stacks of papers, and piles of unrelated items. On the kitchen table, for instance, knitted scarves and unopened boxes of tea sat next to a manila folder of old bills on top of Louise Willis’s disused pressure canner. The table was unusable; J.D. and Polly ate on TV trays in the living room. All the bedrooms were crammed to the ceilings, with paths to and from the doors. The living room was only slightly better. That was where J.D. spent the majority of his time, stretched out on the hide-a-bed sofa with a heating pad under his back, watching old Westerns on a big, bulky TV set. Polly’s boxes lined the walls on either side of the wood-burning stove that heated the house. John warned his father over and over about the fire danger, but J.D. never listened. That was typical of J.D. Willis. He never listened to anyone; he did as he pleased. He had been the boss in his own home when his wife was alive and his children in school, and nobody had dared argue with him. Now, it seemed he had abdicated nearly all control to the woman who shared his home.

Five years ago, after Polly had refused a second time to marry J.D., he’d signed the house over to his three children, giving it to them outright so that they wouldn’t have to pay any probate fees or inheritance taxes on the property, with the stipulation that he could continue to live in it and would maintain it until his death. That was his sole bequest to them, and while the house wasn’t worth much after years of neglect, not nearly as much as the amount in real dollars he had promised Polly, it was their family home and still meant something to them because of their memories of their mother.

But now, everything had changed. All three of J.D.’s kids had received a letter from the estate lawyer J.D. had used when he’d deeded the house to his children. They were being notified that now J.D. wanted to give the house to Polly. It felt like a slap in the face to Chris, like being completely disowned by her father. But did she want to battle him over it? She wasn’t sure.

“What do you think, Sis?” Candy broke in on Chris’s attempt to make sense of the thing in her own mind.

“Do we really want to fight with Dad about it, Kid? The house would probably be more trouble than it’s worth to clean up and fix up after we got Polly out of it. And then what do we do with it? Rent it out? Leave it sitting empty? What’s the point, really, of hanging onto it?”

“Because Dad gave it to us first,” Candy said fiercely. “Why should that woman get everything? She’s already getting all Dad’s money, and is that fair? We put up with him for 18 years of our lives, the mean old bastard, and he made Mama’s life miserable for the thirty-odd years they were married. Wouldn’t give her a damn thing, not even a word of thanks, and made her work like a slave. You know that better than I do, you’re the one who’s always told me what he was like when I was little. I was too young to see it for a long time, although I saw plenty when I was the only one left at home. Now you want to let him give Mama’s house to that woman?”

“No,” Chris said, weary already. “I don’t want her to get Mama’s house. I just don’t want to fight with Dad about it.”

“There won’t be a fight,” Candy said. “If he needs our signatures to give the house to Polly, all we have to do is not sign the papers.”

“Are you sure?” Chris was doubtful. She didn’t remember the details of the paperwork they’d signed five years ago.

“Pretty sure. John is going to contact the lawyer and ask some questions. Like what happens if we don’t sign, or even if two of us signed and one didn’t. And if Dad could sue us. Things like that.”

“I hate this, Kid,” Chris said. “I don’t want Polly to get the house, but I don’t want Dad mad at us, either. But I’ll go along with whatever you and John want to do. I think we need to stand together, whatever course of action we take.”

“I do too. I’ll let John know how you feel about it then.”

“No,” Chris said. “Let me call him myself. We haven’t talked in a while. I’d like to hear his voice.”

“Be prepared. He was really mad when we spoke yesterday. You might hear some language you won’t like.”

Chris told her sister to pass along her love to her brother-in-law, Fred, and her niece and nephew, Carly and Joe, and hung up the phone. Carly was in college in Seattle, in a pre-med program, and Joe was a police officer in the small town of Carson Grove in Washington State, where the Coopers had lived for years. Fred drove truck all over the West, and Candy worked in a beauty salon. They had a settled, comfortable life, even though Fred wasn’t home a great deal.

Chris’s life was as unlike her sister’s as it could be. The marriage she’d thought was so strong had fallen apart only three years after her mother’s death. Evan had simply told her one day that he wanted a divorce. He hadn’t had an affair; he just didn’t want to be married to her anymore. They had no children to complicate matters. They had tried, but Chris was unable to conceive naturally. They’d tried fertility treatments and in-vitro fertilization, but after one very expensive failed attempt, Evan had decided that the ends didn’t justify the means, or the cost, and he had not wanted to adopt.

Chris had always been self-supporting, although she didn’t earn as much teaching high school history as Evan did in his tenured position at Portland Community College. He taught history and political science. They had been married for twelve years when he left her, and within three years, he had married again. Evan and his second wife, a young, part-time mathematics instructor at PCC, now had two children under the age of six.

Chris had been angry at first, had felt discarded because of a faulty womb, but she’d had time to get over her hurt and frustration. She had hoped for a new relationship as well, but she’d found that a single woman in her late forties wasn’t exactly in high demand. Men her age were “upgrading” to younger women. As she aged into her fifties, the only men who found her attractive, it seemed, were the ones old enough to have one foot in the grave, like her father, and who were looking for companions and caretakers. If they had money and were sexually functional, they were looking for younger women. The whole social scene had discouraged and finally sickened her, and she’d given up on finding anyone who could appreciate her for who she was. Instead, she’d thrown herself into her teaching, enjoying those students who were interested in the time and attention she had to give. She’d taught many students over the years who had won university scholarships because of their work in her advanced placement program, and she was proud of her work.

She hadn’t turned into a stay-at-home, either. Every summer, she took a month-long trip to a different location, sometimes within the U.S., and sometimes overseas. She had twice participated in a home exchange, allowing a German family and then a Swedish couple to live in her suburban Portland home for a month while she lived in theirs, in Cologne and Stockholm, respectively. On long weekends, she might fly into Chicago or Atlanta or New Orleans for a quick get-away to shop, visit museums, and experience new restaurants. She enjoyed her trips and had met interesting people with whom she corresponded via email and Facebook, but she had stopped looking for a man to share her life with. It was far easier that way. She was, if not exactly happy, content with her life as it was.

Now this. Chris’s relationship with her father had never been easy. With a man like J.D. Willis, no relationship would be easy. He was a chauvinist pig, to use outdated terms that exactly expressed his relationship to any women in his life. Except, inexplicably, to Polly Ware.

Polly was fifty-something when she came to live in J.D. Willis’s house and take care of Louise, after the Alzheimer’s symptoms had progressed to the point that she could no longer be trusted at home alone. J.D. had found Polly at the tavern, where she was having a girls’ night out with some of her friends. She was fairly new in town at the time and had just taken a job at a local diner. Polly had been a waitress for years, but she mentioned to J.D. over a whiskey shot and beer chaser that she had once helped a neighbor take care of her husband who had terminal cancer. She could move in, sure she would, and help J.D. with his poor wife. And after the poor wife had died, Polly had taken over, cooking for J.D. and cleaning the house, until her junk had filled it to the point where cleaning was impossible, and her cooking had been reduced to heating up frozen dinners in the microwave.

Physically, Polly resembled Chris’s mother. She was short, round, and red-haired. Who knew what her original hair color had been; what came out of the bottle was red. That was probably what attracted J.D. in the first place. He’d always had a weakness for red-headed women. He usually had no trouble with their equally fiery temperaments; he was man enough to master any woman, no matter the color of her hair or personality. But J.D. in his seventies wasn’t the J.D. he’d once been. That was the only way Chris could explain the 180 degree turn her father had made, from autocrat to yes-man in the space of a few years.

J.D. hadn’t let Louise have a dog, or a pet of any kind. Polly filled the house with ailing cats and an old, decrepit mongrel who had bladder problems and had to be let out every hour. J.D. would haul himself up off the sofa to let the dog in and out while Polly was at work. When the dog finally died, Candy thought their father had actually mourned the animal. Chris didn’t believe J.D. would ever mourn an animal. He’d shown little sign of mourning his wife of over thirty years when she died.

J.D. would never buy a new anything if the old one still worked, but when Polly wanted a new TV for her bedroom, a microwave, a toaster oven, a bathroom, thousands of dollars of J.D.’s money from the sale of his land, she got it.

Chris refused to dwell on the tactics Polly might use to get what she wanted. At least their father had never shown signs of physical abuse. J.D. might not be the man he once was, the tall, straight figure who strode across his land like a god, but he wouldn’t let any woman beat him. Chris was convinced of that. No, Polly was a wheedler, a whiner, a poor-pitiful-me. Chris had no doubt that she worked on J.D. constantly for whatever it was she wanted, until it was easier just to give in to shut her up.

Louise Willis had been nothing like Polly.   Louise never gainsaid her husband. Chris had wished so many times that she would, but all of Louise’s church training said that wives were to be submissive to their husbands. If J.D. said no, that was the end of it.

Now Polly wanted the house, and unless the three siblings stopped her, she’d get it, along with J.D.’s money, and probably every keepsake left in the house.

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Crossing (State) Lines

I love the West. I love being a Westerner. I love living in the West, despite our water shortages and other problems. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I love our big skies, our tall mountains, our wide spaces. And let me tell you, I drove through plenty of wide open space today, just as Seth and Susan would have in my story, “The Way Home.” I crossed three state lines, two of them twice. That’s right, I drove through portions of Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho today. And until I neared Boise, I could have been in the same state. The high desert sagebrush plateau crosses many human boundaries.

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Nevada, first. I love the state of Nevada, the “battle-born” state. It’s full of individualists, and that’s another thing I love about the West. We go our own way out here, and to hell with what anybody else thinks about it. On a road trip, one of the things I love best about Nevada is its casinos. For a person with a weak bladder, casinos are a godsend. And I say that without my tongue in my cheek. Why? Because I will guarantee you that any bathroom in any casino in the state is 99% of the time 99.5% cleaner than the bathrooms in either the convenience store or gas station in the same little podunk town. And you can pretty much find a casino once an hour or so. Nevadans will take any opportunity to build a casino: a crossroads, an oasis, or just the fact that there isn’t another one within 50 miles.

The other thing I love about Nevada is that when this state builds a rest area, there will at least be a vault toilet there. Now, I loathe vault toilets. I would rather pee on the ground behind a tree. However, when there are no trees, and not even a bush worthy of the name, a vault toilet will serve. I just shudder the whole time I’m in there. I can’t say I’m not glad to be done with vault toilets. I hope.

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Another thing I love about Nevada is the speed limits. U.S. 95 North out of Winnemucca is a two lane highway, and the speed limit is 70 mph. Or was it 75? Other vehicles were flying around me like I was standing still. But at McDermitt, (after a bathroom break at the Say When Casino) I crossed into Oregon, and the speed limit dropped to 55 mph.

And really, that was mystifying, because an emptier place than the southeastern corner of Oregon which is bisected by U.S. 95 I have never seen. There is the highway, and a fence along it to keep out what? For 50 miles or so, I saw no cows, no ranch houses, no deer, no antelope, no hawks, and only one lone raven. I came to think that the fence was to keep people from running into the power poles on the other side of it. It served no other purpose that I could see. Beyond the fence and the power poles are mountains, sometimes drawing near the highway, sometimes receding. It is the loneliest place I have ever been, beating out even Highway 50, the loneliest road in America.

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Finally, just past the junction of U.S. 95 and S.R. 78, the landscape changed. The road runs down into a canyon of oddly-colored, greenish-hued rock, and down in the bottom, there was water, and a ranch.

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Along this stretch was also what Oregon calls a rest area. Believe me, do not pass up any gas station or crossroads store bathroom thinking that you can use the rest area marked on the map a little farther on. Chances are, resting is all you’ll be doing at a rural Oregon rest area. Not even a vault toilet, just a little shade cover and a place to park a couple of cars, and a garbage can chained to a post! Fortunately, there was a spot a few miles further with a small café, store, and RV park, called Rome Station. There were unlocked bathrooms outside the café. I think I will someday write a traveler’s guide to bathrooms in unlikely places all over the West.

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There was a rock formation near Rome Station called “The Pillars of Rome.”  I would have loved to have seen it for myself,  but the sky was growing threatening, and I was worried about losing daylight.  I don’t see well in the dark anymore, and my goal for the trip has been to be off the road by dark.  So I didn’t go see the pillars.  From Rome, the scenery becomes more dramatic, canyons and mountains and passes, and goodness I wanted to stay there longer. I drove through Jordan Valley and would have loved to drive out to the Jordan Craters, but 20 miles on a dirt road is not the mission of this trip in this car. I sure would love to come back with the Jeep someday. There’s a whole lot to explore out here.  At the top of a pass, on a scenic overlook, I came across this sign.

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Not far from Jordan Valley, I crossed into Idaho. It looked the same, until I descended from the mountains, crossing the route of the Oregon Trail, and into the wide valley through which flows both the Snake and the Boise River. Now I was in farm country.

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I don’t always love what farming does to the land, but I love farmers and farmland. People have to eat, and we know so much more now about how to grow food with less impact on the land. I’m in awe of farmers, especially those who are abandoning the destructive practices of the past and going back to organic methods. The fields I drove past were mostly full of corn stubble, although I saw some hop plantations as I got closer to towns. At the junction of U.S. 95 and S.R. 55, I parted ways with Seth and Susan. They’d have turned east on their way home, on 55, for Boise. I kept heading north on 95 until I reached Interstate 84 at Fruitland.

And I chuckled the rest of the way through Idaho into Oregon, a whole three miles, because the speed limit on I-84 was 80 mph! For three whole miles, until the freeway crossed the state line, and then the speed limit dropped back to 65 mph, and boom, there was my exit to Ontario, where I’m spending the night. The Oregon state troopers must have a field day on that stretch of I-84 past Ontario.

Tomorrow, I head up to Pendleton, Oregon, to do some research for a different story. Stay tuned.

 

 

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On the Road in Winnemucca, NV

I’ve set out on a research trip to the neighboring states of Nevada and Oregon.   Some time ago, I wrote some short stories about aging.  One of them was set partly in Nevada, and one of them in Oregon.  So here I am, on the road, taking pictures, making notes, and making sure that I get things right.

I had dinner with a friend of mine in Fernley, NV, last night.  Vivian told me some spooky stuff about the Interstate 80 rest area where I’d planned for something important to happen in one of my stories.  It seems that many years ago, a young woman was abducted from this rest area and subsequently found murdered.  I don’t have any more details than that–I’ve had internet connection problems again on my laptop and am having to use the computer in the hotel lobby.  But at any rate, that’s a compelling story that I think will find it’s way into my story.  Vivian also told me that some older people have disappeared from that rest area or nearby.  She warned me that it was closed the last time she drove to Winnemucca, and she was right.

When I pulled off the interstate exit for the rest area anyway, I found a sign for Raspberry Creek.  If I’d been driving a different vehicle, and if I knew I could be there and back by dark, I’d have headed off for Raspberry Creek.  As it was though, I parked the car in front of the barricade blocking off the rest area and walked around the gate and cattle guard and up to a point where I could take pictures of the place.  Maybe it was Vivian’s warning to me not to stop there, or maybe it really is just the place, but it felt creepy, even in the middle of the day with the interstate traffic roaring by.

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I also stopped in Lovelock before I got to the rest area.  I love Lovelock!  It’s clearly a ranching community.   I was driving through, looking for a restroom, when I spotted the old courthouse.  What a beautiful building!  I took a lot of pictures and talked to a group of nice folks who were cleaning up around the outside of the building.  Out in back of the courthouse is something one of those folks called a gimmicky, touristy thing.  But I liked it.  It’s a series of posts connected by chains, and the chains are hung with padlocks of all sizes and shapes.  A sign explains:  Lock in your love by leaving a lock in Lovelock and throwing away the key.  Well, maybe it’s a bit silly, but rather sweet all the same.

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I wish I could post a few pictures, but my laptop has gone cranky on me again.  It connects to the internet here but says there is no internet access, so no pics.  Maybe at the next place, but I think the laptop has an issue I just can’t diagnose or fix.  I’ll have to add pictures later.  From here, I head north on 95 into Oregon.  Maybe the internet connectivity will be better up there.   Here’s hoping.

Postscript update:  I went out this afternoon looking for the Humboldt County Courthouse and county sheriff’s offices, and found them side by side.  The courthouse is another lovely, old historic building.  The sheriff’s offices are in modern building right beside the courthouse, and the district attorney’s office is catty-cornered across the street in a truly ugly building of indeterminate age.  I did not take a picture of it!  Susan and Seth are going to end up at the Humboldt County sheriff’s offices, I believe.  If you want to read the beginning of the story, please go to my Short Stories page.  It’s the first story in the samples.

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When I got back to the hotel, I somehow fixed my connection problem and was able to upload pictures!  Here’s hoping the fix holds.

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Stonehenge After-Hours Special Access Tour

It probably seems as though I’ve decided not to go on with my recounting of the Big Trip, but in fact, I’ve just been stymied by the next portion of it: our visit to Stonehenge. Seeing Stonehenge the way we saw it was so profound, it’s been hard to think how to put it into words. But that’s my job, as a writer, and so I will attempt to convey the marvel that is Stonehenge as we saw it. I’ve had some time to process the experience, and in looking over my pictures, some of the emotion and sense of mystery I felt at the time comes back. That’s why we take pictures, isn’t it?

First of all, I must highly recommend Pat Shelley’s after-hours, special access tours of Stonehenge. Pat has guided folks from National Geographic and other big-wigs to see Stonehenge as he has learned it, and he puts the landscape surrounding Stonehenge into archeological and cultural perspective in a way that simply walking around the fence at the monument cannot do. I am linking Pat’s website to this post in several places, because I do not want to paraphrase him and get it wrong, but also because his photographs far outshine anything I could present, although I’ve included some of mine too.

Amy and I left Salisbury for Pat’s special access tour at about 3: 45 in the afternoon, after we loaded up into a small bus with about 25 other people.  As the bus  headed out towards Stonehenge, we passed Old Sarum, the original city built by the Romans, along the way, but did not stop. Amy and I had hoped to visit there before we left Salisbury, but we were unable to. However, Pat talked about Old Sarum as we went past it on our way to Woodhenge.

At this point, I should probably tell you what Pat drummed into us all afternoon, the definition of a henge. A henge is a flat area, usually circular or oval, enclosed by earthworks consisting of ditch and bank, with the ditch inside the embankment, the soil and stones from the ditch being used to form the embankment. The ditch and bank define the limits of the henge.

When Pat took our small group out to Woodhenge, a true henge with ditch and bank originally set with wooden posts rather than stones (the holding pits for the timbers now marked with concrete posts), he explained that archaeologists still don’t know what it was used for. Various theories have been expounded and rejected. As Pat says, all we know is that Woodhenge was used for ceremonial and ritual purposes, a phrase he would reiterate all afternoon.

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Two bodies were discovered buried at Woodhenge: the remains of a young child in a cairn of flints in the center of the henge, and the body of a young man at the base of the ditch. Why these bodies were buried here, no one knows.

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For more about Woodhenge, Pat’s site, with his photographs, is invaluable.

From Woodhenge, we walked across the lane to a viewing point above Durrington Walls. Durrington Walls is an enormous henge, sans stonework, far larger than Stonehenge itself. It is the largest henge in Britain (and the world). What is visible to the naked eye (and impossible for me to get completely into one picture on my camera) is the vast near-circle of the embankment.

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As I stood at the top of the embankment, surrounded by sheep pasture (redolent with the aroma of sheep), and looked around at the area of the henge, I thought about the hours and hours of labor it would have taken to dig the ditch (with stone or bone tools) and erect the embankment. What induced the people of this place, or surrounding places, to devote so much time and energy to such a process? The effort would have taken time away from agriculture and hunting/gathering, and served no defensive purpose, for the embankment was not high enough, about 3 meters (although that’s almost 10 feet) and the internal ditch not deep enough, about 5 meters (about 16 ½ feet) to keep determined marauders out.  The area is so large, it would have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of defenders to repel invaders. The enclosure measures about 500 meters or about 546 yards in diameter with an area of about 30 acres.  The embankment seems not to have been built for defensive purposes, but for some other purpose of demarcation, perhaps for religious or even political impulses. Religion and power often go hand in hand—it’s easy to interpret the henge at Durrington Walls this way. But nothing is known for certain of the impulses behind the building of Durrington Walls. Archaeologists believe that the houses discovered along the river at Durrington Walls were the dwelling places of the workers who built Stonehenge. For more about this, please see Pat Shelley’s website, linked here.

Pat also pointed out the location of a smaller timber circle at Durrington Walls, similar to Woodhenge, called the Southern Circle, and the location of an even smaller timber circle which now lies beneath the road built in 1967 which bisects the henge of Durrington Walls.

Pat worked on digs at Durrington Walls and was on the team that discovered the first complete Neolithic house floors in England. For more about his experience on that dig, please visit his website, linked above. Replicas of the some of the houses found at the Durrington Walls site have been built outside the new visitor’s center at Stonehenge. My pictures of them are here. It’s clear that some had different purposes than others;  the first reconstructed house was obviously for living and sleeping.

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The second type of house seemed more like a meeting house, perhaps where workers gathered for storytelling or singing, or perhaps where supervisors met to discuss how the work of building Stonehenge was going.

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From Durrington Walls, we visited a barrow site. Barrows were burial mounds, presumably of important persons, but since many of the graves were looted through the ages, it’s hard to know always what sort of person was buried in them. Also, some of the barrows may have been used and reused. The barrow we saw was one in a line of barrows that stretches for quite some distance across the landscape near Stonehenge, and in fact, we could see Stonehenge from the barrow.

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The presence of so many burials near Stonehenge is one of the reasons a leading archaeologist (Mike Parker Pearson) working the area around Stonehenge calls it “a place for the dead.”

But the land doesn’t feel in the least bit dead. Obviously, Pearson is being both literal and metaphorical, but what struck me about the landscape around Stonehenge is how alive it is. Sheep are pastured all around (and we walked a long way through sheep-inhabited pastures to reach the Cursus and the elbow of the Avenue, the processional way that leads up to the Stones), berries grow in the hedgerows, birds are twittering and flittering everywhere, and trees, although post-World War II plantings, flourish. It is one of the most living, most present landscapes you could imagine, dominated by the monuments of the past, henges and barrows.

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The three shots of Stonehenge, above, were taken from the barrow site.  The first one was taken without zoom, the second and third were zoomed in.  You can see that people were still visiting the site, but behind the fence that surrounds it.  We were going in, after a nice, long trek across the sheep pastures.

From the barrow, we crossed another lane and struck off into the heart of sheep land. Sheep scampered away from our progress, baaing madly, as we walked toward the Cursus. The Cursus was so named by a fellow in the 1700s who thought it looked like chariot raceway. It is a set of parallel ditches and embankments creating a processional pathway with an opening that leads to the elbow of the Avenue. Presumably, it had ritual and ceremonial purpose. Pat says that’s archaeologist speak for “we don’t know what it was for.”

According to an article in the Smithsonian that arrived at my house just a couple of days ago, a new survey by geophysicists using magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar (yep, that stuff they use in the military to detect underground bunkers) has located a number of previously unknown or little-studied monuments (other henges!) lying beneath the surface in the area around Stonehenge. (The article, “What Lies Beneath,” was one stimulation for me to finally get this post written and my pictures shared. It was a sort of refresher to Pat’s talk on the tour.) One discovery from the survey was the existence of a huge pit at the east end of the Cursus which lies along the line of the last section of the Avenue from the elbow straight through to the heelstone outside the circle. There’s another pit at the west end of the Cursus whose line through to the circle creates a triangle with entrance to Stonehenge at its apex. Apparently, there’s a new film about Stonehenge coming out, Stonehenge Empire, which will use all kinds of special computer-generated effects to demonstrate what the survey found. However, the article makes clear, until spades hit the ground, nobody knows for sure what might be found. I can’t help wishing that my health and finances would allow me to join a dig. What a thrill it must be to work on such a project.

From the Cursus, Pat took us across the sheep pasture to the elbow of the Avenue. There he gathered us, pointed out the way up the hill, and turned us loose to discover what the great monument looks like as the people who built it would have seen it during a processional. You see, for parts of the journey up the Avenue from the River Avon, Stonehenge and Durrington Walls and other henges would have been in view. But at the elbow of the Avenue, which lies in a gentle declivity, Stonehenge is upslope and out of sight. As we walked up the hill, walking on the Avenue toward the monument, with the sun declining in the west, the stones gradually became visible, first the lintels, and then the uprights, seeming almost to rise out of the ground as if on mechanized platforms in some theater production. Indeed, there is no doubt that what we call a sense of theater animated the builders of Stonehenge and the Avenue. That perception of the stones rising out of the ground must surely have called on a feeling of wonder, even magic.

The first shot below was on zoom; the second was taken afterwards, with Amy in front of me, to show how far away we still were from the monument.  At this point, we were on the Avenue. I have a short, bumpy video I’ll post on my Jean L. French Facebook page that illustrates the way the stones seem to rise out of the ground.

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And then, as one nears the stones, even from behind the fence, their grandeur and majesty, their sheer size more than impress; they overwhelm.

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As we walked up the Avenue toward the Stones, the heelstone greeted us.

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The heelstone is the marker stone for sunrise on the summer solstice. It is a massive sarcen that now leans toward the henge, although it may have once stood upright, and apparently had a companion stone beside it.  The light from the summer solstice sunrise would have beamed directly between the heelstone and its companion.  The heelstone lies just inside the chain-link fence that now surrounds Stonehenge, keeping out all visitors except those few of us who are willing to pay for an after-hours tour, and the thousands who throng there midsummer’s day, when the monument is open to all-comers and the stones are desecrated by drunks and idiots. Frankly, I would rather pay more to see Stonehenge in the company of a few like-minded, reverent individuals than see it desecrated for free.

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At the heelstone, I turned around and took a picture looking back down the Avenue.  If you look carefully, you can see the banks on either side which define the Avenue, and you can see the curve of the elbow in the distance.

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At the fence line, we turned and walked around the fence to a gate that gave access to the bus parking area where we rode a small bus to the new visitor’s center.  We spent an hour there, waiting for the last of the regular tours to finish and the site to close.  The new visitor’s center has so much information, an hour wasn’t really enough to thoroughly explore.  But I found one of Dennis’s ancestors in there! The skeleton of this Neolithic man was found buried in a long barrow about a mile and a half from Stonehenge.  It’s been 5500 years since anybody’s seen his face.  And he looks like he could be my husband’s cousin!

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When the site had closed to regular visitors, we got back on the bus and were driven to the locked and guarded gate that accesses the stones themselves.  At the guarded gate, we were accompanied by our guide, Pat, and security guards who patrolled the perimeter of the stones, making sure we did not touch them. It is forbidden to touch the stones (which makes the free-for-all at the summer solstice that much less comprehensible). The stones are also open to the public at the winter solstice, but almost no one ever shows up, Pat says. It’s too cold, and often there is snow on the ground. How I would love to see Stonehenge then! I have a photograph Pat took during the winter solstice that is so beautiful, I can’t wait to get it framed and on the wall. I wish I could link to a copy of it to show it off, but I think Pat only sells them during his tours.

As we walked the paved pathway that runs from the locked gate up to the stones, ravens were everywhere on the grass, flying from roosts on the stones themselves, and looking for something, perhaps insects, moles, or mice, on the ground. Dozens and dozens of them, like seagulls at the beach, but black, glossy, vocal. I couldn’t help thinking of how ravens feature in Scandinavian myth and wondered if they might have been sacred birds to the builders of Stonehenge as well. I reached down and picked up one shiny, black feather from the grass as a gift for a friend with an affinity for ravens.

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As we entered the ring of stones in twos and threes or singly, marveling at the size of them, for a while the only thing you could hear besides the quork of the ravens was the appreciative murmur from 26 throats.

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After a short time to wander around, Pat called us back together and began to talk to us about Stonehenge, which, he explained, is not actually a henge because its ditch is outside its embankment. I must confess that much of what Pat had to say inside the circle is lost to me because I was so awed by the monument itself. So 0ver-awed, in fact, that I tripped over a small, partially-buried stone and nearly cracked my head on the downed lintel that reveals that even the craftsmen who built Stonehenge could make a mistake. The lintels aren’t just balancing atop the sarcen uprights. They have mortise and tenon joints. The mortise is the cup-shaped hole carved into the lintel. The tenon is the rounded base cut to receive it on the top of the upright. In the one I almost fell on, mortises are carved into both sides of the lintel, except that on one side, the second mortise is unfinished, as though an overseer had discovered the stonemasons chipping away at mortises on the wrong side of the lintel stone. Of course, I remembered that tidbit, after nearly falling into the lintel. I wonder if the security guards would have hauled me off if I’d actually touched the thing in falling down. Fortunately, I caught my balance in time and avoided that crime.

In the pictures below,  on the left you can see the completed mortise on the end of the fallen lintel in the center of the picture, and the one on the end of the lintel on the left side of the picture that wasn’t completed because it was on the wrong side of the stone!  In the other photo, you can see the tenon on the top of the upright sarcen, upon which the lintel’s mortise would have fitted.  The other sarcen of the pair is lying face forward beside the one still standing.

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When we see Stonehenge, we think of it as existing always pretty much as it is now, except with all the stones fixed in their upright positions, lintels in place. But the truth is that the monument was modified several times during the centuries of its use as a place of ceremony and ritual. Stones were added and moved. Stonehenge was a work in progress until circa 1600 B.C. when the last construction was done. It isn’t known how long the monument was in use for ritual and ceremonial purposes following this period.

After Pat’s talk inside the circle at Stonehenge, we were free for a little while to wander amongst the stones, to find what solitude was possible, and to contemplate the kinds of questions Stonehenge gives rise to: What did the builders believe and how does that differ from my beliefs? What was life like for the builders? How was it different from mine? And for me, finally, how much do we share, these distant humans and me?   One thing I know, we shared a reverence for the earth, and for the bones of it, these stones.

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For more of my pictures of Stonehenge, inside the circle, and Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, please visit my Facebook page, (Jean L. French). Also there, eventually, will be the rest of the pictures of our trip to Great Britain, including photos of Maiden Castle, the Hurlers on Bodmin Moor, Tintagel and Caernarvon Castle in Wales, and sights in York, Northumberland and Hadrian’s Wall, and Scotland, where we saw Pictish stones and the Clava Cairns, among other things.

 

 

 

 

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