We left Seattle on a rainy afternoon, our damp dog anxious and eager to be on my lap in the passenger seat of the Penske truck. Instead of heading east, in the direction of our destination, we drove south into Oregon, through the green, sheep-riddled valleys hugged on either side by mountains. We stopped in Eugene for Mike to check out their bus rapid transit, remarkable for a city of their size. Like in Portland, we were impressed by Eugene’s bike- and pedestrian-friendly, and just plain well-maintained infrastructure. Seattle never seemed to understand that it made any difference that their sidewalks and roads were broken up and disheveled looking.
The sun was setting fast so we hurried on to Bend, our destination for the night. We drove the scenic route, but only got the headlight view, up the mountains, through dense forest to the pass at the top, where the landscape changed to a barren moonscape of nothing but basalt rock. At one point we tried pointing our headlights at the promised view, but to no avail. At least we got to see the stars, as the clouds had cleared overhead. We got out of the truck and experienced absolute silence and a magical view above, the Milky Way thick across the sky. As soon as we crossed onto the other side of the mountains the forest changed, still thick with evergreens, but a different type – ponderosa pine, with a layer of grass beneath.
I relished getting to explore this new landscape the next day, because it was the setting of my grandpa’s stories from his early childhood. His dad worked as a lumberjack, cutting down that pine for the Shevlin-Hixon lumber company until Grandpa was 11 years old. He described it as a paradise for kids and one of the places they explored (unsupervised!) was the lava caves. These have been made into a park and we planned to tour them, but alas, it was a Tuesday and the sign blocking our entrance said, “Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.” We followed a different sign to a waterfall and discovered that the near-by picnic grounds were where the Shevlin-Hixon Company’s annual Labor Day picnics had been held. Grandpa had told me about these too, how they had games for the children like climbing a greased pole or wrestling a greased pig, along with more typical baseball games and relay races. For the adults the company laid down a brand new wood floor each year for dancing. These stories are detailed in the book I wrote, “Grandpa Ranney’s Stories: From Pioneer Days to the Present,” which I was able to verify can be found in the Bend Historical Center.
Our last obligatory historical stop was Prineville, where on a homestead in 1918, Grandpa was born. The town is in a valley surrounded by rimrock and Grandpa told a story about his dog chasing the coyotes up the slope until they got near their dens at thetop, at which point they turned around and chased him back down. Looking at the dry, brown landscape I could see that any fields that are green clearly rely on irrigation. And that is why Grandpa’s parents moved from Prineville into the lumber camps – they didn’t receive enough of the irrigation water they had been promised to be able to grow much of anything.
We drove on, intent on making up time from our stops, but eventually one has to pee and one has to eat, so we found ourselves in the one cafe in a tiny town called Unity. The bartender was friendly. She seemed glad to have someone she hadn’t known most of her life to talk to. She opened up about her ex-husband and family history, but she also sympathized with me on the difficulty of finding gluten-free foods (the cafe didn’t offer me many options). She said she prefers herbal medicine to conventional, partly because her options for doctors, especially good ones, are so limited.
I noticed signed dollar bills stapled to every available inch of the wooden beams overhead and I asked about them. Apparently they are Unity, Oregon’s means of saying, “I was here.” People put them up in honor of those who die. Foreign exchange students put them up. As I thought about what it must be like for foreign exchange students to land in a rural town of a few hundred people, with large cities an hour or more away, the bartender seemed to read my mind, and said the students are often surprised to end up being sent there (apparently they have no choice in the matter), but end up loving it. The opportunity to put up our own dollar bills was not offered, nor did I press for it. I didn’t feel the need to proclaim to Unity: I was here.
As we made our way through southern Idaho we felt obliged to stop at a site that had been recommended by friends: Craters of the Moon park. We felt obliged not so much for our friends’ sake, as for making up for lost chances. The view this area promised sounded similar to what we had missed on the road to Bend, and when we got there we discovered they had lava caves, also something we had missed out on in Oregon. So we walked through the black, rocky landscape, past spatter cones and collapsed tunnels. The earth around us had clearly at one time been alive in a very viscous way, flowing and bubbling and splatting like cookie batter. The cave we walked in was fairly bright because of holes in the ceiling, but nonetheless I was ready to get out of there, out of the hot, hostile and mostly barren landscape (although much of the signage focused on the amazing ability of a few plants and animals to make a go of it there).
As before, we were behind schedule. We needed to get on to Wyoming, where the road would take us right through Grand Teton National Park. We thought we could make it there before the sun went down or at least by twilight. As we climbed the mountains we could see the start of the fall color. But once again, due to our changing position in time zones, our jog south, and simply the time of year, we had mis-estimated sunset, and by the time the peaks came into view it was dark. We had hurried through Jackson, missing Ernie’s pee break, so we pulled over at one of the view points, got out of the car, looked at the fading outline of the peaks and again consoled ourselves with an above-average view of the stars.
Mocking our disappointment, the view we had in the daylight for most of the next day’s drive was the generally flat, treeless, dusty brown, sagebrush stretch of Wyoming. For miles only the occasional antelope or oil well punctuates the landscape. We looked at the even more occasional grouping of trailer homes and wondered how the people living there don’t go nuts. How long would it take to become comfortable being surrounded by a landscape that looks sickly, like it’s succumbing to measles, dotted with sagebrush instead of pus-filled welts? Maybe if you grow up there it’s different.
Nebraska, the state we love to deride as the most flat and boring, was actually a relief after this landscape. It at least has more grass and even a few trees. We cruised along Highway 20, often the only vehicle on the road. Our goal for the night was O’Neill. But when we pulled into town we discovered all of the hotels were full. “For the convention,” the receptionist told Mike, as if he should know what that meant. We figured it must be some sort of religious convention, but were told in the next town that it was actually a convention about the effects of the Keystone pipeline, which is slated to go through that part of the country. It would have been fascinating to sit in on.
So we found ourselves spending the night in the one motel in Orchard, Nebraska. It was late, after 11 p.m. so the owner was already in his robe. He was chatty though and felt the need to give Mike a tour of the room: “Here’s the radio, it gets local stations… and here’s the TV, you watch what we watch so there’s Letterman and then whatever’s after Letterman…” Finally he left us to ourselves and I surveyed the room for myself. Tacky carpet with a dark square tile design, pastel bed spreads that didn’t match this, paintings on the wall that didn’t match anything… In Seattle we would have considered this place super sketchy, probably hiding illegal activities. Somehow in rural Nebraska though it’s just quaint, or maybe just the way it is. Don’t mistake me, I didn’t find the place charming, not with the musty smell, and age of its appliances.
In the morning I stepped out the door and smelled manure. Earlier Mike had done the same and the owner said to him, “smells like money,” apparently referring to a hog farm down the road. While Mike filled up with gas, I checked out the hardware/general store across the street. The front window was decorated with a 12 inch metal dome that presented a hologram of Jesus’ face. The face looked like it turned toward you and then followed you as you walked by. For those who like their religious inspiration on the creepy side, I guess. Above Jesus’ head (priorities) taped to the glass was a sign supporting the local high school sports team, the Tornados.
Inside, the store owner knew all the customers and was mildly suspicious of me and Mike. When Mike stopped by earlier the lights were out and the man said “yes, we’re open,” but he sometimes waits to turn the lights on until the first customer shows up, maybe 9, 9:30 a.m. He told Mike he doesn’t like the changes that have happened to Orchard. Mostly they’ve lost a lot of population, and the farms just get bigger. The front page of Orchard’s newspaper showed a photo of the year’s homecoming court. I wondered if any of those young people will stay in Orchard, and what opportunities it could offer them. But also, what will happen to the old people who stay behind?
By the Iowa border the landscape was getting even more familiar: gently rolling hills, more trees. But it was when we crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin itself that we saw the most beautiful landscape of the whole trip. What could be more picturesque than the rolling green farm fields of Wisconsin, dotted with red barns and outlined in deciduous trees coming into their fall color? I suppose it helped that we passed through the more promising, competing landscapes in darkness.