High-Low Country

by Bruce Patterson, September 3, 2013

The free, independent spirit, the energy and hopefulness that have marked Americans are not causes, but results. They have sprung from unfenced land. Public Domain has given a consciousness of freedom even to the dweller in the crowded cities, and has been a wellspring of hope even to those who have never thought of taking refuge upon it.

—Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879

After breakfast at dawn, it didn’t take Trish and me long to get out of La Grande, Oregon. Turn east on state Hwy 82, duck under the Interstate, go past a couple of 4-way traffic lights and you’re out in farmlands backstopped by the Wallowa Mountains, the granite dome called Eagle Cap (9,595ft.) steel gray with the sun rising behind it. Add to the mountain wall the road’s paralleling railroad tracks, their sidings dead-ending at grain silos, packing sheds and warehouses; the lonely barns spotting fields of wheat, flax and alfalfa, onions and potatoes, and driving across the Grande Ronde River Valley was like being a backseat kid again and taking in the side window scenery along old US Hwy. 99 through the San Joaquin before the I-5, the Peripheral Canal, the population explosion and the smog.

After about 20 miles the road leaves the meandering La Ronde and gently climbs up a huge grassy hogback called Cricket Flat. We return to the familiar sight of working ranches and little clapboard crossroad towns shaded under giant cottonwoods or pine. Here and there with not much mileage in between, we pass the swaybacked or tumbled-over remains of abandoned 19th Century homesteads, the forest encroaching, their snow-scoured buildings and corrals made of cedar and Doug fir, lodge pole, yellow pine, willow and aspen.

The ruins are so much a part of the landscape because, no matter how free and clear the acreage, rich the soils and well-watered the land, having a growing season—in a good year—of four months means it’s near-on impossible to make enough money to stay ahead of your expenses. You go and have three real good years running and then one bust year and you’re left worse off financially than when you started; that plus four years older. So you learn to keep as much of your life outside of the money economy as you can. Food, shelter, water and power you provide yourself. You personally tend to your crops and husband your livestock, do your own building, repair and maintenance; your bookkeeping, housecleaning, laundry and cooking. By doing all you can yourself you make it so you don’t need much in the way of money and that gives you the chance to survive.

So, taking the chance and after the prize, you and yours stake your claim. Working longer and/or smarter as the years go by, you keep to the hope that some day—when the stars align just right—you’ll get to get ahead. If not ahead for good, then at least for a stretch long enough to let you know what it feels like. You might go years, even decades, before you realize that what you want can’t be had hereabouts: no way, no how, not by you. So you pull up stakes and try again someplace else hopefully more hospitable. Or, about as likely, I suspect, you squint into the wide-open, gut-up, double-down and go to your grave convinced the stars were finally rolling round your way if only you could’ve stuck it out just a wee bit longer.

When you realize that, to Consumer Society, your livestock and crops are every bit as cheap as your labor, you’re maybe 12-years-old out in the ice-crusted barn stoking the potbelly and mucking out stalls. Don’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, you’ve gotta help earn your keep. Out ranching, what you see is what you get: See that cow off alone? She’s yours. Go check up on her. If you’re a kid then you take solace in knowing that, once you get old enough, you’ll be free to go if that’s your mind. In fact, oftener than not, you’re expected to go since money’s too short for two families.

As the years roll by and “the market” gets more and more rigged in favor of processors, distributors and commodity traders, the oil cartel and a heaping wagon load of others in for their cut, you know it ain’t your fault. You ain’t gonna quit because of it and that’s for sure. You won’t quit for any reason save for stone-cold-necessity. Like a good cow dog, you ain’t got no quit in you. Stick around long enough and you get used to taking a beating. Like a savage blizzard, a breech-born calf or a cutting horse with shinflints, “the market” is just another cost of doing business; just another crying shame.

Cricket Flat is the northern foot of the Wallowa Mountains. Going up its west side is a gentle climb and looking north from its unmarked summit we see rolling grassy plains far more extensive than any we’ve seen since leaving home. Then, beginning with a yellow road sign warning of doglegs ahead, we drop precipitously (yup, the grade’s genuinely precipitous) into the gorge of a tumbling river. I think it’s the Wallowa River but, when we reach the bottom and cross the bridge, the sign says it’s the Minam. We follow the Minam downstream deeper into the shade then come to the real Wallowa River, it twice the size but not so wild and frothy. The highway beside the railroad tracks leads us upstream, the land opens into a sub-alpine valley, we come to a town called Lostine and I’m charmed.

Charmed? Like I once met a fellah named Roan. Pushing 100 years old, he looked like a retired leprechaun basketball player. I asked him if he’d ever met another man named Roan and he said “nope.” I asked if he’d ever met a girl named that way and he shook his head. Then we grinned at each other: the name’s unique, beautiful and evocative, and how charming is that?

Valleys are named after rivers and not the other way around. The river makes the valley and is its lifeblood and so it’s proper it should be that way. Lostine the town is named after Lostine the river and the effect it had on me was the same as hearing the name “Roan.” In the US (I’d find out) there are only a few places with “lost” in their names (Lost Creek, Lost Butte, etc.) and only a single solitary town: Lost City, West Virginia. In the US there are a couple of dozen places incorporating the word “lone” into their names, and over 120 including the word “long.” But there’s just one river and one town called Lostine.

With the towering east slope of the Wallowas in the background—is that Eagle Cap again?—the town of Lostine is as purdy as a button. We stop and walk around some before halting to admire a front yard rock garden shaded by a pair of apple trees. Standing nearly 50 feet high, they are the tallest apple trees we’ve ever seen. The lady who lives in the house comes out to jaw and, in her estimation, the apple trees are 140 some-odd years old. The oak wood floor inside her house had come from when they’d torn down the old Jimtown dancehall back in 1870—Jimtown was a rip-roaring mining town fore then—and she reckoned the apples got planted about the same time. When I got around to asking her how the town is doing, she replied that with the railroad, grist mill and lumber mills shut down, Lostine is just a place folks drive through on their way to Wallowa Lake.

Can’t say how many places lay claim to being “America’s Alps,” but the Wallowa Lake area is one of them, at least according to the Chamber of Commerce. I mean, what rancher would think to name the second tallest peak in the range the Matterhorn (9,832ft.) and stick it right up there next to the tallest: Sacagawea Peak (9,839ft.)? Anyway, the spacious sky-blue waters of Wallowa Lake are the remains of an Ice Age glacier that filled the Y-shaped, alpine-topped canyon just upstream from a town called Joseph. Other than the pointed, overhanging peaks, what makes the lake most remarkable is the exact symmetry of its lateral moraines; two tall sloping walls of glacial drift as precisely engineered as the faces of earth-filled dams. The terminal moraines, one atop the other retreating upstream, are chaotically shaped like Nebraska’s Sand Hills: seemingly random curving ridges, knolls, random boulders, washes and potholes filled with round pools of water. According to legend, from one such pool sprang the Nez Perce people, and Chief Joseph is buried (actually re-buried) nearby. The sign at the trailhead to the pond of creation says the place and its surrounding lands are considered sacred and should be respected, which Trish and I take to mean left alone by the likes of us.

At the head of the lake is a major ski resort offering plenty of summer attractions, and we kicked around up there long enough to see that, while the topography is alike, no educated person could miss seeing this ain’t Switzerland but pure American Inter-Mountain West. Drop dead gorgeous, the resort area offers ice cream and horseback rides, boating, fishing and chili dogs, Bait and Tackle, art, souvenirs, BBQ and pizza. Were you to probe you’d find the townsfolk to be as proudly American. But, in the day-to-day, they’re just unabashedly so.

Sincerely hoping the resort is prospering in spite of its rusticity and remoteness, we tip our hats, backtrack to Joseph and then continue east deeper into the mountains. When we come to it, we take Forest Service Road #39 and follow it south up a gentle rise. After crossing over Lick Creek Summit, we drop down into a deep canyon, join Lick Creek, drop down some more, button-hook around to the northeast and then keep on dropping until we reach the main canyon and the Imnaha River.

Named after an ancient Nez Perce village, trading and ceremonial site, like the Minam, Lostine, and Wallowa Rivers, and the two forks of south-flowing Eagle Creek, the Imnaha has its headwaters up on Eagle Cap. After dropping off the mountain and flowing eastward for about 20 miles, the Imnaha bends and flows about due north for another 70 before joining the Snake. Swift-running and silt-free, its boulder-bed speckled with green and red serpentine, granite, basalt and quartz; shaded under tall ponderosas and alive with native rainbow and steelhead trout, the pure waters of the Imnaha remain sacred to the Nez Perce and are rightly famous among fishermen.

In 1992 we’d stayed with the boys beside the Imnaha in a campground called Ollokot (“gathering place”). So we stop at the campground to see if it’s as quiet and beautiful as we remember. It sure enough is and we’re glad for that. We must have spent an hour just sitting next to the river, feeling its billowing breezes, listening to its splashes and admiring the forest and the sheer walls of its canyon.

We get back in the car, climb southward out of the main canyon and, just before the pass at the headwaters of the south-flowing North Fork of Pine Creek, we turn onto a spur and climb steeply up to the top of Summit Ridge and dead-end at a viewpoint overlooking the Snake River Canyon (“Hell’s Canyon”). Beyond the giant hole we see a good chunk of western Idaho, including the Yellow Jacket Mountains kicking back on the horizon 100 miles away. With the invisible river 8,000 vertical feet below, the Snake’s is by far the deepest canyon in North America. We must have spent another hour up there, me using my compass to get oriented, and map to ID landmarks, then my binoculars to search the tiered, serrated, plunging canyonsides for signs of man or beast. Hoping to maybe spot some mountain goats or bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer or wayward mustangs, I run my binoculars over the entire terrain yet see no furry four-leggeds and only one sign of man: a cut-banked road leading up Idaho’s barren Cuddy Mountains.

I was about to give up when my naked eye picked up movement straight down below on a peninsula of “flat” ground—a big critter trotting inside a stationary group of like-shaped brown spots. Hoping they’re elk or mustangs, I look through my binoculars and confirm they’re cows. Eight mavericks, I figure, and probably goners come winter. Ain’t many ways to get cows in or out of such a deep, deep hole, or any reason to do so since, as a National Recreation Area, the graze is set aside for the native critters and forbidden to cattle. Besides, even if you get away with a little poaching, the cows will lose more weight getting whipped up out of there than they’d gained grazing down in there. So I didn’t see anybody coming to fetch um or the cows having enough sense to get out before the ground turns to ice.

Then again, I thought optimistically, maybe there’s an in-holding hidden down by the river. Maybe back in pioneer times some recluse had settled there because he liked its isolation and somehow his spread has survived. If that’s the case then, come sundown, the cows will mosey on down to the barn for a real supper.

Back in the car, we cross over the pass and head down the north fork of the Pine. The forest thins and then disappears and the landscape takes on the look of the mountainous “Desert Southwest.” We turn west on empty Oregon State Hwy. 86, join the main branch of Powder River, head upstream, pass by a little farming burg called Halfway, climb over a low divide, rejoin the Powder and follow it past Hole-in-the-Wall and Bishop Springs. Then we leave the river again and ease on up another huge grassy hogback, this one called Virtue Flat. At its top we come into the past-sundown sight of sprawling Baker City, La Grande’s Interstate big sister planted some 44 miles downstream. Baker City is our second night’s layover and a welcome sight. Northward we again catch sight of Eagle Cap, now every bit as recognizable as the craggy Elkhorns standing beyond the long valley of the northward-flowing South Fork of the Powder, glimmering Baker City its bellybutton.


We’ve just driven 220 mountain miles in order to advance 44 toward home. Yet we feel as light as feathers. Next morning we’ll sidestep the Elkhorns, follow the south fork up to its headwaters and then ease down into the valley of main branch of the John Day and follow it downstream to Picture Gorge and our junction. Driving safe, sane and non-stop, we can make it home in four-hours-flat if we want to. We allow ourselves eight.


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