What In Sam Hill?

by Bruce Patterson, April 20, 2016

To the memory of the soldiers and sailors of Klickitat County who gave their lives in defense of their country. This monument is erected in the hope that others inspired by the example of their valor and heroism may share in that love of liberty and burn with that fire of patriotism which death alone can quench.” 

Dedication placed on the altar stone at The Maryhill Stonehenge on July 4th, 1918.

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After maybe twenty miles of driving east up the Antelope Road, I get to feeling like Trish and I have been beamed down into the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Here are watercourses like veins in a fat cottonwood leaf, their shallow bottomlands and low creamy hills cultivated with dryland wheat and barley or mixed grasses for pastures. In the rough spots spread “virgin” perfumed patches of sage, knee-high bunch grasses and spring belly flowers. The expanse is freckled with faraway farmsteads, the families of flighty pronghorns are more common than cars and the sky is free of contrails. If it wasn’t for the distant ring of snowcapped mountains and the sharp-edged volcanic outcrops, this patch of Jefferson County, Oregon, sure enough could be mistaken for Nebraska’s Sand Hills.

The road climbs a gentle wrinkled ridge, we enter a stand of junipers and, at the summit, my illusion shatters. Two thousand vertical feet below, cradled by rows of toothy mountains, lies the canyon of the lower John Day River. Having a watershed about the size of Idaho’s famed River of No Return (the Salmon), the John Day too runs wild and free. Not bad for a river named after a mountain man gone crazy whose life story is a pound of fiction made out of an ounce of fact.

The winter we’ve just tipped our hats to was a wet one and the John Day is running bank-to-bank, high and fast, its three forks united and picking up creeks and springs on its way through its series of oxbows and goosenecks to the Columbia River some 800 vertical feet below.

Now the best part of most any trip is the travel, and we’re going to The Dalles by way of Fossil. The Intermountain West is freckled with ghost towns that don’t quite know it yet, and Fossil is one. Unless you’re out to buy or to prospect for some petrified dinosaur bones, or you’ve always wanted to fill up at a two-pump gas station called Fossil Fuels, there’s no reason to go there unless you’ve got family or friends there. And since less than five hundred people call Fossil home, not many will be visiting while you’re passing through. And hardly anybody else will be passing through, neither, whether from the north, south or west (the way east is blocked by mountains). The road heading south out of town drops down into the canyon of the John Day and then it follows the river upstream. The only real town up that way is John Day and, even if you’re an avid hunter and fisherman, the objects of your desire are a whole lot closer to home than John Day is.

Fossil exists because it’s the seat of Wheeler County, it being one of many such with a seat but no people living outside it. That is, unless you count having maybe .4 humans per square mile as being peopled. Wheeler County’s Official Slogan is: “If it ain’t steep, it ain’t Wheeler.”

Interesting tidbit: in the 1920s, the once great Progressive Populist orator William Jennings Bryan, soon to be made a monkey of by the great Civil Libertarian Clarence Darrow during the Scopes Monkey Trail held back in Knock-kneed, Tennessee, gave a rousing speech in Fossil.

Leaving town, we head north. After crossing over Beaver Creek lazily making its own way to the John Day, we climb up over Cummings Hill (3,310ft.) and, without dropping down any, arrive back in the creamy highlands. The sky is cloudless, the air crystal, and dead ahead in Washington stands mounts Adams and Rainer; to our left Hood and Jefferson, four stratovolcanoes gleaming like scoops of snow white ice cream. All around are vast grain fields, herds of cattle and towering silos. But there are no roadsides or roadside attractions. We do see the occasional sway-backed, wood-planked derelict homesteads that, while sometimes making for poignant or evocative pictures, are about as common out West as small town backyard boneyards sporting old camper shells up on firewood rounds or wooden blocks.

Between us and the Columbia River some 65 miles ahead lies two towns. Condon (pop. 700), the seat of Gilliam Co., and Wasco (pop. 400), a shabby crossroads now being reborn as an equipment depot for the wind, grain, dairy and beef farmers. Condon is named after a man whose influence in Oregon is akin Luther Burbank’s influence in California: you learn about him in the 1st Grade. Here’s a wonderment: residents of Condon have won three Nobel Prizes. While the town has seen much better days, it’ll be there so long as the crops and the county are.

When we reach the crown of the highlands, we see the slow moving blades of the planet’s largest wind farm with its mills lining the gorge in scattered formations. Finally we can see the exact crease that hides the Columbia and we know we’re getting close. We’d come the long way mostly so we could cross back over the John Day at a place called Cottonwood Canyon. The site of a storied old 14,000 acre cattle ranch’s HQ with its own (long-gone) log bridge over the river, it’s now Oregon’s newest and largest State Park. As usual, there’s no hint of the canyon until we see a yellow highway sign warning of curves ahead backed by another highway sign with a silhouette of a truck heading down a 45 degree grade. Down and down we go. We cross over the ultra-modern, subtly banked and gracefully sweeping concrete blast-walled river bridge and stop at the State Park to eat our homemade picnic lunches, soak in the scenery and listen to the sun-loving songbirds. The canyon is very beautiful and its scale impressive, but about all the State has done is put in a RV parking lot, a little tent campground, made “people friendly” the riverside cattle trails, hung lotsa watch out for this and that signs and, fronting the park HQ and the city park-like Day Use Area, laid down a giant painted blacktop parking lot. The idea being that if you build a giant parking lot then cars and land-yachts will come and fill it up for you. As it was, we had the DUA/HQ all to ourselves (Park Rangers, whose love of nature is blasphemous, have gone the way of the Indians).

Although in their State Park brochure, and on their Official website, they advertise magnificent canyon top views with photographs, there are no parking lots, roads, designated trails, viewpoints or shaded picnic tables up on the rims. Since we’d been looking forward to strolling some up there, after enjoying our picnic, we split.

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In my bit “Dalles City” I described the 19th Century railroad baron named Sam Hill as being “fabulously rich and genuinely crazed.” I was wrong about him being genuinely crazed. Turns out Sam Hill was a Quaker pacifist and a progressive social visionary, which made him at least a little bit crazed but not genuinely so and not at all in a bad way. Visionaries are very goal-oriented—visions demand to be realized—and being real sociable is rarely one of their gifts (Rarely an item in anybody’s complimentary gift package, come to think of it). Then if you’re out, in some small way, to improve the sorry lot of humankind, then the cynics will think you’re a phony and the peasants will think you’ll bring them bad luck; you always poking your nose where it don’t belong and stirring up trouble. Besides, ain’t this here great country of ours greater than any other country in the whole history of countries? Well, ain’t it?

What passes for “Conservatism” is Traditionalism, and Traditionalism but ancestor worship: If it was good enough for our saintly grandpas and our saintly grandmas then . . . 

Then Sam Hill’s name threw me off: Didn’t that Harvard-educated child of the Enlightenment know that “Sam’s Hill” was the infamous cotton plantation located at the upcountry Georgia crossroad used by midnight ramblers to conjure the Devil so they can bargain away their souls in exchange for earthly treasures and battlefield glory? Didn’t the man know the original Sam Hill was a slave driver so wicked his place became a euphemism for Everlasting Hell?

We’re stopped on the shoulder of a country road on the Washington side of the Colombia. Hidden below is a little riverside settlement called Maryhill that’s edged with orchards of pink-flowered sweet cherry trees (the benchlands of the upper gorge are home to over 6,000 acres of sweet cherry trees). In the pasture directly below maybe twenty Black Angus steers are munching on the spring grass. Below them lies Sam Hill’s full-scale copy of Stonehenge, the afternoon slant of sunlight making its western perimeter glow white. Behind Stonehenge and across the river stretches a cliff topped with wedding cake rimrocks; beyond the defile a vast flattish yellow plain gently ascending into the deep blue sky. The river of life rolls on way down below, unheard and unseen.

Sam Hill’s Stonehenge isn’t meant to look like the real Stonehenge does today. Sam Hill’s copy looks like Stonehenge probably looked when it was brand-new; brand-new and before it fell into dishonor and ruin, its lesser stones scavenged, its reason for being lost to the ages. That Sam Hill’s Stonehenge looks new is very telling, I think, as are the expansive views of the river seen through its pillars arrayed like giant jail bars.

Sam Hill had set out to remember the war dead and he’d chosen Stonehenge as his edifice because, in his day, it was believed that the original had been used for ritual human sacrifices made to appease the Gods of War. In the modern world, the war dead represent the mortal sins of those who offer up sacrifices to false gods; the river symbolizes all they forsake.

Sam Hill was born in North Carolina’s Cape Fear country in 1856. In 1861, his Quaker Abolitionist family fled North at the start of the Civil War. It was a war so unnecessary, vicious and prolonged that even the European military observers were scandalized. Of course, the Europeans had no idea what they themselves would soon be in for, or how they’d make our friendly little outbreak of wholesale slaughter look like child’s play. At any rate, Sam Hill saw the Great War, and the USA’s participation in it, as “incredible folly.”

If Stonehenge was Sam Hill’s brainchild and he was the project’s principle financier, it was a community effort and, although its altar stone was dedicated in the summer of 1918, the monument wasn’t completed until 1929. The wording of the dedication quoted at the beginning of this story came out of an august committee of Substantial Local Personages, and I expect Sam Hill had to bite his tongue while hearing that flowery bit of romantic Royalist puffery being read aloud on Free American soil. After Sam Hill had moved on to bigger and better things, the newly formed American Legion, whose cornerstone idea was to wed God to the White Man’s USA, would soon make their presence felt on Mary’s Hill.

At the time of the dedication, only two Klickitat Co. boys had died in the Great War: one on the Western Front and the other when his ship got torpedoed off the coast of Scotland. Seeing how they were killed just a couple of months before the “end of hostilities,” I don’t think many more were added to the body count. Two is kind of a puny number to light the torch of everlasting inspiration for Generations Unborn, if you ask me. Another instance of all hat, no cattle. Then again, Sam Hill himself wasn’t out to inspire but to forewarn.

We’d spent six hours getting to Stonehenge, then a good hour loitering there, so we decided to cross back over to Biggs Junction, pick up I-84 west, hightail it the 20 miles downstream to The Dalles and then check into our motel room to get us some R&R before hitting downtown’s Baldwin Saloon for dinner and drinks. From Biggs Junction it’s a straight uphill shot back home to Prineville, so we’ll return manana to tour Sam Hill’s Art Museum before moseying on home.

FOOTNOTE: A Professor Campbell of UC’s famed Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton above San Jose positioned Stonehenge’s altar stone so that the summer solstice sunrise strikes it.

(Next: The Thinker)

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