March 22, 2007


Broken down, old cedar fences: testament to a will to tame the landscape. Once functional, their purpose was to divide and define a harsh and surely unforgivable place: the high desert in Central Oregon couldn't have been an easy place to live. The fences line the flat and dry swathes of land, separating one property from it's neighbors and creating personal space: a simple solution to the problem of boundaries in such a boundless territory.

The California gold rush of 1849 galvanized America's already in progress westward migration. The west was a frontier so vast and wild, but enticing incentives to inhabit land west of the Mississippi motivated young families and pioneers to leave the comparatively tame environment of the east and venture out into new places: promises to strike it rich were enough for many to pull up the stakes and head west.

I think of these parties traveling west on the Oregon Trail, or any of the overland routes that crossed the Intermountain West, as I drive east along the Columbia River to The Dalles, Oregon, the official End of the Oregon Trail. In 1849 alone, an estimated 30,000 people migrated from east to west; all told, over the course of about 25 years, at least 650,000 pioneers would make the journey, the majority heading to California and Oregon, and the rest to Montana, Colorado and Utah. I pass by the small, dilapidated and unassuming park on Union Street in The Dalles that marks the end of the road for many on their journey nearly everyday on my way to the house where I am landscaping. This historical landmark is signed by a very plain painted brown sign with yellow lettering, simple and functional I suppose, but it seems a bit lackluster for such an important jump-off point for so many who came west.

Once reaching The Dalles, until about 1845, the wagon trains had little choice but to make a raft of pine logs, buy a raft from enterprising Indians, or rent a bateaux from the Hudson's Bay Company for around $80 in order to penetrate the inhospitable Columbia River Gorge. From The Dalles, the parties had huge rapids to navigate, fierce and often relentless winds that frequently overturned their delicate craft, and one stretch of mandatory portages before reaching Fort Vancouver more than 70 miles downstream. Once at the Fort, a busy fur-trading company, the pioneers were persuaded to settle in the Willamette Valley, namely in Oregon City, Oregon’s first capital.

The Barlow Road—a toll road with a charge of $5.00 plus .10 for every head of cattle—was cut into the southern flanks of Mt. Hood in 1846, providing an alternate, if not particularly inviting, route to the Willamette Valley. One out of every four parties elected to risk drowning in the Columbia over battling 150 miles worth of treacherous road conditions and freezing rain, snow and ice while crossing the Cascades to reach Oregon City. It served as the only route from The Dalles to the western Oregon valleys until the early 20th century.

My fifth grade teacher had a computer game on floppy disk called “The Oregon Trail” that we used to play on Apple IIe’s. For 1985, this game was pretty high-tech and innovative. As leader of the wagon train, you had to plan, buy rations and supplies, deal with Indians, having to hunt and gather, or change the random broken axle on the party’s covered wagon for a major expedition, an undertaking that was actually quite challenging for the young mind.

I remember The Dalles place name from that game, vividly as if it were yesterday. The fact that I ended up living 20 miles away is slightly ironic; the fact that I know virtually nothing of this aspect of Oregon’s history after living here is slightly disturbing. Growing up in Idaho, I learned of Lewis and Clark everywhere I turned, as the very town I lived in was on the direct route. But thinking of the Oregon’s role in the settling of the West, I realize that it was an important destination back then; to know that there is such a disconnect from that time, such a dramatic departure, I can’t help but feel sad. Could such an important event in such an exciting time in the history of a young nation be forgotten so easily?

In the 4th grade, I won my school’s History Bee. My winning question was related to mining: “In which type of rock was the first gold discovered in Idaho?” The answer: Quartz. E.D. Pierce founded the very town I grew up in 1860 when he discovered the first gold in Idaho.

Traveling southwest on Highway 197 to Central Oregon, I try to imagine what it must have been like to be on one of those wagon trains only 150 years ago. Perhaps seeing the forbidding Cascades stretched out on the horizon, with snowcapped volcanoes, taller than anything around, looming in the distance was enough to want to make one settle in the comparatively mellow flatlands. The fence lines tell their story, and though the settlements have long been abandoned, they have survived.

The fences are rotting, burned in places. Cedar posts—I realize upon further investigation that they are actually juniper—are still in the shape of the tree from which they were cut.
They remind me that life here right now in the West is but one line in a long, long eventful script, that we are not the first characters here, and that our role is not even very important but perhaps falls somewhere in the middle of the dialogue. To separate ourselves into our own act, to focus only on what we are doing in the play, we are missing out on a huge part of the story—one from which we can learn a great deal about who we are, how people interacted with the landscape to make where we live what it is today, and how we might be able to improve upon how it was done the first time around.

Cresting the hill just before 197 intersects with Hwy. 97, I can see down into the Deschutes River Valley. Old homesteads dot the landscape, and I feel an inexplicable nostalgia settle into my bones. Driving on this paved road, in this comfy car to Smith Rock for a hard weekend of climbing—something that two hours ago felt like a big journey, an adventure—seems too easy. I give a nod of thanks to the miles and miles of old fencing, and think that perhaps it’s time to start living with a greater understanding of the bigger picture, learn more about the place I am in. Maybe it is finally time to start tearing down some of my own fences, as stubborn and solid as they are, and try to carve out my space here in a different way—one that is more open and accessible, that will weather the storm and survive the test of time better than these old fences have. Settling here now, now that the living is easy and comfortable might be more about letting the place settle me, letting the place teach me something about who I am and who I am to become.