Rural Ramblings – Fall 1977
Ralph C. Miller
In R.F. Delderfield’s sweeping novel of the 19th Century, “God is an Englishman,” the returning soldier about to enter civilian life after years abroad chooses to acquire a horse and ride across his homeland as a means to acclimate himself and to rediscover England. I was reminded of that this past week when I met a picturesque young horseman with pack, canteen and bedroll tied to the saddle. Both he and his four-legged partner looked the worse for the miles they had obviously travelled, but his wave was hearty and the smile was undimmed. I’ve learned since that he was Rick Steber, a columnist who writes “Oregon Country.” They (he and the horse) were nearing the end of a 400 mile trek around the odd corners of the Willamette Valley.
Unlike Adam Swann of the novel, Rick Steber is not laying the groundwork for a freighting empire, but in essence the desire to see the country close up and to get the feel of the people is parallel. (Oh yes, another difference; when I saw him Steber was leading the horse – and they were both limping.)
I brought this up here because I have long felt that I would like to see the whole country that way; from the back of a horse or the seat of a wagon. If I were thirty years younger! As it is, I keep traveling by more conventional modes.
I do have a couple of slightly offbeat trips to talk about. I had an occasion to go south to Santa Barbara on family business early in June. My usual traveling companion was not making the journey, but it was at her suggestion that I rode the train – the Amtrak, and for the first time since about 1947.
I had forgotten the feeling one gets of being almost stationary, suspended in time while the day and the country flow past. If you’re in a hurry, as I so often seem to be for no valid reason, the train is hardly the answer. But to see the country, almost as close up as our friends on horseback – if you can, I recommend that you try it.
I’ve been up and down this coast so many times I feel I know exactly what’s around the next corner. I often find myself comparing this year’s crop to what was grown in a particular field last year. Or from the plane – well, it’s just a familiar topographical map where I know to the minute when the pilot will come on the intercom to call our attention to Mt. Shasta under our wing tip.
But this time it was all different. That was the beauty of it. You make essentially the same trip, but with an added dimension. You are seeing things from a different angle. Even when the track parallels a familiar road you have the feeling that you are standing off watching yourself go by; then in minutes you are off across the countryside with a whole new vista opening up.
It began when I went to the station, a section of town I seldom get to (when was the last time you went to watch the train come in?). Then out through country where I have lived and it was like coming home after many years to find familiar things changed around. We went up into the Cascades, wound around so much that the sun was sometimes setting in the east.
The trees are the main crop here, magnificent, mainly fir on the western slope with pine and juniper taking over on the other side. Cattle are infrequent, but their place is filled by the grazing deer. This isn’t exactly farm news, but if I get crops and animals in I can use it as an excuse for sharing my joy in the wilderness. Any railroad or tunnel buff ought to make the trip from Eugene to Klamath Falls at least once. Somewhere between 15 and 25 tunnels I judged! Lost count.
Out of pity for those who have never seen our Northwestern mountains I won’t dwell on them further. I think after God made the Cascades he must have stopped making mountains, feeling he’d never improve on this batch.
Long after the sun had slipped to its rightful place in the Pacific we came into Klamath Falls. I was amazed again at how different a familiar place looks when seen from a train. The tracks still follow the old right-of-ways, the stations are from out of the past, as are the neighborhoods they inhabit. There are no McDonald’s Hamburgers, no Holiday Inns; you keep expecting to see a Model-T Ford or a horse-drawn dray down to meet the train. If time hasn’t exactly stood still along the rails, it has dawdled somewhere. I found it restful.
The Klamath Basin on both sides of the Oregon-California border is cattle and hay country. The rising moon revealed some part of the damage brought on by last winter’s lack of rain. I don’t think the area has been as hard hit as is true a little further east, but any drought is bad news to farms and ranches.
We weren’t done with the mountains yet as we came to our old landmark, Shasta. I didn’t know where the railway ran there and I still don’t. I know we crossed the flank of the mountain much higher up than the highway. I could see the snow shining on the 14-thousand-foot peak, but I couldn’t orient myself until we pulled into Dunsmuir at the bottom of the canyon. I don’t sleep well on trains or planes, but I catnapped my way from there along the Sacramento River until we spilled out into the broad valley around Red Bluff. Somewhere there we passed into grazing country. Wide spreading live oaks scattered through the pastures – it was beautiful, but disturbing. Even in the bright moonlight it looked dusty. It may have been coincidence, but I saw two horses standing in the shade of a tree at 3:30 in the morning.
In the rosy dawn the Sierra Nevada lay faint and far away. I recalled the mother of a friend who never grew reconciled to that sight, although she lived 40 miles out in the valley and saw the mountains only on clear days. She said she always felt shut in. She was raised in central Kansas.
There were no flocks of the usual ducks and too many of the rice fields down the valley were sun-cracked weed patches. Not even Agribusiness and the Bureau of Reclamation can command the weather. All the way down through fields of grain, nuts, fruit and vegetable crops the drought was evident to greater or less degree. Here and there they still seemed to have some water for irrigating. We passed through Steinbeck country midway between “The Long Valley” and “Cannery Row.” That put us in the middle of the artichokes at Castroville. As an artichoke fancier I hope they make a crop, but they looked a little stunted to me.
The railroad and the highway weave back and forth, now on one side, then on the other. Where there was water the green was startling, standing out against the parched landscape. At Pismo Beach the train leaves the highway and heads down near the ocean, past Vandenburg‘s stark gantries (awaiting the space shuttle) and around the great bight of land culminating in Point Conception. As many times as I have been in the area much of that was new to me. I believe that some of those holdings on the south coast are the original “Estancias” of the Spanish grants. Except for the railroad, John Fremont might still feel at home there.
It was a long trip, nearly 23 hours, but worth it. When I first saw California 40 years ago it was to me the Golden Land of Stewart Edward White and Helen Hunt Jackson. What we have done to so much of it is in essence what we have done to so much of America in those same 40 years. I enjoyed some of the backwaters where the damage is not yet so apparent.
Maybe it isn’t always true that “Small is beautiful,” but even when it isn’t, it’s so much less obnoxious than the concentrated ugliness of the unfettered cancer called progress. One thought in passing: Side by side in Washington are the Department of Labor-Employment and Human Resources, decrying the lack of jobs for hungry Americans; the Department of Justice and H.U.D. in despair over crime and squalor in our congested, decaying cities; and the Department of Agriculture (so-called) advocating Agribusiness, bigger holdings, bigger machines and a speedy end to those practices they term as waste – diversified farming, crop rotation and the Small Family Farm. Ironical, ain’t it?
The other day I ran across the quote from William Jennings Bryan, so much derided when I was young: “Burn down your cities and leave our farms and your cities will spring up like magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in America.” That ought to be emblazoned over every door in Washington if it’s not already too late. There are tenement and slum sections in our major cities that won’t even grow grass, let alone people. The panacea of every sociologist, every politico, every expert is produce more, faster, in bigger factories – with less labor while people flock to the lure of these human slag heaps like moths to flame. Move them back to the farm, subsidized if necessary, and watch the crime and welfare diminish. And the young people would be too busy and too interested to raise Hell.
Leave that for now. Let’s return to a balmier day. The year was 1946. With my bride of months I was living in Havana when we took a trip (also by train) far out in Pinar Del Rio province of western Cuba. Our goal was a small village where we were to be guests of a Cuban lady of our acquaintance. We got into the unlighted and sleeping town long after nightfall.
We were wakened at first light by a distant, persistent noise. A squeak? No, a squeal, or say a screech. Slowly, so slowly it grew louder – it was approaching, or was it? Yes, definitely nearer and louder and more ear-shattering.
It wasn’t animal, surely; nothing living could sustain that tortured scream so long. Rising and falling, but always louder and closer, closer, now right outside our windowless wall; it’s passing, it’s past and then – silence! I couldn’t stand it, the silence was more piercing than the noise. I tiptoed through the shop that fronted the building and peered through the blinds. The street was straight out of an old Western and tied to the hitch rail a half block away was the offender. A span of oxen yoked to a cart; the identical cart mentioned by Richard Henry Dana in “Two Years Before the Mast.” If not the same one, then an accurate facsimile complete with the handmade, wobbly wooden wheels. Those wheels had unceasingly protested their turning since they were made, undoubtedly, and just as surely their protests had not been heeded. This was one case where the squeaking wheel had not gotten the grease. The carter had to have been inhuman – or deaf.
Which brings me to the other recent trip I mentioned and to the offbeat conveyance. I drove Bill MacFarlane’s ox team hitched to a manure spreader. Enjoyable in its way, but I’m not ready to reverse the Oregon Trail in that.