Rural Ramblings – Fall 1978
Ralph C. Miller
Here I am, content – well almost – and that’s a curious admission for one who is a self-styled Rambler. It’s summer and Sunday here on my quiet creek (where every day can be Sunday or any other day you choose).
Perhaps part of the contentment stems from the fact that just six days have gone by since our latest return. We’ll get to the trip in a bit but here let me say that each journey seems to increase my appetite for the road home.
I’ve never said too much about this place we start from; perhaps I have the Chinese reluctance to speak of anything that pleases me lest I lose it. Although it could be age that hones my appreciation with each passing day on this place, this has been a notable Spring and early Summer. Not for the weather which has been ‘iffy’ at best, but with plenty of cool rain the vegetation has exploded and the fauna has been exceptional.
Only this morning four Great Blue Herons echeloned into the small (acre plus) pond that graces our front yard. But then bird life has been increasing here every year. Waterfowl and fishing birds, morning and evening birds, insect catchers, berry eaters. I’m not exactly a bird watcher per se but have always liked and encouraged the feathered kingdom. If Johnny Ball will forgive me, I even enjoy the kingfishers that share my fish.
After being an infrequent visitor the last two years, a beaver has moved back into the pond. He has a burrow straight across from the house. Although there are three small ponds they built just up the creek, the beavers have been gone for years until this Spring.
There are many deer and an occasional black bear in the woods about here. The elk and mountain lions stay up at the higher levels, but we see a porcupine, a red fox or an opossum now and again. Bull frogs and mud turtles have lately returned to the pond; crawdads and salamanders have always shared it with our bass and bluegills. I am much encouraged and, although properly humble, take some pride in the thought that I may have had something to do with creating the atmosphere that brought them back.
I am well aware that there are predators and nuisances among the animal kind. I have lost poultry to Great Horned Owls, hawks sometimes kill my quail, Robins and Waxwings eat my berries; I would gladly do without the gophers, shrews and moles, but if I must take the bad to have the good I will. A Shrike or a Starling is more than made up for by a visit from the Osprey, the Western Tanager or the great Pileated Woodpecker.
Too great an emphasis on Ecology is not natural. Conservation to me should be an attempt to restore and maintain balance. Somehow I can’t shed as many tears as I perhaps should over the passing of the Snail Darter or the Blackfooted Ferret. (I’ve never seen either one.) I’m against destroying just for destruction’s sake as we did with the Passenger Pigeon and very nearly the Buffalo. At the same time I’m moderately pleased that we don’t have to contend with the Pterodactyl, the Tyranosaurus or the Sabre-Toothed Tiger. Mother Nature has eliminated her share of the species over the eons.
Taking a fish, killing game, even butchering our own animals and poultry for food – all these like death itself are in the natural order if carried out with consideration and respect for the species. There is no life without death. The danger lies in wanton destruction or in killing in an attempt to prove some obscure point of honor or manhood.
Enough of that, my berries are ripening and flowers are in bloom, to the intense satisfaction of Bob Lee’s honey bees and the innumerable hummingbirds that condescend to share the largess with me. There are roses in my garden and I am content – almost. Roses are an exceptional pleasure to me – unalloyed – almost.
Of all the roses the wild rose of the roadsides was first and still my favorite. A close second in time of recollection and its place in my heart would be the old-fashioned roses, particularly those that have gone wild, usually around abandoned farms. And that is the source of my ‘almost,’ the thorn of the rose.
Abandoned farms – houses – country homes disturb me; always have since as a boy I ever walked past four deserted places on my way to school. Of all the troubling things about them the most poignant were the roses still blooming, gone wild, mute evidence of the tenuous dream.
We acquire land with high hopes; perhaps fearfully but still with those aspirations. We first provide shelter and plant, then build more permanently – a home, fences, outbuildings, but we hunger for something more, an evidence of our stability, some bit of beauty to convince ourselves of permanence. We plant roses.
Roses on the abandoned farm; not just a testament to one man’s failure but a living reminder of the death of a dream. In a small clearing in the valley across the road a clump of Baby Sweetheart Roses still grow. I bought this place after a fire that burned an abandoned house and its clearing some eight years past. When I had completed the new house a half dozen old fashion roses came up from the roots. I cherish them still, as I do those I have planted but they make me vaguely uneasy. They remind me gently that contentment is an impermanent condition. By the time we have paid all the premiums the guarantee has run out.
Speaking of borrowed time, last Summer we planned a trip up to British Columbia with a couple who are long time friends and traveling companions. It would have been the last, we felt, as she was desperately ill. ‘Terminal’ said many doctors, including a Stanford medical team. In the end we didn’t go.
I stand in awe and wonder of miracles for so I would categorize her experience. I know no other way to explain it. She is well again past belief; so well that at her insistence we took the trip just lately in celebration.
They joined us from Eureka, California and we all went North. To Puget Sound first then East through the Cascades to the Columbia at Wenatchee. Far up the valleys on Highway 97 to Kamloops where we turned West and South again to Vancouver, B.C. and the islands of the Sound.
Although we passed through a couple of fine canyons this was more a trip of river valleys, starting with our own Willamette to Portland. The interstate runs downstream along the mighty Columbia some 50 miles to Kelso, Washington and after that we traveled with or crossed many of the Indian rivers. To say them is like a roll of the tribes: the Toutle, the Cowlitz, the Chehalis and the Skookumchuck. The Nisqually feeds into the Sound at Olympia. There were others to come but we elected to spend the night in Seattle – West Seattle. How were we to know that a Puget Sound Pilot with nearly 30 years experience had recently rammed and disabled one-half the only bridge that crosses that part of the inlet. Ah, well – delays are a part of rambling.
Next morning we laid in a generous supply of fruit and cheese at the famed Pike Market and headed for Monroe, some 20-odd miles Northeast. We were seeking a park to spread our picnic but came first to the Evergreen Fairgrounds (Home of the Annual Draft Horse Extravaganza). One lone picnic table in cool shade, fresh water and an obliging groundskeeper led to a delightful late breakfast. We were at least a month and a half early for the extravaganza so we decided not to wait.
Another swift river, the Skykomish guided us up through the Cascades. Over 4000 foot Stevens Pass with snow capped peaks rising to 8000 feet all around. Waterfalls and alpine scenes were everywhere. Down the Eastern Slope the river was the wild Wenatchee in full spate. Before long the scenery changed. Fir became pine, then gave way to pasture, farms and eventually much arid country rose just behind the green belt next to the river.
From Wenatchee the Columbia led us to the mouth of the Okanogan (spelled Okanagan above the border). Highway 97 follows that river all the way to Vernon, B.C. where it climbs through lake and timber to drop once more into a river valley at Kamloops. This time it’s the Thompson which would eventually join the Fraser to lead us to the Sound.
It was a scorcher of an evening in Kamloops, so after dinner we ‘restoreth our souls’ in their shady city park beside the broad river. We spent the night up on the bluff and next morning I rose early to cross the road to the designated viewpoint there. “Fur, Gold and Cattle settled Kamloops,” said the sign posted at the point. There is no longer much evidence of the first two but, judging by the size and splendor of the new ‘Cattleman’s Inn’ in the downtown district, cattle are still a big item.
The road, Trans-Canada 1 and 97 combined, runs West by a little North to Cache Creek where 97 turns North again toward Prince George and eventual junction with the Alcan Highway. Our way led South down 1 to the Fraser River.
Along with the Okanogan Valley I guess the Fraser River Canyon was my reason for setting our route that way. It was my first visit to a part of British Columbia I had heard much of and I was not disappointed. A good highway for the most part although we did spend a pleasant half-hour chatting with two Dutch families as part of a mile long parking line. We were about fourth in line so as soon as the highway workers finished cleaning the rubble they had blasted out of the wall of the canyon we were off again. Hell’s Gate was cold, wet and so windy that we decided to forgo the Tram trip to the bottom but it was spectacular enough for anyone even from the top. I left with a healthy respect for Simon Fraser and those other intrepid souls who first fought their way up or down that canyon.
We got to Vancouver without incident, crossed next day on the ferry to Nanaimo then down Vancouver Island to Victoria. This is the 200th anniversary of Captain Cook’s historic voyage of exploration around the Sound. (His two Lieutenants were George Vancouver and a certain William Bligh who would later have his moment in history in the South Pacific.)
We scheduled our ferry trip to the mainland through the San Juan Islands to Anacortes. I’ve had that idea on hold for a long time and it was well worth it. The sunset in the islands is worth five stars alone. Along with that every little tug we saw pushing a barge or towing an enormous raft of logs took me right back to my days as an ardent ‘Tugboat Annie’ fan. I think I read every one of Norman R. Raine’s stories. They came alive again amid the Islands.
It rained most of the way home next day but it hardly dampened our enthusiasm. More especially since the way led back to this house beside the pond.
So far, I have been talking of the trip in general. I can’t or won’t let it go without the Small Farm viewpoint but have chosen to get to that here in summary. Of Oregon and coastal Washington I have reported before. Beyond that much of the terrain was new to me except around Vancouver and Victoria. Up the Skykomish was like other trips into the Cascades although I always love it. Lush, fertile farms, many orchards here as later.
King County (Seattle’s own) has taken a leaf from British Columbia and is attempting not only to keep Agricultural Lands inviolate but is also, I understand, providing assistance to keep the farmers solvent and on the farm – even to helping new ones start. That should influence Snohomish County as well. (Skykomish, Snohomish, Snoqualmie – I said I love those names.)
Down the Wenatchee the orchards grow more numerous extending all the way up the Columbia and the Okanogan. I like fruit – the Washington Delicious apple is justly famed and they raise pears, cherries, apricots and other fruits as well. The orchards – beautifully cared for, the valley floor along the rivers is very fertile and I’m sure they raise exceptional crops. However…!
This is a horse I’ve ridden before; I hope not to monotony. When you and virtually every neighbor for hundreds of miles along the valleys are raising the same thing – a totally cash crop – you are not only mining the soil you are also at the mercy of the market. When you have a bumper harvest so does everyone else and the buyer, shipper and packer set the price you must take or leave.
If the market is up it is because your crop is down. I think I’d at least have a few hogs to eat the surplus fruit. Stuffed pork chops with applesauce might help the pain of a falling market.
If I have my facts straight some thousands of years ago a great glacier ground down this central valley of British Columbia and Washington pushing dirt and rock before it. When it halted, retreated and eventually melted it left a dammed up lake larger than any in North America. When the waters finally rose high enough to cut through, a tremendous deluge carried everything before it on its way to the sea. Those fertile valley floors were the old lake bottoms, the steep hillsides and cliffs were the banks. Over the thousands of years since, wind and water have continued to eat away until there is almost no topsoil when you get above the valley. At least not until you get up on the plateau above.
Above the border it is much the same except I perceive it as more settled and with garden and truck crops relieving the interminable orchards. It’s a real ‘banana belt’ and they must have had better weather than we did. They’re at least 600 miles North of us yet their gardens looked to be about four weeks ahead of ours.
Farther up the valley becomes very Alpine. That’s not an original thought as every other building is a chalet. The lakes below the forested peaks are post card scenes. Gorgeous, but not quite real. There are farms along these middle reaches but they are more infrequent.
Of the entire Okanogan/Okanagan Valley my feelings are mixed. Parts of it impressed me but I think I prefer it where they spell it with all a’s. I missed connections with our frequent contributors, the Eagles of Chesaw, and so did not get up on the Highlands where they live. I understand it is much different up there. Not having been under the ancient lake or felt the effects of so much erosion would make a real difference.
I liked the higher land between the Okanagan and Thompson, some fine small farms near Falkland, and the river bottom near Kamloops ran to cattle mostly. After we left Kamloops however, the road climbed the side for many miles. There was scattered timber but so much was open land, unfenced and I wondered why it wasn’t grazed.
Not for long – I soon saw that every depression held stagnant water ringed by the white of alkali. Enough soda in some to poison a whole herd. Fortunately that gave way to sweet water country, good grazing, a few fine farms.
Fraser Canyon for the most part is too steep for farming but below Hope – another postcard setting – the land flattens and the farms are a delight to the eye. Tight fences, good barns with silos, cows grazing hock deep in the meadows. Appropos of the silos, I was noting them for some time before I saw any corn. I wondered if they ensiled only hay but corn fields did appear in time. I’m sure the farmers along this span (150 kilometers from Hope to Vancouver) have a large and ready market for their product. Many were dairies.
Lots of woodland on Vancouver Island but many diversified farms as well, particularly around Duncan and the peninsula above Victoria. Beef and dairy cows in about equal numbers grazing in the same field makes a lot of sense to me. ‘Eggs in baskets or strings to a bow,’ I believe in diversity. What pasture land I saw on the San Juans was fenced but fairly dry and sparse I thought, perhaps overgrazed. That may be an unfair judgement as I didn’t get off the ferry anywhere.
Only 10 years ago our Northwest cities were pristine and thriving. They’re still growing but Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria are showing signs of strain. Victoria still has much going for it but the tell-tale omens are there; freeways, too many cars, shopping centers and a ‘little haze’ that looks suspiciously like the beginnings of smog.
Enough gloom for the moment. I’m not what you could call a pessimist; rather a WARY optimist. Along with ‘Tugboat Annie’ another of my favorite characters in short story land was the ‘Widow Duck’ in Roark Bradford’s tales of ‘Little Bee Bend Plantation.’ A stout black woman of uncertain age with a tremendous love of life and shrewd common sense, she was social arbitrator, confidant and counselor for the problems of the bayou country.
One of her favorite aphorisms (and mine) was, “Be not disencouraged, Soul; God will change conditions.” I am not disencouraged. I wait behind my pond, content – almost.