We named the U-Haul truck Pinkham because the Believe-It-Or-Not graphic on the side was all about Mt. Washington in northeast New Hampshire and the ferocious winds at its summit. “Highest ever recorded wind speed: 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934.”
“Pinkham” comes from Pinkham Notch, the best-known trailhead for hiking Mt. Washington. It was also the finish line for the American Inferno, a famously terrifying, top-to-bottom ski race there in the leather-boot Thirties.
Ellen and I were terrified. It was early December, and the time had come to move everything from our under-contract Colorado house to our new home in Bend, Oregon. We hadn’t accumulated that much stuff, we said to each other, hopefully. Maybe we can get away with a 14-foot truck. The U-Haul place in Montrose had 14- and 17-footers. The agent then showed me a 20-footer and I took it, falling prey to a sudden vision of furniture triage on the driveway.
Good thing, because we packed Pinkham to the gills, with organizing and rope-tying help from a friend who had earned the rank of Eagle Scout. After three days, Boulder Rock was a nearly empty shell, walls bare, echoing concrete floors, largely devoid of our 15 years there. Ellen and I were both grateful for a non-stop, worker-bee haze that kept the swells of nostalgia from breaking into tears.
We didn’t get away until late on day three. Rolling north beneath the threat of rain, we made it only as far as Grand Junction, where we stopped for the night. It was important we cover some ground, any amount of ground, Ellen said. Strike out toward our new lives, even if it was just 75 miles.
The arrival of our stuff to Bend Corners 1,100 miles later transfigured a modest 1950s, one-bath bungalow in which we had struggled to feel at home. We sensed the change in spite of the stacks of packing boxes, the piles of rolled up rugs, the chaos in the garage. That first night we lit a fire in the fireplace. It started with kindling of split lodgepole pine from rounds I had cut earlier in the fall above Bend.
Nesting, for me, goes beyond a house to the landscape. I need to hover my mind’s eye above a place to see how the terrain works, what shapes the mountains and rivers take. The view I need is akin to – maybe even the result of – a well-known painting my uncle Hal Shelton did in the 1960s for Colorado Ski Country USA. In it he looks down and west across the entire mountainous half of the state from what would be – I don’t know – 60,000 feet up in a balloon. Not that anyone had ever done such a thing. But he imagined it, and painted it from that perspective, with all of the state’s 30-some ski areas showing as tiny white carvings into the forested Front Range, the Park Range, the Elk Range, and so on.
It really helped me this fall to get up high above Tumalo Creek, where I found the lodgepole, to look east over the Deschutes River Valley at the myriad volcanic buttes and cones and grown-over lava flows. Cascades volcanism is the force of record here. Some of the eruptions happened as recently as a few thousand years ago, after humans had migrated into the area. Chainsaw in hand, I marveled at the speed with which soils had o’er topped the eroding lava, and at the forests of big trees that sprang up out of that soil. I’m getting old in a place so geologically young.
Ellen nests differently. She had been more uncomfortable, more lost, in an unfinished remodel, with only a few dishes, a couch from Costco, and an Aero bed to sleep on. “I know it’s shallow,” she said, only half believing the critique, “but I need my stuff. I need it around me to feel we’ve really made the move.”
I added a stick to the fire. It was a piece of hardwood from Alabama. Our son-in-law Mike, whose family lives in Birmingham and Huntsville, had bequeathed his woodpile to us when he and Cecily moved from Colorado three years ago. He didn’t know for sure what kind of wood it was – pecan maybe, or some kind of elm? He got it from his father, who had driven out for a visit with a load of good ‘Bama hardwood as a housewarming gift.
I filled the last few cubic feet in Pinkham’s hold with firewood from Boulder Rock’s woodpile. That hardwood, driven from Alabama to Colorado to Oregon, had additional meaning. Mike’s mother died only a few days before our move, exiting finally, gracefully, from a decades-long death match with cancer.
As Ellen and I stared into the embers, we felt other presences. Out of the maze-like clutter she had already retrieved a few crucial items. One was my mother’s sculpture “Walking Figures.” Carved from a two-foot cube of walnut, a woman guides a just-learning-to-walk child with such warmth of action real children often walk up and hug it.
Also coming out of the boxes were a brace of table lamps with cut crystal bases, given to us by Ellen’s mother, a child of Polish immigrants who valued, keenly, the fine things she was able to afford. And the ingenious bag-drying rack my father made in his wood shop and gave to us years before it became de rigueur to wash and reuse Ziploc bags.
And the pillows Ellen had sewn from sections of worn oriental rugs my dad’s parents brought home from a train trip to Russia in the 1930s. A trip that, even though my father was just 13 at the time, later prevented him from getting a job at the State Department during the paranoid McCarthy years. “Material things,” Ellen again chided herself, chided our neediness. “But they are our heritage, our history, our family. It’s who we are.”
I placed a chunk of sweet-smelling juniper onto the fire. Cut on our Colorado property to make way for the house at Boulder Rock, the juniper flared and lit the living room at Bend Corners. The added light illuminated a painting by Uncle Hal that had survived the journey and that we’d leaned, temporarily, against the wall. It’s a large watercolor, a wedding present 40 years ago. Hal painted most of his landscapes in finely rendered acrylics. (He was also a mapmaker.) This one is much looser. It recreates a backlit mountain meadow with the sun just out of the frame behind a spruce tree and light shooting in all directions. The highlights are particularly blinding on stalks of late-season grasses, white-gold beyond the spruce shadow in which the viewer finds himself. Cozy for the first time in months, Ellen and I stared into the scene as if for the first time.
Ellen and I just returned from a month in Bend, Oregon, a month spent tearing the insides out of a downtown 1950s bungalow, and sleeping in the guest room at daughter Cloe’s place. She and her husband, Adam, and the two grandkids are the big reasons we’re moving to Bend. They’re all for it. They’re cheerleading the transition and helping to facilitate it, not least with Adam’s skill as a builder.
Yesterday an old friend asked how it felt to be back home, and the question stopped me. Cue Firesign Theatre’s faux-vaudevillian tune: “Oh, how can you be in two places at once, when you’re not anywheeeere at all?” Wasn’t there a Superman episode in which the Man of Steel desperately needs to be in two places at the same time, and he somehow pulls off the trick of self-division, but his superpowers are compromised? I think he tried to bust through a wall and hurt his shoulder.
Can a person have more than one home? Western Colorado has been our home for 38 years. Ellen and I, with Cloe in the oven, moved to Telluride in July 1976, just in time for the state’s centennial and the country’s bicentennial celebrations. We have moved twice since, to Ridgway in 1981 and then, in 1999, to this house, redundantly named Boulder Rock, as is the family custom, in a nearly empty valley south of Montrose. The San Juans are practically part of our DNA.
We didn’t consciously think of Boulder Rock as the last house we would ever live in, but we put everything we had into it. The design grew out of an intense, detailed, almost psychiatric collaboration, and the construction crew yielded at least two fond friendships. The house is unique, organic to its hill, personal to the point of eccentricity. The kitchen/dining area was designed around a table made for us, out of Oregon maple, as it happens, by my Uncle R.C. The fireplace we patterned after kitchen hearths we’d seen in France. Every one of the 33 windows and doors frames a view, either close in or grand, that was considered, imagined, with Ansel Adams-like focus. Ellen has said many times to me, whether I deserved the credit or not, “Thank you for building me my dream house.”
On our first night back from Oregon I lay in bed listening to the silence, one of Boulder Rock’s sensual luxuries. Toward morning coyotes yipped somewhere in the mile-wide dish of sage and hay. Bend is not nearly so quiet. It is a small city of 80,000, the biggest town in central Oregon, at the timbered edge of the desert and the Cascade Range. A handful of trains and their signature whistles rumble through every day, though the city’s history as a sawmill town – giant smokestacks on either side of the river – is mostly past. Now the vibe is closer to hipster Brooklyn with a lot of Northwest grunge thrown in. Crunchy hipsters, as it were, really nice folks for the most part, and commensurately happy. Lot of happy people in Bend. It is, of course, chockablock with breweries, coffee roasters, kayakers, mountain bikers, retirees, and kids going to Central Oregon Community College or the local branch of Oregon State University. Our aging hippie realtor described several properties in the neighborhoods we favored as “within walking distance of the Ten Barrel.”
Hipsters share the meandering Deschutes River, dammed into a series of “mirror ponds” through town, with a full compliment of carpenters and cooks, plumbers, electricians, dry-wallers, clerks, entrepreneurs, artists and ski instructors who have worked Bend’s growth surge over the last few decades. It reminds me a bit of Boulder: smaller, with a river running through it, a little less self-important, and without a Denver next door. Portland is four hours away over the range.
Sometimes I think this move is the stuff of madness. We’re too old to take on such a complete relocation, pulled up at the roots. Are we running away from something? Something unnamed and, apparently, unexamined? Is this some sort of delayed mid-life crisis? (I just read, and felt an uncomfortable identification with, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, “The Crack-Up,” in which he describes with a kind of romantic horror his own breakdown, at age 40, laying bare the “finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”)
But then I think, no, this is a forward progression. New momentum. Change is good, an essential preventative against the hardening of the soul’s arteries. We’re going to be close to family, three generations together, even if that comes at a cost of friends and familiar patterns. Energetic, bike-able, one-story Bend, we are convinced, will be a great place for the “fourth quarter.”
It doesn’t quite feel like home, yet. After a month, with that house stripped to the studs and this one rather urgently on the market, it’s no wonder we feel a near-constant frisson. No, it’s worse than that; it’s like having bees live in your head. We’re calling the new place Bend Corners. Maybe, as a Paonia friend suggested, it should be Bent Corners?
My circadian clock is still on Oregon time. I can’t go to sleep until an hour after I should, but I wake up, as always, at first light. I lie in bed thinking about the roof framing in the new place and where the wood stove and its double-wall pipe will go. The 2×6 rafters and 1×10 sheathing they used in 1950, the year after I was born, is beautiful lumber, probably milled right in Bend, the kind of straight, clear heart boards you don’t see at Home Depot.
I can’t lie still for long, however, because of the bluebirds. They’re up at first light, too. And they start in right away banging against the bedroom windows. This is no gentle rapping. (Both Hitchcock and Poe have come up in conversation.) Angry birds, a nesting pair, hurl themselves one after the other against the glass – so hard you would think they’d knock themselves out.
Google tells us they are attacking their own reflections – stubbornly, pointlessly, thinking them to be rivals for the territory they’ve chosen.
One of the last times I drove Bailey, our 1977 Jeep pickup, I headed up Buckhorn Road to scout for oak firewood. I hadn’t gone two miles though, when I noticed wisps of smoke emanating from beneath the hood. I pulled over and popped the latch to find a squirrel’s nest, made up mostly of stripped juniper bark, blazing away atop the engine block. (more…)
Ironically, or prophetically, Randy Udall wrote a column a couple of years ago for the Aspen Times in which he described the disappearance of a much-loved local carpenter. (more…)
Sears, Roebuck and Company “Modern Homes” get most of the ink. But Montgomery Ward, Sears’ Chicago-based competitor and predecessor, actually, in the mail-order catalogue business, sold kit homes, too, something like 25,000 of them between the years 1909 and 1932.
I found one a couple of miles out the Dry Creek Valley east of Ridgway, a four-gable, white clapboard place at the edge of the irrigated hay fields. (more…)
One. Nevada. A few miles from the California line, heading into the setting sun on U.S. 6, I have to put my hand up in front of my eyes occasionally, so bright is the starflash on the windshield.
Signs have warned, wordlessly in silhouette, of horses on the highway, (more…)
I came into the breakfast room at the Best Western motel in Burley, Idaho, to find seven FedEx drivers eating biscuits and gravy and fiddling with their hand-held devices.
We were all stranded. (more…)
The long drive back to Colorado last week on U.S. 6 & 50 seemed extra desolate because we had just deposited our daughter and grandson at their new digs in Bishop, Calif., 800 lonely miles from us at Boulder Rock.
Our reluctance to leave them manifested in unsubtle ways. Ellen “lost” her sunglasses, delaying our departure, and I threw my back out (I really did) – trying to dust some crumbs off a chair – making it “hard” for me to drive us away.
But drive we did, and our route across the Great Basin, through a string of familiar small towns, got us thinking about their fates. Why had some withered to semi-ghost towns while others seemed to be doing better? And why does one place in the middle of Utah appear as if from an episode from The Twilight Zone, or maybe Andy Griffith’s Mayberry?
Just shy of the Nevada border, in a sweeping alluvial basin at the base of Boundary Peak, Benton Station, née Benton Hot Springs, requires a slowdown to 45 mph, but there is hardly reason. The census says the population is 280. But there is nothing there save a few cottonwoods and an abandoned gas station. West of the intersection with Route 120 sits what’s left of the old gold and silver boomtown. We stopped in one time to check out the only occupied structure, a hot-springs B&B. Sprinklers were shooting hot water across the lawn. The proprietress was friendly, but it was the wrong time of day to take a room, and we were close enough to our destination not to need to.
Maybe that was part of Benton’s demise, we guessed: the railroad is gone; the highways are too good now, and cars too fast. What was once a logical stop between Bodie and Bishop is not even a quarter tank away from more obvious destinations.
Next came Tonopah, where we stopped for breakfast. Tonopah’s stated population is 2,478, down about 200 from a decade ago and down many thousands from its heyday as a silver camp in the early 1900s. The kid who was trying to work the cash register at Subway apologized: “Morning’s not my thing,” he said, groggy.
The whole town seems to be asleep atop its dirt-dry hill. Untreated mine tailings press in from all sides. The last big employer, the Department of Energy’s Tonopah Test Range, known as Area 52, where they used to test the reliability of aging nuclear warheads, is closed. Howard Hughes married Jean Peters in Tonopah, but that was a long time ago.
Another 150 miles along, Ely, Nev., is doing somewhat better. Our favorite restaurant, the Red Apple, was shuttered, for sale. And the Hotel Nevada, with its stuffed rattlesnakes in the lobby, its dusty prospector dioramas and singing slot machines and cigarette smoke, only seem more desperate in midday.
But Ely does have an operating gold mine nearby. Cyanide heap leach. Tailings piles a mile long. On the way west we had stopped for breakfast at the Silver State Café, and our neighbors in the turquoise vinyl booths drove new pickups and looked like they might be mine engineers.
Approaching Delta, Utah, an old pickup pulled out behind us. In the mirror I saw it was filled with teenage boys, three in the front, an undetermined number in back, at least one of them sitting up on the side rail. Bare, skinny arms. Short hair. Rambunctious smiles.
The gas was cheap, $3.39/gallon versus the $4.09 in California. Downtown was neat as a pin, the streets so wide (by Brigham Young’s order) you could turn an eight-horse wagon around without having to back up.
Delta is surrounded by corn eight feet tall and green as Ireland. They’re going to get good prices this year, we thought, given the shriveling heat wave in the Midwest.
Green River, population 973, is not green. Except for the melon patches down by the river. We stopped to get a couple of cantaloupes from Dunham’s stand, and for the juicy hamburgers at Ray’s Tavern, just about the only place open on a main street ravaged by abandonment. First the railroad abandoned them, in 1892, when they moved their operations up to Helper, Utah. Then the US Air Force came and went with its missile launch site that closed down in 1973. Then Interstate 70 bypassed the old downtown, inspiring truck stops at either off ramp, but little else. It now seems as if the melons and the river-running crowd are the only things keeping the place alive.
Nancy Dunham, 77, has hopes for a live-music series that could draw folks from Salt Lake City, the way bluegrass and jazz bring visitors to Telluride. But, standing in the wind and dust, it seems like a long shot.
Then there is the hope generated by plans for two nuclear reactors northwest of town. But they are by no means certain. And a long way off at any rate. For now, you’ve got your Melon Days in September and the crowning of the Melon Queen.
Ellen and I are going to get to know these places better in the coming years, as we crisscross “The Loneliest Road in America” to watch our grandchildren grow.