Regular readers of my fetching prose will remember three earlier installments of this piece that dealt with my passion for motorcycle touring, and the tear-jerking tale of best riding bud, Paul, whose wife and trusted friend of seventeen years, an attractive athletic woman who could carve corners on her hyper-sport GSXR Suzuki 750 as adroitly as he could on his identical machine, color matched of course, told him one fine day out of the blue, “I feel lonely with you, I want a divorce”. Paul reeled, gut shot. Then the head shot came. She said she wanted exit from their love nest on a hill above the teeming civic horror of Redding, California, a microcosm of the social wreckage that’s befallen our whole beloved country, and purchase Paul’s recently deceased father’s tidy little cottage in quiet, idyllic Wolseley, Saskatchewan, located on the vast high plains of northwest Canada. And she added that their settlement better finance it, or else it’s the hockey puck treatment common in crises like this one.
Fast forward seven years later to April 2018. Paul’s finally finds his huevos. He’s got the mortgage in diseased Mall Land up for sale. He’s quit his job as an aviation mechanic. He’s bought a home to flee to in Heppner, a stunning little burg located in a golden hill niche in Eastern Oregon’s thinly populated Morrow County. July 27, 2018, four days before escrow closes on Paul’s Redding pad, the Carr fire explodes and tornados across the Sacramento River imperiling thousands of homes certainly including his. He stands on his porch in barely subdued panic watching the oncoming inferno, listening to propane tanks exploding, and somehow resists the impulse to evacuate. On July 31, Redding still on fire, escrow closes, movers arrive via the only road open and load up his belongings. Paul puts the house keys under the front doormat, and splits northward in his van through dense smoke on I-5 which closes two days later. It’s an amazing survival story, Paul the fabled Phoenix risen from the ashes.
In the ensuing months, during occasional phone conversations with Paul, it’s obvious I’m talking to an extraordinarily relieved, happy man living on the pastures of heaven. I’d never been to Heppner but I knew the region fairly well from several joyous motorcycle touring forays, and terrific fishing experiences on the John Day River in neighboring Wheeler County, which like Morrow County, comprises more than two thousand square miles of ethereal beauty, and has the population of Mayberry, minus Floyd the barber.
Heppner, Oregon. I’m curious as hell. Boom. John, another best friend, calls me one afternoon here at home in Sequim, WA. John lives with his girlfriend Jeannie down there in Orange County, CA, where the metastatic nightmare is a little more developed than Redding’s. John doesn’t say it but it’s clear he’s suffering from estrogen overload and other maladies attendant to living way too close to Disneyland. Let’s get together, he says, anywhere. I get off the phone, thinking. My girl Gwen who’s overheard my conversation with John says, “Why don’t you and John go fishing on the John Day and then go visit Paul in Heppner?”. I can tell you many reasons why I love Gwen dearly, but doesn’t that sum it up pretty well?
A few days later I fly to Portland to pick up John and head eastward through the towering magnificence of the Columbia River Gorge, then head south from the river at Arlington to the abbreviated (pop. 473) Wheeler County capital of Fossil, so named because of the plentitude of ossified remains of 33-million-year-old Oligocene plant life that lie on Wheeler High School grounds. One could get into an interesting discussion of global warming here that might mention the two major extinctions that lasted for millions of years in the six billion year record of this planet of ours — that the empty strata from those bleak periods indicate that all organic existence was expunged, and we bipeds and our toxic emissions weren’t around then as the perps. But we’ll leave that disturbing mysterious subject until the drinking lamp is lit.
The big draw for us in Fossil is Steve Fleming, who runs Mah Hah Outfitters, who’s arranged for us a master guide, his name is Brandon, and a drift boat upon which to float several miles of the tumultuous red rock beauty of the north fork of the John Day River, a renowned smallmouth bass fishery, and catch as many of those feisty footballs as possible. Between John and I (his first experience with a flyrod by the way) we catch (and release) about seventy fish, including some big boys who explode on top water poppers, and top water action, when the fish go airborne and acrobatic, is the absolute apogee of the deal. Were that not enough, Mah Hah has aboard a charcoal fueled Dutch oven, so the riverside lunch we enjoy in the shade of a big maple, includes juicy chicken thighs with the skin perfectly crisped, herb rice and stuffing, and I hate to admit it, a salami and cheese and pepperoncini appetizer. John and I fall in love with Brandon and not a one of is gay, or at least no one admits it.
A brief aside on the Mah Hah nomenclature. That was the name of the river our Native American brethren called it, until one day in 1812, John Day, a trapper in the employ of the Astor fur company, was left bereft of his equipment and clothing on a bank near its confluence with the Columbia by an acquisitive group of Indians. Day survived his ordeal and made it to Astoria to tell his tale. Hence the name adjustment a few years later.
Parting with Brandon on a bank of the river in the somnolent dreamy leafy Wheeler County hamlet of Spray (pop., I kid you not, is 150), it is sweet sorrow because I guarantee we’ll be back at those footballs before the season ends. And it’s time to head north to Heppner on a sixty-mile twister that makes me want to ditch the rental car and have the hundred horsepower of my Honda Africa Twin between my legs. Highway 207 is one of those Oregon Scenic Byways in this region of The Blue Mountains that dives and winds and rolls, up and over a 4000-foot summit of heavily forested country where the evergreen of pine and fir and spruce seems to undulate forever, and then suddenly the world yawns into an endless breathtaking panorama of giant rounded mountains of stiff golden grass, think of a sprawling range of enormous gold bowling balls cut in half, with dark shadows of deep ravines between them. Located here in one of the loneliest venues on earth is the semi-ghost town of Hardman, it was a thriving logging and ranching community, now only a few weather-beaten gray crumbling structures that were dwellings and stores, hard to believe anyone still lives in the ruins here, but there were curtains billowing behind some broken windows as we drove through what was town. I noticed the wreckage of a log truck smashed up on the sagging front porch of something someone called home, it was one of those great defining photographs I somehow fail to take, but remain burnished in memory.
Approaching Heppner (pop. 1291) from high on a grassy hill in late afternoon, the town cradled in the draw below with a magnificent backdrop of those huge rounded mountains awash in streaming golden light and shadow rarely replicated in the finest art, John and I are stunned by the view of one of nature’s pastoral masterpieces, me so blown away that I nearly cream a covey of chukar foraging on the highway, highly prized upland game birds that thrive here. I thankfully miss a couple of young guys by inches.
As we enter downtown Heppner, the quietude appears an age from rural American civic life that’s rare if not extinct. Businesses are closing up for the evening. People we see conversing at storefronts, strolling the sidewalks, seem relaxed and happy. Rush hour traffic consists of a ranch truck in front of us with a big retriever in the bed resting his chin on the tailgate observing us with friendly detachment. The streets, hell, the whole town looks so tidy as to have just been steam cleaned. I park the rental flivver curbside on Main Street in front of Les Schwab Tires, where right next door is a gorgeous historic building — 1919 is etched in stone above the entrance. It was the two-story Gilliam and Bisbee Hardware Store, now being renovated into a civic event center, with roomy upstairs being converted into comfortable hostel quarters for travelers.
We get Paul on the phone and he guides us uptown to a knoll in a neighborhood where he lives in his sensible comfortable charmer, a three-bedroom, two-bath home with a garage plenty big enough for his van, his two motorcycles, his bicycles, and a spacious workshop loaded with a tool inventory you’d expect a master mechanic to own, and this in paradise for a fraction of what he paid for his former place way down there in Doomville. He’s sporting a smile as big as the Cheshire cat’s as we greet him. We talk, we reminisce. We’ve learned he and Heppner have similar resurrective history, he from hellfire, and his new hometown from a disastrous flood in 1903 spawned by the mother of all thunderstorms that sent, according to the Heppner Gazette, “ a leaping, foaming wall of water forty feet high roaring out of the ravines”, drowning 247 people and wiping out two thirds of their homes. Reoccurrence is unlikely (we pray) given a massive concrete dam completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1983.
Ok, let’s get real. Things are never perfect in Toonerville. John and I are dying for a whopping dinner to celebrate our reunion with Paul, like a massive medium rare rib-eye and a baked potato with all the trimmings, but there’s no restaurant in Heppner where that’s going to happen. In truth it’s not inaccurate to report there are no restaurants in Heppner, at least not the kind to which I’ve been accustomed in farm and ranch burgs where prime rib night is like everyone’s birthday. There was nothing wrong with Bucknum’s bar and saloon, the local hangout where the burgers and onion rings weren’t bad, and the gals working there were great, but let’s face it, something fundamentally important and expected in west world was missing. Same situation in the morning when I’ve awakened from an untoward passion dream about homemade biscuits and a lava load of sausage gravy and eggs fried sunny side up edges crisped in lard, but that wasn’t going to happen either, and again, this in a venue where huge early breakfast is traditional, and the culturally crucial time and place to discuss the harvest, crop prices and who’s doing what to whom.
Saved by the taco truck that’s supposed to show up downtown in an empty lot between the chamber building and the post office. It actually doesn’t show up, we hear it’s doing breakfast burritos at the Morrow County Fairgrounds where the annual rodeo and fair is in full swing. Paul leads John and I on a speed walk to the event, stopping first for a brief look at the imposing clock tower of the historic brick Morrow County courthouse built in 1902 on high ground where it survived the flood. At last we reach the fairgrounds where I’m running on empty, where I’m gladdened by the sight of the taco truck and even gladder that right next to it is a Filipino food concession on wheels. John and Paul do big plates of Mexico. I inhale a hot platter of spicy chicken noodle pancit, which is only one of many great reasons to book a flight to Manila.
Back in town we stroll around enjoying the country vibes, including a visit to Paul’s friend the saddle maker, a place loaded with the fine art of leather work, the fetching aroma of tack and horsemanship pervades the store. John orders a custom tooled belt that’ll reach him at home in a couple of weeks, a great memory of our trip. He buys a postcard at the drug store, scribbles it with some mollifying words of love that will hopefully palliate his absence from Jeannie, and drops it off at the post office. The ag museum on the environs of an old grain elevator situated on a disused railroad siding, with a yard full of antique farm machinery, much of it from the era when horsepower was the hooved kind, is definitely on our agenda. The natural history museum also located in Heppner requires quick mention even though we didn’t have enough time for it because how impressive it is that a community of 1200 people boasts two such valuable institutions. And they’re people like Hal Bergstrom, retired wheat farmer, grain elevator operator and volunteer fireman who kindly arrived to open up the ag museum, which was closed when we got there, and regale us with a wonderful narrative of life on the farm.
Closure comes the next morning, and leaving dear Paul and his dreamy hideaway isn’t easy because both John and I have promises to keep in (excuse my shudder) Portland, his to visit some family in Beaverton, mine to catch a flight back to Sequim. And there’s trepidation involved because the scuttlebutt is there’s a potentially dangerous political demonstration scheduled in river city, a possible melee between violence prone ultra-leftists known as Antifa, and the equally belligerent extreme right-wing activists their opposition calls neo-Nazis. How prevalent has become this uber polarization in American society? I don’t know, but when it comes to labeled groupthink factions of every variety, I favor a comment I believe made by Groucho Marx. “I wouldn’t have a thing to do with any organization that would have me as a member”.