Careful where you drop your britches.
You’ve probably heard the old proverb: Don’t pee into the wind. I bet you’ve never heard: Don’t pee on a rattlesnake! Equally sound advice if you find yourself in the middle of rattlesnake country in need of a privy.
My friend and co-worker, Bob M., has 3 total working days left before retirement, or so he likes to gloat…often. I’ve worked with Bob for 17 years. He’s been more than an office mate and co-worker. Bob has been my friend, my advisor, confidant and my rock in both my personal life and at work. He has helped me raise my children and offered needed support and advice at times when I didn’t realize I needed it. Bob’s wife, Janet, has put up with me tagging along in their lives for 17 years. I will be forever grateful to them both.
Bob, Janet and I have had several camping adventures over the years. When I discovered a promising campground near the ranch my youngest boy works and lives as a ranch hand, I was happy to hear Bob and Janet would be spending Memorial weekend at the campground with me. We made plans for a long weekend at “Chukar Park” campground 9 miles NW of remote Juntura Oregon.
I planned to camp at Chukar Park and board my horses at the ranch. The ranch is 18.7 miles from the Park and 26 miles from anything remotely resembling civilization; if you can call Juntura civilization. I’m not sure Vale – another 60 miles, qualifies as civilized, but at least it has a gas station.
I met Janet and Bob at the Cairo School by 9:00 Friday morning. Janet handed me a walkie-talkie through the pick-up window. You can’t be too careful on these excursions into the wilderness. It wouldn’t be the first time a group of travelers set out on short journey to find themselves wandering aimlessly in the desert forty years later. I set the walkie-talkie in my all-things-gadgetry holder and led the way toward Juntura.
Bob and Janet’s roomy 5th wheel “Cougar” and my “Bitterroot” cab over and horse trailer pulled into Chukar Park around 11:30AM. The Park was surprisingly empty for a Memorial Day weekend. We assumed due to the sketchy weather expected over the next few days. We didn’t care if it rained or shined. This would be our test run after de-winterizing the RV’s.
Bob unhooked his RV in a spot of his choosing and parked his truck in a spot reserved for me until I got back from unloading my horses at the ranch. We chose the end of the park butting up against the Little Malheur. The Park was pristine. It looked as if the park hosts had manicured the grounds with a fine tooth comb; fresh rake tracks marked the graveled walkways and pullouts. A small cottontail sitting in the green lawn topped off the Disney like scene.
“Don’t expect me until dark or later!’ I said as I pulled onto the 18.7 mile gravel stretch to Castle Rock. The road to Castle Rock is fairly flat, wide and well maintained. It seems to go on forever as it weaves its way through ranches dotting the Little Malheur. Keeping left of the fork, the road hugs the backside of Beulah Reservoir before picking up again with the Little Malheur. The recent rains kept dust to a minimum.
Blake stepped off the front porch of the little white “guest house” he and his wife, Olivia, transformed into a cozy home. He pointed towards a five acre pasture my horses would contently graze belly deep in lush grass for the next four days.
“Ready to ride?” my youngest son asked. “I’m always ready to ride.” I answered with more enthusiasm than I felt. Preparing for the weekend and the long 120 mile haul had drained much of my usual fervor. I turned König loose in the pasture and saddled Jack. Blake opened the gates between a 40 acre pasture and a holding pen behind a large horse barn. He straddled a four wheeler and zoomed into the middle of a herd of fifteen ranch horses. The herd methodically ran into the holding pen and waited for Blake to shut the gates. It looked rehearsed because it was. The routine was a way of life for the stock. Each horse stood facing Blake expectantly. Which one would be selected to put in a hard day’s work, and which would be left behind until another day? Blake slipped a halter around a sleek black filly named Bell Star.
Blake has never been one to do anything without a purpose. I often referred to him as my trophy child. If there wasn’t a trophy at the end of a feat, he wasn’t interested. I was surprised he was so willing to ride with his mom and a bit suspicious. I asked him where we were going. He pointed off in the direction of Castle Rock drawing an invisible map with his hands. “We’ll head up this road and cut over into that draw and follow the fence-line around The Rock. Then hit another draw, follow the creek down and cut back to the road below the ranch. Keep your eye out for my rope I lost last week.” So that was it – the trophy. Blake had lost his rope and we were on a mission to find it; an Easter egg hunt on horseback. I’ll take it.
Blake worked with Bell Star as we rode; stopping, backing, sidestepping and riding away from Jack and me. This was her 13th ride. He’d done an amazing job with her. She was willing, supple and traveled out nicely. “You know Blake, Bell would make an excellent shooting horse.” We joked about trading. He’d take Jack and make a head horse out of him and I’d take Bell for a shooting prospect. It was an excellent plan even if neither of us was willing to part with our beloved horse.
Our horses picked their way over miles of rolling hills covered in sage and rock. Hardly a step could be taken without a shod hoof making contact with volcanic rock. Juniper increased the higher we climbed.
“Am I going the right way?”
“Am I still going the right way?”
It sure didn’t seem like we were going the right way. I decided I better follow instead of take the lead. Blake and Bell lunged up a hill I swear was a vertical 90°. I lost sight of them. Jack dug in and clawed his way up. It felt like the next lunge would vault us over backwards. I kicked my feet out of the stirrups, laid the reins over Jack’s neck and filled my hands with mane. Blake disappeared. Jack clung parallel to the side of the hill as I looked around and hollered.
“WHAT!!!!!” (Sounding more than a little annoyed)
“Am I going the right way?”
“I don’t know – I can’t see you.”
“I’m heading around the right side of the hill.”
“Don’t go that way – turn around and come straight up.”
Straight up. Great. I figured Jack would bolt downhill if I pointed him down and might not be able to get enough momentum turning uphill. Ok Bubba, you decide. Jack planted his hind-end and swung his front end 180°. The most perfect half-spin of our career. “Hey Blake, Did you see that?” Blake didn’t have to answer. I could hear his eyes rolling even if I couldn’t see him. Jack shot straight up the hill to Blake and Bell.
Blake took one side of the draw and I the other. A stream ran between us. Two weeks of frequent rain had washed out the banks lined in bog and swamp. I decided to stop asking Blake if I were going the right way. Every stream eventually leads to civilization. Never mind if civilization happened to be Parma. I had plenty of gear in my saddles bags to make it to Idaho if need be.
We never did find Blake’s rope. If he was disappointed he kept it to himself. He would pursue the trophy another day and since he’d also lost his wallet on the other side of the mountain – he’d have plenty of opportunity.
We snacked on chips and salsa while Olivia’s homemade pizza baked in the oven. Blake practiced rope tricks with the child’s rope he bought for his baby girl due in August. My baby was having a baby of his own. It felt surreal to be sitting in my youngest child’s home while his pregnant wife cooked dinner for her husband and mother-in-law. Where had the time gone?
Bob had built an inviting fire while Janet prepared the fixings for Smores. Blake and Olivia drove down to join us around the camp fire and roast marshmallows. After smores and the kids left for home, I crawled in my over-the-cab bed and slept more content than I had in a long while.
Saturday was sightseeing day. The original plan was to help Blake build fence. Apparently the notion of an old lady building fence was a foreign concept to the ranch foreman. Blake politely suggested a change in plans. I’d take Bob and Janet exploring until Blake got off work. After work, we would ride. Works for me; I didn’t relish the thought of waiting on some punk kid foreman who probably couldn’t tell one end of the fence stretcher from the next anyways. Hmmph.
Bob and I took the camper off my truck so we could use my truck to explore the area. Juntura doesn’t have a gas station. My diesel gets better mileage than Bob’s V10. I figured I had 60 miles to play with and still make it to Vale to fill up on the way home. If not, there were always the horses!
I noticed on several of my trips up and down the gravel road between the park and ranch, what looked like steam from a hot springs northwest of the reservoir. We pulled in to check it out. Sure enough – a pool of bubbling sulfur hot enough to boil a lobster. We followed two pipes a few yards further down leading to a sunken bathtub. The pipes trickled hot and cool water into the tub. It was tempting, although too close to the road for me in broad daylight and sober. Maybe next time when there’s less daylight and more Pendleton…
Blake had earlier told me the story of Tom Goodwin; a moonshiner who built a sort of boarding house on his ranch for the local whores. According to Blake, the lady’s of the evening would stay with Tom and transport moonshine into town. The way Blake tells it, Tom had an obsession with concrete as well as whores. Tom built himself a tomb out of solid concrete. The idea was for Tom and his two partners to be buried in the tomb. Tom dies fist, according to Blake, at the hands of his girlfriend who mistakes him for a deer and shoots him dead. The partners lay old Tom out in a plywood box in the corner of the tomb and fill it with concrete. It’s a lonely site. Seems his partners had a change of heart about being laid to rest in such a manner. Before the concrete cured on poor Tom, the partners bolted the heavy steel door shut and never looked back. The whereabouts of Tom’s moon-shining still remains a mystery.
Tom’s spread and resting place was on our site-seeing route for Saturday morning. We snapped pictures and explored every old ruin we encountered. As usual, I had to pee. We had pulled over to check out the ruins of a house. A small log cabin sat behind the house; its roof long since collapsed. It seemed as good a place as any. I hopped across the creek flowing between the house and cabin and aimed for the corner of the dilapidated cabin. I glanced back over my shoulder to verify I was out of view of the road and commenced to drop my britches. I had scarcely unbuttoned when I heard the undeniably honest buzz of a pissed off rattlesnake. It matters not if you have never heard a rattler before. You instantly know what it is and will never forget it the rest of your life. My dog and I jumped backwards at the same time. I didn’t take time to re-button my pants. Did we jump in the right direction? Did we jump away from it…or towards it! I scanned the area. Curled up next to the corner of the log cabin was the biggest, the hugest, and the most massive rattler on the face of the planet. I let out a screech. The occasion called for screeching, I don’t care who you are. Don’t judge me.
I flew back to the truck. I don’t think my feet touched the ground. Bob and Janet asked what was wrong with me. I had to confess I almost peed on a rattle snake. Not just any snake, a HUGE snake. “He’s coiled this big!” I made a circle a foot and a half in diameter with my hands; not unlike what one would do when describing the fish that got away.
Bob had to get a picture of this massive reptile. It could, after-all, make the Guinness book of world records. “That’s it?” Bob quipped. “He’s just a little guy.” I crept behind Bob and peered around him. The snake was still coiled. He was significantly smaller as long as Bob was between me and it. Bob poked at him with a stick trying to get him out of the weeds far enough to get a picture. I wasn’t hanging out to see if this was successful or not and tip-toed back to the truck. Bob and Janet giggled over the incident. “Well, it LOOKED huge at the time!” I said sheepishly. In my defense, the snake was coiled up on a big cow pie almost the same color as the snake. It wasn’t the diamond back rattler I’m use to seeing. This one was brown and black. Later that night Janet pulled out a book of birds and snakes. The rattler we saw was a western rattler, according to the photo in the book. Not nearly as big as the diamond back. Whatever.
We drove for several miles and no Tom’s Tomb. We must have missed it. We’d seen a group of buildings some ways back that must have been the Goodwin place. I turned around and headed back in the direction of camp. I cut down a dirt road crossing a creek that led to a large group of buildings. A concrete tomb perched on a hill overlooking the spread; Tom’s Tomb.
We explored the wooden structures first. There was the main house and what looked like a smokehouse with a cellar adjacent to a chicken house. A sprawling line of barns, several small sheds and an outhouse, could have been the set in a John Wayne movie. An expansive stables set off from the rest of the buildings completed the scenic spread. I wondered which building had housed Tom’s whores.
I wandered from building to building. I could have lived here. I should have lived here. I rummaged through remnants of a life before automobiles, computers or modern technology. A time when people lived reality instead of watching it scripted across the television screen. A time when hands grasped the leather reins of a harness instead of an optical mouse. Instead of sitting for hours behind a glaring computer screen, they sat behind powerful teams of workhorses, squinting against the glaring sun.
We paid our respects to Tom before journeying back toward camp. Bob and Janet dropped me off at the ranch and drove my tuck back to Chukar Park. Later, the kids brought me back to camp and stayed for anther evening of campfire and smores.
Blake and Olivia picked me up on their way to church Sunday morning. There was plenty of room in the tiny Juntura Bible Chapel for the small congregation of 12 people. Family groups huddled over well worn Bibles. I’ve been to a share of church services and I’m ashamed to admit I am not comfortable most of the time. It has been my experience the preacher stands at the pew monotonously flipping through pages while children squirm restlessly and adults appear as if they might fall into a coma at any moment. This service was different. The pastor, clad in farmer’s attire and cowboy boots, easily connected with everyone in the congregation. Folks followed along in their Bibles. Even the children appeared interested. One man went so far as to question the pastor concerning the age of Dinah, a Biblical character from Genesis. During lunch at the Oasis Café afterwards, the discussion continued. I think all left services excited to do our own research into the validation of Dinah’s actual age.
Without my camper and trailer, the stretch from camp to the ranch didn’t take nearly as long. Blake had the day off. We would ride after church. I saddled Jack for Blake to ride down and catch Bell Star. Jack ponied Bell like he’d done it a hundred times because he has. Jack might not make an expert arena horse, but he is unbeatable on the trail. He’s towed mules and horses from the Eagle Caps to the Frank Church.
I rode alongside Blake and scanned the countryside for his wallet. We discussed childhood, faith, dating and marriage. There was a time when Blake and I didn’t engage in conversation beyond everyday mom/son interaction. Blake and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye. I knocked heads with Blake more than I did my other two kids. I now realize the reason might have been we were too much alike. Blake has always been determined to the point of stubbornness. He was constantly reinventing himself; that “better option” always around the next corner. I watched his profile from the corner of my eye. The same array of freckles splattered across his impish nose and cheeks; the same crooked smile that got him out of trouble when a good licking would have done him good; the same mischievous storm behind his hazel eyes. What had changed? He’d grown up. He was a man whether I cared to see him as such or not. In true Blake fashion he had begun to conquer his dream. He married a woman of equal conviction. He had given up a job that paid 4 times what he could make riding for any ranch. Why? Because living the ranch life was his dream. No doubt in time others will be riding for Blake’s brand.
The wallet side of the mountain was not as steep as the rope side and a good thing, too. Hank the cow dog was about to keel over from heat stroke. It wasn’t that hot, the poor dog was out of shape. He spent the majority of his time chained at the ranch with two other stock dogs. They rotated the dogs by turning one loose each day. Whichever dog was loose for the day usually followed Blake as he went about his chores. Hank had followed us in our quest to find the wallet. I rummaged in my saddlebags for my old boy scout mess kit and filled the frying pan side with water for the dog. I had to coax him to drink it. He trembled when he tried to stand. Hank wasn’t going any farther today. I wondered how he would manage when it was his turn to go after cattle. The ranch had lost a dog earlier that died from heat exhaustion on a long drive. Not Hank, not today, and certainly not on my watch. We turned back for the ranch, keeping an eye on Hank.
Blake loped Bell Star in the center of the roping arena. He sat down in an exaggerated motion. Bell tucked her butt underneath herself and slid to a stop. I couldn’t believe it was only her 14th ride! She was collected and responsive to leg pressure. Blake rode Jack and gave me a few pointers on how we might work on Jack’s stop. Arena stuff has never been my thing, but I am excited to try out some of the tips he gave me.
An inviting fire and smores were again waiting my return to camp. Bob and Janet had a successful day of fishing and exploring. The camp hosts had invited them over to visit and play games. Shortly after I arrived in camp, Bob helped load my camper back on the truck. We planned to load up and be on the road Monday morning by 9:00am. I was not ready to go home.
I woke early, broke camp and pulled into the ranch to pick up my horses by 8:00 Monday morning. By the time I loaded the horses and made the 18.7 miles back to Chukar Park, Bob and Janet were ready to go. An electrical malfunction forced Bob and Janet to unplug the RV from the truck and drive home without trailer brakes or lights. I followed close behind.
Jack and König seemed happy to be back in their home pasture. I would like to have stayed longer…perhaps forever. It was easy to imagine myself homesteading on the Goodwin place – minus the moonshine and whores, naturally. Unhitching the team of draft horses at the end of a long day in the fields as the sun sets behind golden fields of wheat. Hanging the heavy leather harnesses stained with salt from the barn rafters. Gingham curtains cheerfully sway in the gentle breeze blowing through the kitchen window.
It’s a hard life, but it’s an honest life. It is a tight knit community that gathers in a small church to worship with heads bowed and hearts full. It’s a life struggling to survive in an unforgiving land that makes no concessions. What is sowed is reaped. No more. No less.
I will think often of the people past and present that have made this remote land their home. I will think of the audacity of the men and women who to this day are living a life virtually unchanged from the days of Tom Goodwin. I will think of Tom and the lonely tomb of concrete where he is laid to rest. I will not forget the peaceful feeling one gleans from a time much simpler than the world we live in today. And…no matter how I might want to, I will not soon forget the day I came close to peeing on a rattlesnake.