A Man’s Life: Oregon Trail
I believe it to be one of the first and foremost duties as a father: to give my children, as best I can, this place.
WIND IN THE LIMBS OF THE OAKS, last night’s rain raining down once more with every shaking of the branches. Along the creek bottom sword ferns and tangles of blackberry drip with morning mist. Underfoot, from most any old sidewalk crack, moss the color of lime flesh fairly bursts—in spite of, or, ecologically speaking, because of, the steel wool of the sky.
This is the drizzly mile and a half I walk or bike each morning to work, a small slice of the Willamette Valley of Oregon, a broad alluvial plain bordered by three mountain ranges—the Cascades, the Calapooyas, and the Coast Range—and running a hundred miles from the confluence of the Coast and Middle forks to the river’s mouth on the Columbia. Three hundred years ago much of this verdant, riverine flatland was oak savanna, the native peoples of the area, the Kalapuya, setting seasonal fires to clear the understory. The grass grew thick and tall then, and the Kalapuya hunted the plentiful deer and elk, tended camas in the creek bottoms, hauled salmon from the waters. It was a good country, an easy country that for its verdancy quickly attracted the attention of white settlers. (Many of the earliest explorers’ reports note that the natives of the Pacific Northwest were unusually healthy, even a bit overweight, though not long after first contact they were decimated by disease.)
Remember that old floppy-disk computer game The Oregon Trail? Well, if you survived that sure bout of dysentery and didn’t break too many wagon wheels, this was where you landed—this was what you won: the Willamette Valley, no longer an oak savanna but a fertile hotbed of local and artisan agriculture, pinot noir wineries and organic vegetable farms and plum and cherry orchards down most any county road you might choose for a Sunday drive.
We moved here a year and a half ago—my wife and I and our then three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter—and immediately bought umbrellas, boots, and slickers, for in this rainy place my children loved nothing more than to wander in the fog, to shake a wet branch and drag a stick through a mud puddle, to squat down and study the glistening trails of slugs and snails, to hold, carefully, the rose, and consider the way rainwater dappled and ran down the blossom. They were enchanted. And walking to work each morning, I, too, am enchanted. Yet my enchantment undoes me.
LET ME EXPLAIN: The valley is only 40 minutes from the coast, which we have visited often since moving. One bright day this summer—as we dared the white waves, then ran laughing up the sand, my children’s small hands in mine—I remember thinking: They will know the ocean, will know verdancy and rain and growth like they know mother and father—as birthrights, as mythic first things, as forces always in their lives. I remember thinking: My children will be beyond me.
I grew up 1,000 miles away, adrift on the high plains of eastern Montana, a rucked and nearly riverless stretch of badlands known as the Big Dry. In winter, the wind came gusting down from Canada, the nighttime temperatures bone-shatteringly cold and the hard, drawn glare of the frozen day a kind of violence. Each blazing summer was hotter than the last—and drier, the alfalfa coming up thin and spotty, or not at all. It was a place of wind and want, of dust and off in the distance falling-down homesteaders’ shacks.
Yet it was as well a wide-open place, a place a boy could wander the great empty miles of greasewood and sage and wonder at the blue mountains off in the West, the clear night salted with stars.
This was the landscape, these the varieties of light and weather that fathered and brothered me, that molded me into the man—the teacher, writer, husband, and father—I have become. And though since graduating from college I have moved more than once across the country, I still feel every day that knifelike Montana light, that incessant prairie wind.
I feel it most deeply in the way I worry about having enough. The Big Dry was a place of deprivation, of drying reservoirs and desertification and the farm crisis winnowing year-by-year the men coming in for coffee at the Lazy JC. For us as a farm family, it had always been touch and go as well, yet it was more so after my father died, when I was just nine. It’s not that we didn’t have enough to eat; it’s that what we did have was so hard won you felt bad eating your fill or not eating your fill or wishing for something sweeter. I feel the hard geography of my youth, too, in the way the world reads as elegy to me. Imagine living in a house stitched together from the husks of old homesteaders’ shacks. Imagine walking the plowed field and finding bits of China glass—evidence of the four-story hotel that used to sit just there, of the bustling railroad town that had simply melted back into the prairie.
In For the Time Being, a meditation on meaning and transience, Annie Dillard writes, “The dead will always outnumber the living.” My students often balk at this statement. They don’t want to believe it. Yet it seems common sense to me. Because of the hard facts of my home landscape, I know—have always known—that what is behind us is as much as will ever be before us.
ALL THIS IS TO SAY a couple of things. First, place matters. Place isn’t backdrop but foundation, womb and shelter, wise elder; place allows every moment of our lives. Though our culture encourages us to believe that airports and interstates and digital devices can somehow insulate us from the necessities and exigencies of physical space, from the struggles and embarrassments of being physical beings living in and moving through a physical world—they don’t. They change our relationship with place (perhaps the modern analogues for those busted wagon wheels and cases of dysentery are flight delays and truck-stop restrooms), but not always for the better.
Consider the recent hysterics over medical professionals flying with Ebola, or the finding that life satisfaction is inversely proportional to the amount of time one spends in traffic each day. Or—and this is the real kicker—think for a terrifying moment, if you will, about climate change: Automobiles, air conditioning, and the thousand other ways we’ve attempted to obliterate place have brought us to the brink (or, as most recent scientific reports would have it, beyond the brink) of holocene collapse—the liquid layer of life that circles our planet visited, increasingly, by intense climate-related violence, the brute facts of landscape and place re-asserting themselves. With a vengeance.
Again, place matters—despite us, if it comes to that. And perhaps the primary antidote to our culture’s reckless, death-eating obsession with placelessness is to turn off our screens, leave our keys in our pockets, and wander out under the direction of our own bones into the places of our lives, to, especially, encourage whatever young people we know to do the same. My son charts the calliope, Anna’s, and rufous hummingbirds that visit our feeder; my daughter runs and hugs her favorite cedar trees; together we watch in wonder and delight as sand crabs disappear with a watery lifting of the sand, no matter how fast we scoop and dig. I believe it to be one of my first and foremost duties as a father: to give my children, as best I can, this place.
Though, of course, this brings me back to my initial undoing: In working to give my children this place, the Willamette Valley, I will separate myself from them. We won’t share this wet place—at least not in the same way. I will always know Cozine Creek and Miller Woods and the Nestucca River in juxtaposition, via metaphor. But this creek, these oaks, the river pouring down the rocks toward the coast—all of it will be before metaphor for my children. These waters will shape them in ways I cannot know, in a manner they will reckon with for the rest of their lives. This place will be for them like the bones beneath their skin, like the love they feel from their mother and me—the very things on which a life rests. Who they will become, as much as it is up to me, will be part and parcel of the Willamette Valley, the rumpled Coast Range, and the rocky Oregon coast.
The landscape of childhood is one of unparalleled power. And if my children—if any of us—are to have futures in which we might live well and fully, we need to know our home places. And my hope is that in intimately knowing and caring for this place, my son and daughter will begin to understand all places as sacred, as possessed of a different but no less powerful magic. For I know this to be true in my own life: Despite the hard facts of life on the Big Dry, it gave me something I would never trade—it imposed itself on me; it refused to be ignored.
Here I am in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. I’ve traveled hard years on a faint trail to get here, and I know with every meaty thwack of my heart how lucky—how God-blessed lucky—we all are to be buffeted by the wind, showered in the night’s held rain.
Joe Wilkins worked with Wabash students as a visiting writer in Fall 2014, and his book The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry, won the 2014 GLCA New Writer’s Award. His most recent book is Far Enough: A Western in Fragments.