Written by Tamara O’Brien Ralston as a birthday gift on Jan. 15, 1998 for her father Ron O’Brien
Sure enough, we turn east at the Dalles, and soon enter arid brown hills. No amber waves of grain this time of year. Mile after mile of fallow wheat fields blanket the hills like a patchwork quilt. I am hot, uncomfortable and have to pee. Some pioneer I would have been!
My sister, middle-school teacher and history buff, informs us that The Dalles was a big decision point for Oregon Trail pioneers.
"Wagon trains had to chose between taking the Barlow Trait around Mt. Hood, or following the river through the steep gorge. The river route was considered the worst part of the 2,000-mile journey, so most opted for the Barlow Trail. Dufur was the first night's stop for those on the Barlow Trail route."
"So what happened to the O’Brien’s?" I interrupt. They broke an axel? Got tired?? Were afraid of mountain climbing and river rafting? Why stop in Dufur?
"Some people actually like it here, you snob."
I contemplate this mystery as we drive along. What a struggle homesteading must have been -- coaxing this dry, hot ground to life. Two hundred years ago, my ancestors began kneading these hills until they yielded wheat, supported cattle, and gave bloom to kitchen gardens. Everything was done by hand. Plow, plant, harvest. Feed, water, slaughter. Cut, stack, stoke. Wash, ring, rinse. Spin, sew, mend. Heat, hammer, forge. Survival by hand. Incredible.
My own hands do not know how to bake bread, much less plow, or mend. How far we have come, how much our hands have forgotten. Look down at my hands.
"Damn! Dirt under my fingernails and we aren't even there yet!"
Dust. It's everywhere. I surrender, letting the dust carry me away, transporting me back four generations to a time when my great-grandmother was my age. I imagine dust coating her throat as she walks between furrows, calling men to lunch. It stings her eyes as she moves cattle to secure pasture before a storm. It's embedded in the cracks of her hands. Not even the Saturday night soak will remove its spidery lines.
Great-grandma's stained hands pass mashed potatoes down the table at Sunday supper. Her rough fingers smooth a crocheted tablecloth, clearing plates for dessert. Everyone's hands look the same dry, chapped, worn.
"We're here!" the kids yell in unison.
They interrupt my time travel just before great-grandma's hands cut hot blackberry pie. I would rather have her homemade pie than her hometown dust. The dust rises up in welcome and escorts us along the gravel road through Dufur's city park. We head for a tree-lined strip of dirt by the creek.
"Red alert! Squatters in our campsite!" my sister announces.
The O’Brien’s are a territorial bunch, returning each August to the same spot on Fifteen Mile Creek like spawning salmon. What to do? Strangers have seized the family turf, an unthinkable travesty.
"Kick them out Mommy," plead my nine and twelve year-old nieces.
"Shoot 'em in the weenie," yells my six-year old nephew.
"Not to worry," I say. "Let's camp under this tree, near the pool and playground."
Nearer to Indoor plumbing and a shower I think to myself. My sister makes the decision, pulling the monster truck to a stop beneath the shade of a huge maple tree, far upstream from the poachers.
(to be continued)