Walk With Me
By Morris R. Pike, Jr.
Arnie, my alter ego and I, arrived at a leveled off spot in the road near the entrance to the woods that once belonged to the old Thumbs Up Ranch. To our right rested a triangular shaped, vintage cemetery.
“I used to walk this road, when I was in school in the late 1940s and early 1950s,” I said to Arnie as we pulled to a stop off the blacktop. We got out of the car and walked a few steps to the spot where an opening in the tree line allowed us to take in an expansive view.
“Wow!” Arnie exclaimed looking at a stretch of the Columbia River flowing west toward the Pacific Ocean.
“Yeah, impressive isn’t it!” I agreed. “That’s one of Weyerhaeuser’s sawmills on the left,” I said pointing. “It’s there on the Washington side of the bridge.”
“Yeah. I see it belching forth clouds of smoke . . . what does EPA have to say about that?”
“No doubt the smoke you’re looking at has been scrubbed clean. In the days when I lived here pollution didn’t register on the ‘illegal meter.’ We saw those stacks as belching forth jobs.”
“Belching forth jobs! That’s good.”
“I don’t know who owns these woods now,” I said, bringing our attention back to the stand of trees carpeting the valley in the distance. “But to quote Robert Frost: ‘Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not mind me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow.’ Well, there’s no snow, but this forest is pretty inviting.”
“And what’s so impressive about these woods?” Arnie asked following me across the cemetery into a dark, cool tunnel penetrating the forest understory.
“My family once owned these trees . . . wish we still did.”
“What might have been, huh?” Arnie said giving voice to my yearnings.
“The house we lived in sat in a clearing about a hundred yards further along this trail.” I emitted a ghostly “Oooooouuuu,” and laughed. “You see why my younger sisters didn’t like taking this shortcut home through the woods . . . especially at night?”
“Probably had something to do with those grave stones,” Arnie said pointing to our left.
“Yeah, and look at that,” I said palming wispy strands of lichen hanging in our faces from a fir bough. “Ghosts everywhere. I never told my sisters that I was a fraidy cat too and didn’t like it either.
“The reason I endured the dark tunnel was to save myself walking the extra thousand yards or so to get home. Defying the spooks, I would hot foot it along this trail as fast as I could . . . taking quick peripheral glances right and left trying to spot and evade legions of ghosts before they could grab me.”
“Reason says there are no such things,” Arnie said, kicking at the rotted remains of a fallen log.
I laughed, “Ha . . . Try telling that to the imagination.”
By now we were at the edge of the old orchard that surrounded the ground on which our house once stood. I pointed to the scarred remains.
“Our house burned to the ground in 1945 . . .” I paused remembering. “But that’s a story for later. This orchard once yielded pears, apples and plums. They already had that mottled, end of life look when we moved here. And even in those days the fruit the trees yielded was infested with worms. I pulled down a pear and handed it to Arnie, “They still taste good . . . but if you’re not careful you might find meat.”
Arnie bit into the pear, “Yeah, I found the meat alright and he’s waving at me,” Arnie laughed, showing me the worm. He then chomped down, chewed, and swallowed it. I winced, but ignored his in-your-face sass.
“Over there is where we stored water for cooking, washing clothes and taking baths,” I said pointing to the old cistern. “I once found a dead mole floating in it so we got our drinking water from a spring a couple hundred yards down that trail past the rickety barn. We carried the water in 5-gallon cream cans. Water for a family of six . . . that’s a lot of carrying.”
Oregon’s temperate-marine climate and abundant rainfall were turning what had once been our strawberry fields back into a Douglas fir dominated forest.
“It won’t be long before this patch of ground will be thick with trees again,” I said, swatting a bright green tip of a young fir. “This one would make a shapely Christmas tree, don’t you think?”
“A better idea,” Arnie said, “Leave it alone and someday it will grow into a house.”
“Yeah,” I returned, “but now, it’s a short-term cash crop . . . Christmas trees bring joy and jobs. Oregon is one of the leading producers of Christmas trees.”
“Look at that,” Arnie said pointing to the open area in the distance between stands of evergreen trees.
“Bonneville power line right-of-way,” I said.
A couple of deer were tiptoeing through the low cut vegetation. The head of a buck shot up. He looked in our direction, exploded into the air and bounded away into cover of the nearby forest. The second deer quickly followed.
“Beautiful,” Arnie said.
“That reminds me,” I said watching the last deer disappear. “I remember one Saturday afternoon years ago, three deer were in yonder field feasting on our strawberries. Our strawberries . . . not theirs . . . they hadn’t planted, hoed, and cultivated them. By eating our strawberries, they were robbing us of livelihood.
“The deer couldn’t see us, but my dad and I could see them. We were on the second floor of the barn house my dad and the high school Ag class had helped him build after our first house burned. We were to live in that crude structure until my dad could build a better one.”
“And the deer?” Arnie grunted impatiently, “The deer?”
“The deer . . . well, my dad handed me his 16-round semi-automatic 22 rifle and told me to go get them. For an inexperienced 12-year-old, that was a heady assignment. My blood raced as I took the rifle. I knew the deer would bolt and run at the slightest indication of human presence. I dashed, crouching along the brushy fencerow to avoid detection. I skirted the field and came out of the underbrush and into the tall grass a hundred yards or so from the deer.
“I squatted in the grass collecting my thoughts. I checked the chamber and the bullet feed . . . yes, both were full of shells . . . a metal spring forced the waiting bullets into position for the next pull of the trigger. I hesitated. I’d not shot that rifle more than a few times and had never shot at game of any kind. ‘Dad should be doing this, not me,’ I thought. ‘Not me.’ But I was in a vortex. Feeling commissioned but inadequate, I raised the rifle to my cheek.
“All three deer’s heads were down grazing on our strawberries. I thought, ‘should I aim at one and deliver as many bullets as possible until the deer could escape or go down . . . or should I aim at one, deliver three rounds in quick succession and then move to the second one and try to hit it and so forth?’”
“Whatever I decided, I knew it would have to happen soon. The deer wouldn’t remain within range for long. I took a deep breath, aimed at the lead deer and pulled the trigger three times in quick succession. Without hesitating I moved the sight to the second deer and pulled the trigger several times. That deer jumped into the air and when she came down was off and running for cover. The third deer had already disappeared. I stood up looking in the direction of the targets.
“The carcass of the first lay still in the grass. I could hardly believe that I had struck a vital spot and she was down. I trotted to the site of the kill. Sure enough, this inexperienced kid had moved a notch toward manhood . . . or at least that’s what it felt like to me.”
“Your dad must have been proud of you,” Arnie said with a bit of pride.
“I don’t remember that part. Dad was pretty reserved in expressing his emotions. He did, however, give me that rifle as a reward.”
“Seemed pretty awesome to me,” Arnie said taking a share of the credit.
“Dad skinned my kill and Mom dressed it, cut it up and wrapped it in heavy butcher paper. We ate some immediately and the rest went into a freezer locker we rented at Rainier Creamery at the east end of A Street. We ate venison for several months.”
“The Great Game Hunter of the Western World, you were,” Arnie laughed participating in my triumph. “Now, show me other manly adventures you had here as a kid.”
“Just keep walking with me,” I said leading Arnie into the thick of the woods. In the shadowy darkness, little light reached the ground. As a result, the understory was sparse. Nevertheless, the foliage of a few vine maple and alder managed to reach high enough into the air to catch enough sunlight to thrive.
“My brother, Dave, and I built a platform in one of these alder trees. We would climb up, grab the spindly trunk near the top of a one of the vine maples and then launch ourselves out into the air and ride it gracefully to the ground.”
“Like parachuting,” Arnie delighted.
“Can you believe it?” I said pointing, “I think the platform is still there.”
“Hey, let’s do it,” Arnie said excitedly.
“Not me,” I returned, “It can’t be safe.”
Without hesitation Arnie scrambled up the alder trunk and onto the rickety platform. He no sooner wrapped his fingers around the extremity of a vine maple. The rickety platform gave way and it came crashing down.
“Hi Ho Silver!” Arnie shouted kicking his feet out into the air and bringing his weight to bear on the springy vine.
“Wow,” I called marveling at his bravado. “Better you than me,” I said as he landed safely on a carpet of needles. “You’ve got guts.”
“You used to have guts, too.”
“Yeah, I did . . . but today, you can have guts for both of us.”
“Content with only vicarious thrills now, huh?”
“Yeah, vicarious thrills . . . that’s for me anymore. Come on . . . keep walking with me and Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s further into the woods we’ll go. Who knows what or who we’ll meet there.”
It was cool walking in the gentle shade on this hot day. Animals had established corridors through the forest, so the going was relatively easy.
“Smell that?” Arnie asked taking in a lung full of air.
“What?” I asked sniffing for something out of the ordinary.
“Smells like Christmas,” Arnie offered.
I chuckled, “Makes sense . . . here we stand like gifts under giant Christmas trees . . . what would a body expect?”
“It’s more than that . . . it’s like the air is being scrubbed clean.”
“That’s good, Arn . . . That’s what’s happening . . . these woods are trading their oxygen for our carbon.”
“More than that . . . there are dozens of scents of pure nature, fir, cedar . . . Oregon grape . . . grasses, all moist. Wonderful.”
“There you go again being poetic.”
“Well, yeah, these woods are pure poetry.”
“The deer know where the water is,” I said as we approached a gravel road not far from where Fox Creek flowed. “I remember, now,” I said pausing to reflect. “I think it was about here that I discovered I had actually hit that second deer . . . the one I thought had escaped. By the time I found the carcass it had been dead long enough that the meat was spoiled.”
“Ah,” Arnie knowingly uttered.
“Yeah, the wounded deer had managed to make it this far only to fall and die.”
“Isn’t that why hunting with a 22 is illegal?” Arnie needled.
“Yeah, you’re right. And now, I’m confessing . . . I didn’t have a hunting license and I shot them out of hunting season.”
“Jail time!” Arnie yelled.
“But, they were eating our strawberries…”
“Well, I’ll not squeal on you.”
“Thanks . . . ”
“Besides . . . that was 70 years ago, wasn’t it? You’re safe.”
“Yeah, 73 years to be exact.”
“Well, surely the statute of limitation expired decades ago.”
We both laughed.
“I don’t know exactly why, but I gotta say that today I would side with the deer.”
“Really!” Arnie challenged.
“Yeah, life seems more and more precious to me as I get older.”
“Life in any form?”
“Yeah, seems that way.”
“How about mosquitos?” Arnie asked swatting one that landed on his arm.
“You have something there, Arn . . . God could have left that one out and I’d not complain.”
“And poisonous spiders?”
“At least he gave us the brains to avoid them . . . Don’t you think there’s beautiful rhythmic balance to creation?”
“Seems reasonable to me . . . but settling that one is above my pay grade and yours too,” Arnie said putting a lid on it.
“I’m glad he created foxgloves,” I said. “They are about as beautiful a flower as one can imagine, aren’t they?” I asked cupping my hand around a burst of blossoms splashing color in a small patch of sunlight coming through the opening in our wooded environment.
“Your gorgeous foxgloves are poisonous . . . ”Arnie said matter-of-factly. “Huckleberries, however, are good looking and taste good, too . . . ” He picked a dozen of the tiny fruit and handed me a handful from a bush growing atop a decaying log.
“Well, okay . . . God also gave us the brains to know we can eat beautiful huckleberries but that we ought not eat beautiful foxgloves.”
“Chittem bark . . . ever try that?” Arnie asked testing my knowledge of the woods.”
“Yeah, I tried it once . . . impossibly bitter.“
“Indians used it to help solve constipation.”
“I’d rather die than to eat that stuff,” I said. “Knock on hickory, we’re not likely to come across any today.”
We followed the narrow gravel road to a Hurricane Fence gate, which told me we were at the city reservoir. It wouldn’t have taken much to get to the pools of water, but we’d both seen reservoirs before, large and small. We chose to head east up the watershed and into the southern extremity of what had been my family’s 81 acres of land.
The going was fairly easy. The thick canopy was made up of Douglas fir, hemlock, cedar and alder. This ceiling of trees blocked light needed to produce thick ground cover in the understory, but we still had to climb over fallen logs and tramp through thick patches of sword fern as we made our way through layers of moss clinging to everything.
Finally, we came across the fallen trunk of what had been an enormous old tree that had been dead for many years. When it was still standing, its dark brown blackish trunk rose into the open air dozens of feet above the tops of its living neighbors.
“What’s this?” Arnie asked from the other side of the big trunk. I couldn’t see him.
“That is ‘Snag,’” I said climbing onto a moss-covered log. “This old giant and I were buddies. During the years we lived there we could see that old monolith from the barn house. I always wondered about its history. “Was it a part of the original old growth? Why had the loggers left it? How had it survived all the years of wood eating insects, bleaching sun, strong winds, and incessant rain?”
“Snag,” Arnie mouthed affectionately.
“Yeah, Snag. During my years here I was glad the loggers had stilled their blades just short of taking it. Snag was a stabilizer for me. I could count on him being there.”
“Like the little toy soldier all covered with dust . . . huh?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, like, when the character of the live trees around him grew and changed, Snag still stood there faithfully making his statement.”
“Let’s not get maudlin,” Arnie laughed. “It’s only a tree.”
“To you, maybe, but to me . . . more.” And not waiting for a response I continued, “As I recall a single limb protruded from the upper portion of his trunk. Hawks often lit on that branch to check for prey or to just catch a brief rest before taking off again.
“I must tell you, my heart was broken when I made one of my visits to our farm and found that a storm or rot, eating away at his base had laid him to rest on the forest floor . . . and here he lies. Dust to dust.”
“Yeah, one of billions,” Arnie said in an unsympathetic tone.
“Snag may be gone,” I said, “but the partial floor of an old cabin is still here.” There a few yards from the base of the snag, the foundation and floor of a would-be cabin also lay returning to dust.
“We’re a long way from anything but trees,” Arnie opined, “the fellow who started this must have been a out of his mind.”
“He probably just liked being out-of-doors,” I said, “What’s wrong with that?”
“If he liked living in the woods so much, why didn’t he finish it?”
“You tell me,” I challenged.
“Try this…” Arnie said taking the reins.
“Larz, the clumsy, romantic logger tells his lady Nel, that he is building a palace for her in the enchanted forest. She’s interested . . . she wants to see it . . . but he tells her he’s not quite ready to show her.
“‘But you are going to die when you see it,’ he tells her. He spends Saturdays and Sundays working on it. He hauls all the materials up the mountain, lays the foundation and constructs the floor. He’s proud of what he’s done. He can visualize Nel and him sitting by the fireplace in romantic bliss. But, he decides he better check with his lady friend before he invests too much more time and expense on it
“It’s Sunday afternoon. Larz and Nel have gone to church . . . Larz is excited. He talks Nel into packing a picnic lunch. They head out up the gravel road toward the Snag. Nel is in her Sunday best. Larz is in what logger Larz would wear.
“The gravel road is hard on Nel’s nice shoes, but is passable. At first the walk in the woods is romantic . . . charming even. But the palace is a distance away from the gravel road and the trail Larz has made to the cabin is crude. By the time they arrive at the mansion site, the bottom of Nel’s dress is torn in several places and her shoes are caked with mud . . . ruined.
“Larz has two three-legged stools sitting near the opening of the fireplace chimney . . . otherwise . . . nothing. No doors, no windows, no walls, no roof . . . just a bare floor.
“‘Well, what do you think?’ Larz asked Nel, sitting himself on a stool and inviting her to sit on the other.
“‘Larz, you big lumbering oaf, you said I was going to die when I saw your palace. You are wrong about that . . . I’ve seen it and I’m not dead. But I’ll tell you this, I’m dying to get out of here.’
“With that Nel strikes out back down the trail toward town. Larz sits for a long time contemplating what went wrong.
“‘It’s women, that’s what it is,’ and Larz abandoned the palace and never came back . . . and here she is just as she was the day Nel fled the scene.”
“That’s good Arn,” I laughed, “But I doubt that’s what happened.”
“Well, you don’t have a better explanation, do you?”
Arnie had me. Absent court records or an eyewitness account, Arnie’s explanation was as good as any.
“Come on, walk on with me . . . l want to show you the lower barn.” We headed away from the palace and the corpse of Snag and began trudging uphill toward the county road.
The dense forest we were walking through was a part of the watershed that fed the city’s water supply. The rotting foliage and other natural debris on the forest floor filtered the water as it made its way down to Fox Creek at the bottom of the canyon. Trickles of water crawling downhill joined other trickles and still others until they became mini-streams and small pools.
The gurgling sound of the water reminded Arnie that they hadn’t planned wisely for their hike.
“You thirsty?” Arnie asked.
“Could use a drink,” I said stopping beside him.
He knelt beside a rock-laden pool, and bent down to take a healthy swallow of cool water.
“You’re not going to drink that, are you?” I asked in disbelief.
“Yeah,” Arnie said confidently, “Why not?”
“For one thing, it hasn’t been treated.”
Arnie laughed, “Oh yeah? Nature is treating it.”
“Man, you don’t know what has relieved itself in it up stream . . . do you? Deer, mountain lions, cougar, squirrels and other animals relieving themselves. Who knows what diseases you might catch?”
“It doesn’t take much filtering to purify it in this environment. It’ll be fine,” he said putting his lips to the water’s smooth surface and sucking in several thirst quenching gulps.
The beads of water dripping from his chin excited my thirst. When I tramped these woods those many years ago, I did like Arnie had just done without second thought. Like most of us, a generation of pronouncements by medical authorities on dozens of health issues had influenced my behavior. Untreated water was unsafe to drink. Yet, 60 years ago I had drunk from a pool just like this one . . . maybe even this same pool . . . and, yet here I am alive and well. I threw caution to the wind, knelt down and lost myself in the pleasure of drinking from nature’s primitive fountain.
“So, you told me you had no running water at your barn house. What on earth did you do for safe water?”
“Like I told you, there was a fresh water spring near our lower barn. It flowed into a round cement tank with an opening just above ground level. A wooden deck spanned the opening to keep animals and debris from falling in.”
“Bet it took a pretty powerful pump to get the water from the spring up the hill to your mom’s kitchen.”
I laughed and scoffed, “Powerful pump alright!” Raising my arms to show him my biceps, I said, “These were our powerful pumps.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Arnie said in disbelief.
“Not kidding! Six of us living in the barn house with no running water . . . that’s a lot of carrying.”
“Man, as adventurous as I am . . . even I would have a hard time with that. I’m afraid to ask . . .” He paused and then asked, “What about a bathroom. How did you handle that?”
“Handle that?” I laughed again and answered, “Use your imagination. We did live in the woods, after all, so there was some degree of privacy . . . but not much. I got tired of such exposure and tried to build an outhouse.
“I gathered the sparse supplies and simple tools we had and started on it . . . but, my efforts produced only a standing platform behind which at squatting level was a two seater over an open pit. The ‘facility’ had no side, no door, no roof . . . just a two seater hidden by a few straggly alder, huckleberry and other privacy providing bushes.”
Arnie had found a spot on a log to sit on . . . and there he sat listening to my saga.
“I also got tired of carrying water up that hill . . . I decided to dig a well to find water. My dad had bought an additional three acres across the county road from the barn house believing that a plentiful water supply could be found on it and that someday he could build a suitable home for us there. An elderly man lived on the hill below us. Somehow, I came to understand that he was a water witch. I asked him if he could locate an underground spring for me on our newly acquired three acres. He came to the property with a three-foot or so forked branch of a willow.
Water witches claim that underground water draws the unpeeled portion of the tree branch toward the ground above. They hold on to one branch of the willow fork in one hand and grasp the other branch with the second hand. The witch does his witching by holding the willow properly in front of him and walking over the ground in an arbitrary pattern until ground water pulls the third appendage of willow toward the ground. My witch got a hit 20 yards or so east off the road. The determined old man began approaching the spot from all direction. Strike after strike . . . He was sure there was water here. He asked no money in payment . . . He knew that I didn’t have any.
“I got hold of a posthole auger and began extracting dirt from the ground above the spring. The digger would dig about 5 feet before the handles began to scrape the ground. I added a 5-foot section of pipe to the auger and continued to dig though the additional length made it heavier and harder to handle. I rigged a pulley from a nearby tree to help me pull out each auger full of dirt but the deeper I got the more dirt fell from the digger as it scrapped the sides of the hole coming out.
Eventually, at about 12 feet, I concluded that with my primitive digging tools there would be no water coming from this hole.”
“You ever tell the witch that there was no water?”
“No, I never saw him again. And who knows but what there wasn’t a gushing spring flowing at 13 feet down . . . I thought about it and wondered. I just swallowed hard and moved on.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Yeah, it would be interesting to know where the people who live here now get their water. They certainly don’t lug it halfway around the world in 5-gallon cream cans . . . “
“Probably not,” Arnie laughed. “No doubt they have fancy pumps and up-to-date plumbing to get water to stylish kitchens . . . but your mom . . . no running water in the kitchen or bathroom. Had to be a rugged life for her.”
“Yeah, my mom cooked on a wood-burning stove,” I laughed. “We hill people had little need for pressed pants, dresses and shirts, but, when she did need to iron something, she would snap the wooden handle to the heating iron she kept sitting near the flue at the back of the stove and do her best to press the wrinkles out.”
“How’d you get the wood for the stove?”
I laughed. “We did live in the woods, remember. We had no chainsaw, of course so my brother Dave and I did a lot of cutting with our trusty six-foot cross cut saw . . . lot of work . . . producing not much wood…”
“Wow, keeping the wood box full would be a lot of back and forth movement of that crosscut.”
“Well, Dad did buy truckloads of slab wood from the local sawmill. Cutting that into stove lengths wasn’t so hard. We heated one room of the drafty barn house with an oil-burning stove that sat in the room next to the kitchen. We spent lots of freezing nights hugging that heater . . . bundled up to our ears in blankets.”
“I can see it . . . huddled masses,” Arnie joked.
“Yeah, easy to joke about it now . . . not so funny, then. On the other hand, I don’t remember any of us complaining about our circumstances. We were a pretty stoic bunch . . . ‘stiff upper lip’ as the Brits would say.”
“What’d you Pikes do for entertainment?” Arnie asked. “Probably not fine needled work holed up in those dimly lit rooms.”
“Entertainment?” I grunted, surprised at a question. I’d never thought about what we did in terms of entertainment. I paused to think about it.
“Evening card games? With eight of you . . . did you ever sing songs together?” Arnie offered.
I fell silent . . . “I don’t remember singing or card games and the like.”
“How about books? Your mom had been a teacher in Texas . . . your dad a preacher . . . they would have known about the value of books.”
“You’d think . . . but I don’t remember books . . . textbooks maybe . . . don’t remember,” I laughed. “We did listen to the radio a lot . . . we young’uns liked cowboy adventures . . . The Lone Ranger, Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy.”
“Don’t forget Superman and Captain Midnight. I liked those and the scary ones like The Shadow.”
“Yeah, I loved the squeaky door in Inner Sanctum Mysteries,” I imitated the screechy sound the door made as it slowly opened.
We both laughed.
“How about board games . . . Checkers?”
“Don’t remember . . .” my voice trailed off into the distance.
We walked in silence for a while.
“Entertainment?” I said bringing the topic to life again. We kids were in school and helped with the farm. Dad worked at the paper mill and spent what time and energy he had left grooming his dream. Mom exhausted herself keeping the household functioning. In a way you could say that nature was our entertainment and entertaining enough, it was. I laughed and asked, “Hasn’t it been entertaining experiencing the wonders of nature on our walk today?”
“You’ve got a point,” Arnie said sucking in a lung full of fresh air.
“Yeah, and nature was more than entertainment . . . I gotta tell you. She taught us to be creative. In the forest under those majestic trees we built towns in the soft dirt. We didn’t have money . . . but we were richer than the wealthiest town folks among us or in the distance, for that matter.”
“Really?” Arnie voiced betraying skepticism. “How so?”
We crawled on hands and knees among the patches of sword fern and other creeping ground cover, carving out matrixes of roads. We used large flat medicine bottles for bulldozers . . . smaller bottles became luxury cars. We carefully arranged chunks of bark to become dwelling places . . . They were really elaborate palaces.
Evergreen cones and rocks were our cattle. We arranged sticks into fences. Day after day the complex grew into a ranch . . .then a series of ranches and finally into a towns. We were richer than, “I paused almost afraid to say it . . . but did. “Richer than God.”
Arnie laughed. “Guess you were rich . . . In your minds anyway . . . guess that’s almost as good as real. But, I wonder what God would say about your reality.”
We continued to make our way though the woods toward the road until we came to a galvanized wire fence.
“The new owners had done what we tried to do back then,” I said testing the tension of the top wire.
Arnie stepped up on a log near the fence and holding onto a metal post let himself down on the other side. “Putting a fence like this through the woods requires big time effort, doesn’t it?” Arnie noted.
“Yeah, hauling materials, digging post holes, stringing and stretching wire . . . required levels of horse power and stamina my dad and I hadn’t yet found the skills to do. Without proper fencing our Brown Swiss bull, Kingfish, wandered our property at will and often made his way the neighbor’s property. He had a ring in his nose with a short rope attached to it to help us control the powerful animal.
“Once I could not find him. For several days I searched to no avail. Finally, a man who had stepped forward to help Mom, searched until he found the lost bull. The short rope attached to the ring had caught on a bush. The poor animal was terribly dehydrated and weak. I was ashamed that I didn’t have what it took to find him.
“I give my dad credit. He was trying to get it done. He’d bought the necessary wire in preparation for putting up a fence that would enclose our property, but he died before he could realize it.”
Arnie stopped short almost in shock. “Died! What on earth happened?”
“I’ll get to that . . . For now, I just want you to get a feel for the character of our dad’s quixotic dream: Thumbs Up Ranch he called it. Thumbs Up Ranch.”
“Thumbs Up Ranch… now there’s an optimistic name,” Arnie said.
“Yeah, he thought he had found paradise on this blessed plot of ground. For him it had unlimited possibilities. He visualized a bountiful garden . . . a Garden of Eden bursting forth with all manner of crops. His spirit was that of a poet. ’Thumbs Up Ranch, The land of the Yellow Bloom Hop,’ he printed on his business card.
“He thought the ground was fertile and the rains plentiful enough to produce whatever crop he wanted to grow . . . that eventually we would have healthy, opulent orchards bearing apples, pears and prunes and whatever else came to mind. He bought three registered Brown Swiss calves . . . a bull and two heifers. He dreamed that the ranch would become known for its quality livestock . . . perfect, unblemished registered purebred cattle . . . suitable for sacrifice in the Temple. He was on the verge of creating the Elysian Fields right here in the damp hills of Columbia County, Oregon.”
Yes, it would be paradise.
“During the first two years he worked hard to launch his dream. He prepared an acre or so of ground below the upper barn using a horse-drawn swivel blade plow. That’s where we planted the strawberries. Close to the barn house, we planted beans, boysenberries, potatoes, and a range of vegetables.”
“Hold on a second,” Arnie injected interrupting my narrative. “You keep saying barn house? Tell me more about that.”
“Give me a sec,” I said wanting to finish my thought. “As I’ve said, he also bought galvanized barbed wire to fence in our property . . . hopefully, to keep our livestock at home and unwanted animals out.
“The barn house?”
“Okay, back to the barn house. I think I told you that a year or so after we arrived in Oregon, our house caught fire and burned to the ground.”
“You did mention it,” Arnie said.
“The house was old . . . don’t know how old but it seemed to be in good shape. Dad worked as an oiler at Longview Fiber across the Columbia River from Rainier, and the day it burned he was at work. My brother Willard, well that’s what we called him, though he later let it be known that he wanted to be called Al. He was in high school as was brother Erskine who preferred to be called Dave. LaJuana and I were at the grade school on C Street and Mother was at home with Carolyn and Jerry whose preferred name was Milam.
“Carolyn confessed much later, that while Mother was upstairs or somewhere taking care of Jerry, she noticed that the kitchen stove needed more wood. Trying to be helpful she opened the firebox lid to put in wood . . . somehow a hot cinder ignited nearby fuel and before she knew it the hot spot had grown into a full blown fire.
“Mother tried to put out the flames with pathetic cups of water from our cistern . . . alas it was too meager . . . alas, too late. Mom scurried Carolyn and Jerry out and away from the burning house. The three of them could only stand and watch it burn to the ground.
“Someone reported the fire to the fire department . . . sirens blew warning everyone in the little town that a fire was raging somewhere. We grade school kids were at recess. It was Friday, April 13, 1945 and I remember it as clearly as I do this moment. ‘Unlucky! Friday the 13th! Unlucky for someone,’ we all shouted. I don’t remember who or exactly when, but LaJuana and I were called from our classrooms and informed that we were the unlucky ones. ‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.’
“Wonderful friends and neighbors took us all in until we could find suitable housing. That’s where the barn house comes in. Mr. Cummings, the high school Ag teacher marshaled his students to help my dad build a structure that they thought would be temporary living quarters until my dad could build permanent home for us. So when the final windows and doors were in place, we moved in. We lived there until after my dad died and Mom moved us into town.”
“Living in a barn . . . that’s cool today . . . had to be a blast,” Arnie said participating vicariously in our adventure.
“A blast?” I repeated Arnie’s words. “Yeah, it had that quality about it. It had single shiplap walls with no insolation. There were five rooms on the ground floor and one long single room running the length of the upstairs. We were able to plug knotholes with paper and rags to keep out some of winter’s cold and dampness. So ‘blast’ could be a suitable word to describe our time living in the barn house.”
“Sounds like a Spartan existence . . . Tell me more about what you did for fun?”
“I told you, nature was our fun. We didn’t seem to know, we weren’t having fun,” I paused and we both laughed.
“Actually, we did play sports. Dave nailed a bottomless gallon tin can to a stud in one of the rooms of the barn house. A softball, which was the right fit for what we were doing, was our basketball. Pseudo dribble, a fake and a dunk. We played that hour after hour. Dave usually beat me . . . he was older and taller.
“That Dave was a bit of a daredevil. He also rigged up a pole-vaulting apparatus in the yard . . . out of two lengths of vine maple stuck in the ground. Twigs near the top of each upright held a willowy stick that could be easily knocked off with the slightest touch of a foot or trailing hand. He fashioned another length of vine maple to serve as a vaulting pole. Dangerous? I’d say . . . but we jumped over that maple stick time after time perfecting our skills. Funny thing though, neither of us joined the school’s track team as pole vaulters.”
“Your dad was a bit of a daredevil too, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, in a manner of speaking. Hoping for prosperity, he uprooted his family from the dry plains of Texas, crawled them over the Rocky Mountains and planted them in western Oregon.”
I paused to reflect for a moment on the magnitude of his actions. “And, had he lived long enough, he might have accomplished it. But, he dreamed an impossible dream. In many ways, he was still living in a past era. He’d grown up with horses on the plains of Texas. His ancestors were people of the soil. His father was killed when he fell into the machinery while working in a cotton gin. All my dad had known before moving to Oregon was the flat dry prairies of Texas. His people used horsepower to tame the land… used horses for everything. He knew horses and hay. Being the dreamer he was, he thought that he too, could use the two worn out horses he bought shortly after settling on our Oregon acreage to tame the land.”
We came across a few remnants of the barn at the edge of the forest.
“It’s not here anymore, but this is where the lower barn used to sit. Every afternoon it was my job to bring the cow into the barn and milk her. Don’t remember milking her in the morning, which I think you are supposed to do to keep her delivering milk.” I chuckled, “I’m sure I squirted more milk in the cat’s mouth and at Carolyn and into my own mouth than into the pail. So much for me being a responsible son . . . one that was supposed to doing their part to support the family.”
We came to the skeletal remains of what once was the pear orchard. Aggressive, thorn-clad clusters of Himalayan and Evergreen blackberries were gradually consuming it. “The spring where we got our water is here somewhere,” I said gesturing at the invasive briars. Arnie and I spent several minutes thrashing through the berry vines to find it, but the thorny barrier was too formidable. All we managed to do was cause multiple rips in our clothes and endure blood-producing cuts on our arms and legs. “No getting to it, now,” I said admitting defeat.
“What’s this?” Arnie asked as we came across a weather beaten bed of a four-wheel wagon. The amoeba like berry vines had not yet reached the cart. When they did it too would be consumed. The tongue was where it had dropped after bringing the family and their belongings from Texas to Oregon.
“That was our covered wagon,” I said remembering riding in it on the way from Texas to Oregon.
“That’s gotta be a story,” Arnie said coaxing me to share.
“Yeah, there’s a story alright. From the lonesome prairies of the West Texas Panhandle to the Land of Milk and Honey in Oregon. Ha, ha . . . a 1942 Plymouth pulling a covered wagon no less.”
“The Pioneer Pikes, huh?” Arnie chortled.
“And this is the wagon . . . this is what’s left of it. Almost immediately on getting us to Oregon, Dad sold the car and invested it in the Thumbs Up Ranch.”
“All six of you kids were just young’uns, weren’t you?”
“I was 10 . . . the rest on both sides of 10. Al was 16 and the oldest and Jerry was a toddler.”
“Six kids and two parents . . . no wonder your dad had to pull a covered wagon.”
“Yeah, Mom and the little ones rode in the car. Al must have had his driver’s license . . . I remember him spelling Dad at the wheel some. Mom never learned to drive so she was always in the back seat with Carolyn and Jerry. Dave, LaJuana and I took turns riding the car.”
“Yeah, you laugh. A covered wagon . . .that’s what it was. I put my hand on one of the upright poles at each corner of the wagon. “These corner uprights and ribs ran up the sides and across the top and supported the canvas cover that protected our belongings from rain.”
“Everything of worth that you owned was carried in this wagon,” Arnie marveled. “I’d say that for the Morris Russell Pike Sr. and Nola Joy Pike family, this trip was one of no turning back.”
“Yeah . . . on the bed rested trunks, boxes and bags that held our belongings. The bags were wonderful for lying on during those long hours of travel. I preferred to ride in the wagon. There was room to move about and though we couldn’t see the terrain ahead or through the canvas sides, the door at the back was always open. I never told my folks and we never squealed on one another, but we would sit on a step mounted halfway between the wagon bed and the ground. I loved sitting on that step with my feet dangling just above the pavement watching where we had been move into the distance. The terrain was ever changing.”
“Wouldn’t you say that was a bit dangerous sitting on that step?” Arnie understated.
“Guess it was, but it didn’t seem that way to me. It wasn’t as if we were racing to Oregon. In those days there weren’t freeways . . . lots of slow going here and there and we were almost always traveling through mountains. You gotta believe crawling through those Rockies was slow going. That loaded trailer was a pretty good drag on that Plymouth. There were times when I’m sure it was in low gear. I thought I could jump off and trot behind the covered wagon and not have to worry about getting left behind . . . I would be at the mercy of marauding Indians of course so I never did. Just saying that I wanted to.”
“That’s quite a contrast between Texas and what you were seeing, I’d think.”
“A shock is what it was. I remember leaving Farwell, Texas . . . traveling through the hills and into the mountains of Raton Pass in Northern New Mexico. We stopped at a filling station for gas and restrooms and to stretch our legs . . . though we covered wagon riders didn’t really need to stretch our legs. The air was crisp and clear.
“Near the station, a creek gushed under the highway and off down the canyon toward a river somewhere below. I remember being astonished at the clearness of the water . . . the smell in the air and the sense of wonder. The ditches, creeks and rivers in West Texas all seemed sluggish and muddy to me after seeing these inviting, gorgeous pure waters.
I think it was at this stop that I learned about the wonders of Nesbit Orange soda pop. Even though the Raton Pass was at an elevation making the evenings cooler, the sun on the canvas cover all day made the wagon hot. The bottle of Nesbit was like nectar from the gods. I can taste it yet. And when I see it, or a reasonable facsimile, a distant lust for it comes over me.”
“Yeah, I feel that way about Snapple . . . ‘Made from the best stuff on earth,’” Arnie laughed.
“Gotta feeling we were both sold a bill of goods by the good folks who market those drinks,” I returned.
“Sure . . . but the mind is the ultimate persuader. If it weren’t Nesbit and Snapple, it’d be something else.”
“Like my dad’s quixotic vision of Oregon, this covered wagon and its contents were headed for the land of milk and honey and nothing could change it. If it didn’t seem that way on our arrival, he thought the right ingredients and hard work would make it so.”
“So you were shocked by the extreme character of the different terrains you encountered?”
“Yes, and not just the terrain. This was 1944, and the Second World War was still raging overseas. The US industrial complex had geared up to produce what our armies needed to win that war so everything from sugar to gasoline was rationed. Citizens were encouraged to reduce consumption even on stuff that wasn’t rationed.
“ In those days automobile tires were still made predominantly of rubber. I remember our little covered wagon approaching Denver, Colo. In the distance we could see a pile of used tires destined to be recycled. The pile seemed to reach into the sky . . . I had never seen anything like it before, nor since, for that matter.
“It was also somewhere near Denver that my dad picked up a young hitchhiker. I had mixed emotions about the intrusion of a stranger into the dynamics of our family. The man rode in the car and I believe even helped Dad drive. But Mom was opposed to having him with us . . . he made nine in our party and was strain on our food supply. It also impacted her sense of security to have a total stranger in the car . . . it was beyond her willingness to tolerate. Ordinarily, she was pretty subservient to Dad’s wishes, but this proved to be too much. It wasn’t long before Dad told the young man that he could no longer ride with us.
“From Denver, we entered the foothills of the Rockies. Foothills, hah! It was more like foot mountains. Nursing that Plymouth and trailer up the steep grades was slow going, which made lots of opportunity for me to enjoy my seat on the step. I rode admiring incredible vistas of canyons and distant ridges blending pale azure blue mountains against the pale-azure blue sky. An abundance of evergreen trees, mostly pine, populated the steep shoulders off the highway on the downhill side of the road.
“Somewhere along the highway in northwestern Colorado or southern Wyoming, one of the tires on the wagon blew out. Dad parked the rig on a berm on the passenger side overlooking vast open space of a gigantic canyon. Just to look over the edge tightened the stomach muscles. Fortunately, Dad had anticipated that probability. We had at least one spare tire . . . on a rim, I think. He jacked up the corner of the wagon, extracted the rim holding the blown tire and rolled it over the edge of the precipice. It was a thrilling sight to watch the disk gather speed on its downward descent. Rolling, hitting rocks, hurtling into the air gathering more speed until it finally disappeared behind a row of trees.”
“I’d liked to have seen that,” Arnie said admiringly.
“Yes, but most likely, you’d want it to be a once in a lifetime event . . . today you’d be fined for littering.”
“Any more tire troubles?” Arnie quizzed.
“I don’t remember any covered-wagon or car trouble the rest of the way to Rainier . . . pretty amazing considering the character of the terrain and distance we traveled.”
“It was then on into Idaho and on into Oregon, right?”
“Highway 30 crosses into the northeastern portion of Oregon and follows the Columbia River all the way to Rainier. In those days, that highway was something else. No freeway . . . one lane of traffic in each direction and hair-pin curves one after the other.
“The view however, was beyond belief. One breathtaking vista after another. The further we traveled west into the Columbia River Gorge, the cooler the air became. We were accustomed to life on the flat sterile plains in Texas. Now we were being thrust into sharp hills and unimaginable opulence of vegetation. Mind blowing stuff for a kid.
“When we arrived in Rainier, Dad pulled the wagon into the front yard of friends who lived on a country road four or five miles out of town. We were exhausted, the covered wagon was exhausted and the Plymouth was exhausted. It wasn’t long after that that my dad sold the car and we never owned another one. We either caught rides from friends or walked . . . and if my memory serves me well, we mostly walked.”
“Well, this old relic served your family well,” Arnie said letting himself down from the wagon bed.
“Yeah, there’s an emotional attachment to it . . . I suppose that’s why it’s still here. Almost everything else we brought with us is long gone . . . if not by fire, then something.”
“Walked everywhere? That had to be tough.”
“It was, but I don’t remember any of us complaining. Life in that little town and on those country roads was good.”
“What all did your dad do for money . . . he’d been a preacher and a builder in Texas . . . what in Rainier?”
“First, he worked as a night watchman at the Van Fleet Lumber Mill down by the Longview Bridge in West Rainier. Later he worked at the smelly paper mill across the Columbia River on the Washington side. As an oiler, he squirted oil into lubrication ports on the huge machinery.”
“And Thumbs Up Ranch? When did he find time for that?”
“Ha . . . you’d have to know him. He had boundless energy and confidence in his skills that made up for the skills he lacked. When he finished a shift at the paper mill, he used whatever daylight was left to hook up our horses, Charlie and Prince, and plow or till one of the fields. I can still see him silhouetted against the sky at dusk, his hands on the plow handles, the leather reins over his right shoulder . . . stumbling along the uneven ground, plodding away trying to make his quixotic dream a reality.”
“You’ve said it was a quixotic dream before. Why do you say that?”
“Quixotic. He saw these 81 acres as garden paradise, when what he really had was a plot land, which had long ago ceased to produce any crop worth marketing. He had ground that had two old orchards, grassland for hay and acres of timber that would need another two-dozen years to reach marketable size. And without constant attention brush, tenacious weeds and wild blackberries on all sides would consume the open, fallow acreage. I have to say that without power equipment and manual help what he had was an albatross around his neck.
“I had a sense of foreboding even then. Hundreds of times over the years, I’ve wondered why my dad spent money on purebred registered Brown Swiss cattle and nothing on power equipment to work the ground. I suspect that, if he had lived, he would have come to realize that without power equipment bringing this land into income producing property was impossible.”
“’If he had lived,’ you said something like that before. I’ve got to ask, what happened?”
I swallowed hard. There is still a lingering jolt when I relive that terrible day but, it was and is my reality.
“I don’t need to know, if you’d rather not talk about it,” Arnie said sharing a shadow of my discomfort.
“No, it’s good for me to get it down in words. I’ll tell you.”
Arnie shifted his position on the covered wagon and I sat down beside him. “I was almost 14 when he died. My sisters Carolyn and LaJuana and my brother Jerry were younger and still at home. My older brothers were gone from home. Al had married and David was a student at Willamette University in Salem.
“It was Sunday, August 19, 1948. Carolyn and LaJuana had gone to church. I believe Jerry was at home with Mom. They were in the house. I was outside helping Dad prepare to cut a power line from a power pole at the corner of our property next to the county road. In Texas, Dad had done a lot of electrical work when he built houses part time. He had a pair of pole climbing footwear stirrups . . . each piece had a sharp spike on the arch side each foot. The stirrup was secured to the leg with a strap that wrapped around the leg just below the knee.
“Dad and I were near the power pole. At the cross member near the top of the pole sat a transformer whose purpose was to transform high voltage into the correct level for household consumption. When our house burned, the electric lines that had supplied our home were removed. Yet, for some reason or another, the power company left in place the wires running from the transformer pole to the ground. They had cut the wires on the transformer side, the hot side, so that no electricity could flow to the ground. I don’t know why they left those dangling lines in place. The wires lay on the ground for the most part covered by grass and weeds.
“That situation gnawed at my dad. Apparently, he worried that somehow the power in those high voltage wires would arc into contact with the dead wires sending deadly current to the ground. A cow, or one of us might get too near and be badly hurt or killed. I don’t know if he ever asked the company to take them down. Years later it dawned on me that there was serious liability for negligence on the part of the power company. Dad decided to take it on himself to take down the annoying, if not dangerous, electric lines.
“That Sunday morning he put on his climbing stirrups and started for the power pole. Another piece of electrical equipment Dad used was a heavy harness and leather belt placed around the pole with a heavy hook snapped into place at waist level.
“Dad started to place the belt around the pole when he remembered a tool he’d forgotten. He told me to go to the house to get it. I have no recollection about which tool it was. It was a hundred yards or so from the front door on the barn house to the power pole. I covered the distance in a minute or so and entered through the kitchen door which was located on the southern end of the rectangular structure. The power pole was north of the barn house . . . I have no recollection of what it was that I fetched for him.
I came out of the kitchen door, took the two or three steps it took to clear the house, turn the corner to head north toward the scene. I looked up and in the distance blue-white smoke drifted west in the gentle breeze. My breath froze . . . Stop . . . Sound froze into silence . . . Stop . . . the sky froze, Stop . . . the birds in the air froze, Stop. But there was no stopping. The blue-white smoke continued to swell into the air, I desperately gasped for a lung full of a minute ago . . . but I was forced to come to the now. I knew what had happened. My dad had come into contact with high voltage wires. I learned later that those wires carried 6900 volts of electricity. Dad couldn’t have known what hit him . . . the leather belt that held him against the pole also held him in place while the searing power of the electricity continued to cook him.
“There was no more time for shock. I whirled around and dashed back into the house to tell Mother. She must have looked. I don’t remember. She told me to run for help. There came over me a bit of disorienting shock. Instead of running downhill for help, which would have been the quickest thing to do, I ran up the road toward neighbors a half-mile or so away.
In an instant my world had completely changed. What had just happened to me was surreal. One part of my brain couldn’t accept that it was true. This was an illusion. The other part of me knew full well what had happened and that it could never be undone. What would happen to our family? What would happen in our lives? How would we survive? What would happen to Thumbs Up Ranch?”
Both Arnie and I fell silent. There was a certain sense of relief at having once more visited this life changing tragedy and there was a sense of exhaustion. I stood up and looked north toward the pole on which my dad had lost his life. It was still there and so am I.
For a long while we both stood in silence leaning our backs against the trailer bed.
Finally, Arnie said, “That’s powerful stuff . . . local to you, but cosmic for you as well. As for the rest of us, we can only empathize.”
“The telling of it is good for me, thanks for listening.”
More moments of silence, then Arnie said, “The aftermath, that had to be tough, was it not?”
“Yeah, my mom had to gather strength from the depths of her being and move on.”
“I would say she was one tough cookie.”
“Your dad’s dream suddenly dumped on your mom and you young ones.”
“Mom had to deal with the devastating loss of her husband and get him buried. And then, essentially alone, she could start to focus on the rest. Though she had come from a farming family in Texas and had taught school in Texas, her life since marriage had been devoted to raising six children.
“Brother Al was married living in California, so it wasn’t practical or desirable for him to come back to Oregon. Brother Dave dropped out of Willamette and came home to help with expenses and be there for the family. His assistance in helping Mom through difficult months was monumental. But, while he helped Mom with expenses, he had no skills, nor interest in ranching. It nags at my conscience that at even 14 I was not equipped to help Mom take over and manage the farm and the thought of not being able to do so still troubles me to this day. I also wish I had better expressed my appreciation to Dave for the sacrifice he made to our family while he was still alive.
“Brother David’s help and the little money Mom had saved tided us over until the next spring when we could start earning money by picking strawberries. Mom, LaJuana, Carolyn, Jerry (just a little fellow) and I would get up at sunrise every morning, get on a flatbed truck, ride it to one of the several berry patches. Crawling on your knees filling and pushing the six Halleck berry carrier was backbreaking work. There were 20 or so berry pickers in our crew. Mom, driven by the need to support her and us was consistently the champion picker. We four kids did contribute some to the family coffer but lacked the desperate motivation that must have driven her. Picking strawberries was alien to her mind and her body but not her spirit.
After a year so living in the barn house and liquidating our assets, Mom moved us into a small rental on D Street in Rainier. She did what was necessary to get her Oregon teaching credential and took a job teaching at the Rainier Grade School. With a steady income, she bought our house on C Street. I understand the house is still known as ‘The Pike House.’”
“’The Pike House’ Arnie mouthed in amusement. Seems appropriate to me… probably should be named ‘The Nola Joy Pike House,’ wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yeah, Arn. You’ve now experienced my life on that hill above Rainier and met my dad the dreamer. You’ve seen our mom deal with the impossible. She was the keel for our family and I salute her memory. She was an incredible example of thumbs up.
“Thanks for walking with me.”
Born in Texas and raised in Oregon, Dr. Pike earned his undergraduate degree at Cascade College, his Masters in Education at the University of Oregon and a PhD in Theatre at Kent State University.
He taught both grade school and high school in Cottage Grove, Oregon, college at Cascade College in Portland, Oregon and Malone College in Canton, Ohio and retired in 1998 as Professor Emeritus from Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California.
In his retirement he conceived the irascible and lovable pirate Captain Book, who appears at libraries, classrooms and hospitals inspiring children to read. To date he has given away more than 90,000 free books to children who would not otherwise have them.
A recipient of many service awards and honors, Dr. Pike’s hobbies include: photography, woodworking, gardening, jewelry making and writing. He has written, produced and directed scores of plays and a number of sketches and musicals during his teaching career including: “The Eighth from Adam,” an allegory about Noah including the lyrical song, “Noah, You’re a Top of the Order, First Class, A Number One, Nut, Nut, Nut… Nut.” He has written three novels and several children’s stories for his grandchildren (see Stories for Children and Up at countrytraveleronline.com). Dr. Pike currently lives in Encinitas California.
Thumbs Up Ranch photos by LaJuana Pike Drazdoff.