Like steppingstones along a meandering stream, dirty puddles of water dotted the dusty road. Nothing more than a trail, really, the remote old road cut a wagon-width path through rolling acres of Oregon wheat fields. Barbed cheatgrass and weeds growing between the tire tracks scratched against the bottom of the almost-new Datsun station wagon.
A tail of dust billowed up behind us, which seemed odd, with water standing in the road.
“Must have been a rain shower shortly before we got here,” I noted. I shifted down, slowing the car as we hit the first puddle, spattering mud against the bright red paint. The slower pace helped us maneuver the ruts, already hardened, which another vehicle had carved into the road some time before us. Slowing down didn’t relieve my anxiety about being on that isolated trail, however.
Slick, tarry mud pulled against the tires, forcing a fishtail swerve. The men wouldn’t be happy if they knew we were driving here without anyone knowing. Traffic was so scarce that no one would find us for days if we had trouble. The wind blew untethered across the wheat stubble, pushing at the little car as we bounced across the old, hard ruts and swerved through the puddles.
Years later, that trail would become the symbol of our conquered fears, of plans made and shifted, of the fickleness of nature and the constancy of faith, and of the kindness and complexity of the people who changed with us because we all drove down that old, rutted road to carve a new one.
But on that day in 1982, I drove on that road for the first time.
“My husband, Jerry, has always driven when we’ve come here before,” I said to the somber passenger beside me. “But I’m sure this is the right way. I just didn’t pay that much attention to the distance, so I’m not sure how far the dirt road goes before we reach the river.” My friend, Kay Krall, nodded, her white knuckles grasping the door handle.
We traveled a few more miles in silence.
Pungent puppy breath steamed the edges of the windows. Too young to leave behind, two eight-week-old puppies accompanied us. Occasionally, we tried to drown out the squeals of the roly-poly pups by turning up Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing in the tape deck.
I adjusted the rearview mirror to deflect the sun’s glare as it began its descent behind Mount Hood. Dusk would settle in soon. It would be unwise to stay out here until dark.
A massive power line stretched across the road in front of us, cutting a slice through the fields. The power company had replaced several of the huge steel structures and, like a giant deserting his Erector Set, tossed the old ones in a graveyard heap next to the road.
Beyond the power line lay vast miles of wheat land and prairie, with neither buildings nor trees to break the view. Wheat stubble glowed dark gold on either side of us, a sign that harvest—and the afternoon—was completed.
Fortunately, no snow yet slicked the narrow dirt road of Sherman County—Oregon’s smallest—or dusted the fields like powdered sugar over fork-pressed peanut-butter cookies.
Purples and deep oranges on the rimrocks broke the dusky shadows in the distance above the John Day River—the river that would change my life, Jerry’s, and the lives of others in ways we couldn’t have imagined then.
As Kay and I rode in the Datsun, we couldn’t see the river yet; but I pointed, directing Kay’s eyes to the top of the dry ravines that broke steeply to the stream below. An occasional chukar, a game partridge, ran down the road in front of us before lifting and setting its striped wings to soar down one of the deep ravines. A mule deer popped its head above the sagebrush, then, seemingly unconcerned with our presence, lowered its head to resume grazing.
The puddles disappeared from the center of the road as we rolled down a steep incline. The Datsun straddled more deep ruts before we reached flatter ground. We crossed one cattle guard and then another. Finally, Kay said cautiously, “Just how far away was the last farmhouse?”
“There was a ranch about six miles back,” I answered with my most positive voice, “but no one lives there. The nearest real person, I think, lives just before we left the pavement, nearly eleven miles back.”
Kay nodded again, and I loved her for not saying aloud what she must have been thinking.
The road now wound through native bunch grass and pale sage. “It is beautiful,” Kay said, though her voice was still strained. “I’ve never seen so much open space with nothing to break it up. We can see for fifty miles. Sure different from Wisconsin.” She was referring to our shared native state, the one I’d left eight years earlier.
As I concentrated on avoiding the larger rocks that seemed to be growing in the road, our pace slowed even more. I hoped the tires were good and that we wouldn’t have a breakdown.
Eventually, we dropped down another steep descent on what resembled a cattle path. On Kay’s side, the road hugged a hill as steep as a cow’s face; on my side, deep ravines cut away from the road’s edge. A rock knocked loose by the Datsun bounced like a basketball over the close edge, dropping nearly nine hundred feet to the bottom. I longed for guardrails and reflectors.
We crept around the hairpin turn, the needle not even registering on the speedometer. My foot hovered over the brake. I stayed as close to the inside edge as I could, remembering a time when my mother had driven us on a steep dirt road after a rain in Wisconsin, and the side of the road had fallen away.
And then we saw it: a panoramic view of massive canyon walls topped by ancient lava flows, signatures of river breaks. They’d been carved by ages of wind, occasional rains, and the perpetual flow of our destination, the John Day River.
The river still meandered as it had a century ago, when thousands of pioneers had crossed it six miles downstream, nearing the end of the Oregon Trail. It meandered twenty-nine more miles before flowing into the Columbia River, separating Oregon from its northern neighbor, the state of Washington.
It meandered right through the ranch. Our ranch, the one we now owned. There were no buildings, no electricity, no phone; only this precipitous, rutted dirt road to bring us to our 160 acres bordering that wild and scenic river.
I stopped the car, set the brake, and we got out to get a better view. The air was clean and clear. October air. Crisp, but not cold as it was 160 miles south, against the mountains near Bend, Oregon, where Jerry and I had been living during our six years of marriage. I inhaled the aroma of sage and listened to the quiet, which was broken only by the piercing call of a redtailed hawk and the low chattering of Canada geese settling in along the river for the night.
Kay surveyed the view. I heard her catch her breath at the winding road before us. It had been simply bladed out of the side of the ridge and wound down like a potato peel past a tipped-over car deserted long ago. Other more vertical and now abandoned trails scarred the hills above it.
“The road goes all the way to the river, but I don’t think we’ll go any farther,” I said. I wanted to reassure my friend that we would head back out before dark. “Our driveway turns off in another mile or so. It’s pretty steep there.” I remembered a sharp 16 percent incline with deep ruts that would swallow a truck tire. “When we’re ready to leave, I think I can turn around right here,” I said, “unless you want to go all the way down.” I knew I didn’t.
Kay hastily shook her head no.
She hadn’t spoken. Either she was awed by the canyon, the river, and the road, or she was struggling to find something encouraging to say.
“You can’t see the spot where we plan to build,” I said, stepping to the edge and pointing. “It’s sort of under this ridge, up on a bench, above the river flat, so if the river ever floods, as it did back in ’64, the house won’t be threatened. And we plan to have grapes on the bench above the river, and an airstrip someplace. We’ll need to clear the sagebrush. It hasn’t been farmed since the flood, but they raised hay on it then. We’ll probably do that, too.”
Kay was still silent, so I continued, filling the void. “I know the road is pretty bad, but it is a county road, even this part we’re on…”
I didn’t really want to know what my dearest and oldest friend thought about our plan to sell everything, leave secure jobs and family, and move here, twenty-five miles from the nearest town and eleven miles from a paved road. Most of the time, I could hardly describe our reasons to myself, let alone to someone else.
“Sometimes I think it’s just insane, this plan to come here, grow grapes, and get out of our old ruts; but we both feel so strongly that it’s what we’re supposed to do. I don’t know. Most people dropped out in the sixties. I guess we’re just late bloomers,” I added lamely.
We had shared our plans with few people, and had brought only my parents and two other friends to actually see the land, fearing the horror in their eyes as they contemplated the road and our “crazy scheme.”
Jerry and Kay’s husband, Don, were together elk hunting in the mountains, and she and I had toured Oregon for a week, sharing our vacations with the puppies. In two days, she and Don would be returning to Wisconsin, to jobs and routines and normal living. We would be temporarily returning to our normal life too, but with a difference: we had sold our house and were preparing to leave jobs and routines to come here, to homestead.
Kay turned. A tall woman, she looked down at me as she spoke, putting her arm around my shoulder, hugging me as only a great friend can do, and said, “I have a lump in my throat for you.”
She squeezed my shoulder into hers as we stood staring out across the canyon that spread before us. I swallowed back my tears, not knowing I was rehearsing for a future that would take us beyond the old ruts of our relationships, expand our spiritual beliefs, push our bodies to their limits, test our skills and ingenuity, and force us to face our fears of failure, disappointments, and even death.
We couldn’t see, then, what lay ahead. We couldn’t see the agony, difficulties, and physical pain of harnessing a spring for drinking water, of securing electricity, of building a barn without electrical power, of living in a home so far from supplies, of laying miles of phone wire—twice—in 100-degree heat, of losing acres of crops to wind and days of work to floods. We couldn’t see the shell of the plane, the fuselage bent, its wing destroyed, its seats becoming a house for a striped cat.
Nor could we know then of the miracles, large and small, and the people whom we would come to know and care about, who would help us, heal us, bring humor to our lives, share our tears and laughter, and take us closer to each other and to God.
“Pretty awesome, huh?” I asked, swallowing away the tears, trying to laugh. “I’m gonna be a rancher, writer, and rattlesnake fighter!”
“It isn’t anything Don or I would want to do or could do,” Kay said. “But I have no doubt that you and Jerry can make it happen.”
I didn’t feel safe enough then to tell her that it was our belief that out stepping out onto a cloud of faith, believing we wouldn’t fall through, was what enabled us to take this risk.
We lingered a few minutes longer. I had felt peaceful once we had gotten to the land, but thinking of the road back created prickles on the back of my neck. “It could be dark before we hit the gravel again,” I said, moving toward the car.
As we climbed back into the Datsun, I wondered just how far our new house would be from the pavement.
Gingerly, I turned the car around in the narrow, rocky road, and we started climbing back up, then out across the open prairie. As we approached the wheat-stubbled fields, the road reverted from rock to dirt, the puddles reappeared, and we splashed through the ones I couldn’t avoid. We both exhaled together as we plunged through the last mudhole and felt the tire grab the firmer gravel road. I laughed. “It’s nice to be back on solid footing.”
Kay smiled, patting my hand on the gearshift that separated our seats.
“You guys are just incredible. How did you ever find this place?” she asked.
“Divine intervention!” I said. “There’s just no other explanation!”
We chuckled together, then, as I began to tell her of this “intervention,” not knowing that our faith in that explanation would be well tested. I also could not know then how that faith would carry us through the years as we bounced over the old ruts and onto the new roads we never dreamed were there.