Monday, August 24, 2009

Chieftain column, July

And Furthermore
Jon Rombach

Rodeo week. Good times. I especially like being in the parade. Driving real slow. Taking your time … between Enterprise and Joseph. On the highway. Going 35. Sometimes even 40 miles per hour. It did give me a chance to read the bumper stickers from all the places those RV’s had been to. How they ever covered that much ground at the speed they drive is a mystery.

I bought some candy to throw out the window on my way to work, because, hey, if you’re driving at parade speed anyway, might as well. But I understand driving slow if it’s the first time you’ve been to Wallowa County. You want to savor what you’re seeing. After all, it’s not everywhere you get to see that many rail cars all in one place. Take a few snapshots.

I do like rodeo week. It reminds me of when I worked on a ranch in Colorado. This particular ranch raised dudes. I was a maintenance guy, so most of my time was spent fixing furnaces and leaky faucets in the cabins. But my buddies and I did go to a lot of rodeos. Every week we would head down to town and try to cash the same paycheck we’d tried to cash on previous visits. Once in a while the bank teller would surprise us by finding money in the payroll account, but mostly those checks were pretty bouncy. Because of this money shortage, we had to economize on our days off. And the rodeo in Snowmass was good for that.

It’s thirsty business, watching a rodeo. And somehow there’s a law of the universe that says big crowds at a large venue must be served warmish and not-very-good beer from plastic cups for exceedingly high prices. I don’t care for that law. Not one bit. I don’t know anyone who does. I take that back. I’m guessing beer vendors don’t mind it. So we were in a tight spot. The vendors weren’t interested in us signing over our worthless paychecks and suggested we visit the bank. We said that was a good idea, as we would need a loan if we wanted to buy any of their food items, which were also priced quite dear.

Market forces were at work here, so we found a market. A super one. And discovered we could purchase certain items on much more reasonable terms. Now I’m no scofflaw. I was raised on Perry Mason reruns, CHiPs and Magnum P.I. Fine programs that instill a healthy regard for following rules. So we compromised. And watched from the far side of the arena, technically not in the area where we were doing anything wrong.

The ticket lady thought otherwise. After we’d been coming to the weekly rodeo for some time, our group from the dude ranch was walking by the front booth one day, heading for our usual spot over behind the fence when the woman in the ticket office leaned out and said, “Hold up.”

We all stopped. Clanging noises came from our pockets. There followed a little hush. And then I saw my favorite rodeo performance ever. Fargo Kesey is a pal of mine. Great guy. Scar down his face from being thrown through the window of a saloon in Wyoming for no particular reason. That has nothing at all to do with this standoff with the ticket lady in Snowmass, but you have to admit it’s an interesting detail.

So Fargo says to let him handle this. We all took a seat on the fence to watch, pockets clanking. Ticket lady says we can’t be bringing in drinks from outside. Fargo compliments her on her hair. Asks how her family is. We learned a lot about selling tickets to rodeos and what it was like being in that booth. She allowed we seemed like nice guys, but circled back around to her point and insisted we only drink expensive beverages from plastic cups.

Fargo mentioned several viewpoints he thought she might be overlooking. It was all very interesting and went on for some time, and ended with him denying any knowledge of what she was talking about, throwing his hands up to emphasize his point. The cans concealed in his armpits crashed down through his shirt just then, landed on the gravel, got punctured and sprayed beer all over the front of the ticket booth. It was spectacular. I was thinking it might be time to go, but Fargo asked if she’d like a beer.

She thought for a little bit and said she most definitely would. Fargo pulled one from the top of his boot. She took a swig, thought for a little bit and then pulled off some tickets from her roll, gave them to us for free and told us to have a good time at the rodeo. We surely did.

Chieftain column, August 24

And Furthermore
Jon Rombach

“How’d you get to Wallowa County?” is a question I love hearing the answer to. Even the common responses that begin with knowing so-and-so, who had a house out here, and next thing you know … generally pack along a jewel of a side-story that doesn’t disappoint.

I didn’t come up with the idea of collecting the greatest hits of How’d You Get To Wallowa County? into book form, but I just might steal that notion if I don’t see Volume I pretty soon on a shelf at The Bookloft.

I heard a variation last week from someone who crashed and totaled their car on their way into the county, and her tale was a lovely response to, “How’d you get out?”

Shannon is a dance instructor in Los Angeles who moonlights as a river guide in the summertime. She was on her way home from Idaho at the end of her first river season, and planned a detour to check out these Wallowa Mountains she kept hearing about. A tire got onto gravel along the shoulder of the North Highway and that ended badly with gymnastic maneuvers a car is just not designed for. She made friends in the ambulance on her way to the hospital. Made more friends when she got to the hospital. Got her clearance as being shaken up but not broken, and the front desk helped her find a hotel for the night.

Her gear was still in her car and by the time she was released from the hospital, business hours were long since over. She made another friend when the tow truck driver happily agreed to return to work off the clock so she could get into her crumpled car and collect her bags. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Los Angeles,” she explains. I believe her.

So there you are. Wrecked car. No bus station. No car rental agency. No commercial flights. “Where are you again?” is about as far as she got on the phone with her insurance agent. Someone suggested she call the radio station and run an announcement looking for a ride to La Grande. That also doesn’t happen in Los Angeles, she pointed out. I believed her.

I mentioned that she might have gotten a ride on the Stage. “The Stage?” Well, it’s really a van, but it goes back and forth to Union County. She was glad to hear that, because now her initial stay in Wallowa County reminded her of a Northern Exposure episode and a John Wayne movie.

Shannon eventually did find a way out of Wallowa County. And she found her way back, hiring on for a few river trips with Winding Waters River Expeditions. We got back from a float trip and had the night off, so Shannon was telling me her version of how she got to the county while she sent messages to her old friends the tow truck driver and folks at the hospital, inviting them for a thank-you beer at Terminal Gravity.

After talking about how hard it was to figure out a way out of this place, she mentioned she’d been trying to figure out lately if she might reverse that and see about moving here.

So there’s your side story. Car crash and inconvenience turns into unexpected friends and a genuine attachment to a remote mountain valley with no rental cars you wouldn’t mind moving to.

How’d you get to Wallowa County? I’m collecting answers to that. Send me yours at