Glimpses of the high desert

  • Sentinel, The Old G I Ranch

    Loren Irving
 

Where the Crooked River Rises: A High Desert Home
Ellen Waterston
144 pages, softcover: $18.95.
Oregon State University Press, 2010.


In 1973, Ellen Waterston, a New England transplant, and her husband drove into the high desert of eastern Oregon. "In our rundown pickup with Montana plates and a cab-over camper we looked more like evacuees from the Dust Bowl than qualified ranch buyers," she writes in Where the Crooked River Rises: A High Desert Home. The couple did buy a ranch at the headwaters of the Crooked River, and now, after decades spent raising cattle and children there, Waterston finds it "sobering and odd to realize I am a repository of considerable history."

This collection of essays is her way of teasing out that history -- one filled with tenacious ranch women, millworkers who endured the collapse of the logging industry, and old cowhands who became her neighbors and companions. The cast of characters includes a Lakota Sioux medicine man, the county road grader and the founder of the High Desert Museum, along with women who "would get airborne over the metal cattle guards, dangly earrings flying" on the 40-mile drive to a Christmas potluck, and the trapper-cum-mailman who transported Waterston's urine sample along with the mail to a doctor in Bend to confirm her pregnancy. But Waterston also gives voice to the desert itself: the rabbitbrush and fescue, creek bottoms necklaced in willows, blackbirds and "whorls of geese, egret, crane."

The essays touch on Waterston's personal history -- her husband's drug addiction and eventual suicide, her decision to enroll her two children in a wilderness therapy program to help them confront substance abuse -- but the characters in the writer's family remain distant, lacking the vivid life of her neighbors and acquaintances. Perhaps the process of writing with such clarity about the landscape and its inhabitants helped Waterston deal with her family's troubled past without tackling it head-on in print. Or perhaps she satisfied her need for autobiography in her 2003 memoir, Then There Was No Mountain, which describes her daughter's struggle with drug addiction. Despite its occasional reticence, Where the Crooked River Rises glows as a window into the little-understood high desert: "tough, impenetrable (with) a molten heart beating not far under the barnacled surface."