Marry me, marry my town

  • Mary Emerick

 

I am not just marrying a man; I am marrying a town.

In my first, brief marriage, my husband and I were both newcomers to the Alaskan town where we spent our married life. The locals weren't particularly invested in us. Instead, they waited with the patience of the seasoned to see if we could outlast the endless rain and isolation of a small fishing village or if we would turn out like so many others who couldn't hack it and moved on. It didn't matter much to them either way. They weren't about to adopt us. There were already too many people making their way north, they thought. These people liked their elbowroom.

It is different here in this northeast Oregon valley. The man I am marrying has lived here for 20 years, long enough to become woven into its history, long enough to be considered a local. He is part of the collective memory. The people here all speak the same language of place, a kind of shorthand born from years of cohabitation.

Their conversations are full of these shortcuts: "Meet me at the green gate," they say. Or, when giving directions, "It's the first driveway past the round barn off the Imnaha highway." They have decades-old nicknames and inside jokes. They mark seasons by their ties to the land, harvesting and elk hunting, canning and firewood gathering. It is a rhythm they know, a dance to which they learned the steps long ago.

Their memories of places are shaped by events that occurred long before I arrived. They remember years of scarce snow or too much snow in the Wallowas, the mountains that dominate our skyline. They remember years by major events: the spring floods in the '90s when bridges were ripped out, the frothy Imnaha River boiling over its banks; the year that massive wildfires scorched Hells Canyon all the way to Hat Point. Where I see only a snowy slope above Aneroid Lake is forever the place where a dear friend died skiing in an avalanche two years before. The hot springs we find deep in Cook Creek, two miles above the Snake River, used to be contained by a rock wall in a different place before neglect and poison ivy crept in to cover it with an impenetrable embrace.

They remember this. They remember a country before so much cheatgrass and star thistle choked the draws. They remember weddings, births and deaths, years of lives entwined together. On the other hand, I have no history here. I have lived here only a scant year and a half, a drop in the bucket in the community's history. I am as unformed as bread dough, despite what I feel has been an adventurous life. Your history does not transfer when you move, I am finding. I am afraid it will take a long time for my stories to come out, for my feet to learn the steps of this dance.

For better or for worse, with this marriage, the town and I are stuck with each other. We are both still figuring out if it will be a good match. I wait to see if I can live here at the end of the road, seven hours from any ocean. They watch to see how I treat this man they have adopted. I joke that I will have to sneak out in the middle of the night if the marriage does not work out. It is only partly a joke. In the pub, one person after another comes up to tell me how special this man is.

They don't say it, but it is implied: He is one of us. Don't mess this up.

But I think they are slowly adopting me, too. They trust me with their secrets. Ken tells me the best way to scramble up cliffs to reach Deadman Lake, far off any trail; Dana points out where the best huckleberries grow off Forest Road 39. Patiently, they show me things. I fumble with a bridle while the horses roll their eyes and sidestep away. I walk fences with long-legged men, learning about rock jacks and stays. Over and over, my co-worker, John, shows me the same knot and how to pack a string of mules. Over and over, I forget and ask the same questions. Over and over, he answers, turning the rope over the hitch rail, showing me the steps. Right now it is a complicated knot that I don't quite understand and can't yet master. Someday, I hope to learn it.

Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). She now lives in Enterprise, Oregon.