As I write this column I am again on a trip with my wife. We came down to California to thaw out from the toughest winter we have endured in Northeast Oregon. Branding season is just now winding up here and the ranchers that are branding this late have pretty big fall calves, most over 350 pounds. You need to have a horse you hate, to punish roping a bunch of calves this size but it is sure nice to be horseback in 65 degree weather in what’s left of the California grasslands.
When I travel the country I tend to take roads less traveled and roads I haven’t been on. Winter driving tends to dispel that urge. My wife is totally against leaving the interstate for any reason other than to fuel up or eat. Nevertheless, in the past she has been privileged to have an occasional adventure in driving. Several years ago when I was commuting from California to Saskatchewan, I reviewed a Montana map while staying in Lewistown, Montana. I always wanted to drive through the Bear Paw Mountains that run east to west below the hi-line. To my delight I spotted a road that forked off the highway and ran straight through the Bear Paws to Chinook, Montana. Rather than discuss the detour with the little woman I took it upon myself to alter the route and surprise her.
At the turnoff I had her distracted enough to transition into the left turn unnoticed. The road looked good to me and was paved, which is a good sign in central Montana. After a few miles unfortunately the pavement ran out and we were on a gravel road. It was about then the questions started. I explained that I had discovered a shortcut and would save time getting to the ranch in Saskatchewan. She continued to grumble about the fact that she didn’t like her car being driven on gravel. The gravel gradually played out and we found ourselves on dirt. The dirt lasted for about ten miles with an occasional ranch visible. The abuse really didn’t start till we ran out of dirt and the road became two tracks headed north across a beautiful prairie. I cheerfully pointed out that the tracks were pointed in the right direction and we were making good time. My confidence level slipped a little when the tracks forked.
I always say; when you come to a fork in the road, take it. We went right and happily the road improved a little as we were now winding down the Missouri breaks to the river with the Bear Paws in view on the other side. My confidence level lifted a little when the river came in view. The road finally reached the Missouri but with a small setback. There was no bridge. However there was a ferry on the other side and a single wide trailer with a sign that read “Honk horn for ferry.” I smiled and obediently honked. After waiting a few minutes, honked again. Nothing. I tried extended honking and abbreviated honking with no response. It had been fifteen miles since we had seen any sign of habitation.
By now the abuse I was enduring was loud and continual. She was now suggesting we turn around and retrace our trip back to the highway, a cardinal sin of western touring. I pointed out that we didn’t have enough fuel to make it that far. Even that didn’t shut her up. We had been sitting on the south side of the river for close to twenty minutes when I gave honking another chance and lo and behold some fat guy in overalls emerged from the trailer, stretched and brought the ferry across. We boarded and crossed the wide Missouri. As we were crossing I asked the ferry driver a couple of questions. His response was “You will have to speak up, I am hard of hearing.” To which I responded “no kidding.”
The road on the north side of the river was much like the one we had traveled. It went from dirt to gravel and on the north slope of the Bear Paws to pavement.
With the town of Chinook in sight I tried to ease the tension by telling the little woman we were kind of retracing Chief Joseph’s trek from the Wallowa Valley and his last stand was about twenty miles from where we were. I pointed out the boundary plateau that was visible and in Canada. She seemed to have no interest in history and I considered chastising her for trying to ruin an otherwise wonderful experience.
When we return to Wallowa County due to bad weather and poor road conditions I think I will only consider the familiar interstate and point out individual sage brush I now recognize. People with no sense of adventure miss a lot when traveling.
I found a poem that suits this winter:
It takes patience and vigilance, the power to persist and the power to endure. It takes grit in the people to match the granite in the climate. They hang on, they grope for firmness, and sometimes they win.
- Carlyle King.
The same can be said for taking side roads.
Barrie Qualle is a local columnist for the Chieftain.