Ski Mail

What we communicate in seconds on our smartphones used to take days. For instance, skiing heavy packs of mail over Western mountain ranges in the dead of winter could take the better part of a week. The most famous mail carrier of the pioneer era was Snowshoe Thompson. Starting in 1855, he skied the mail ninety miles over the Sierra Nevada from Placerville to Carson Valley. The route took three days there and two days back. Snowshoe did this twice a month for twenty years with a hundred pound pack! Of course, he was originally from Norway. Unlike mere mortals, Norwegians are born to do stuff like that.

But Snowshoe was not the only one. In 1880, there were fifty skiing mail carriers in the state of Colorado alone. With mining camps scattered across the tops of the Rockies, these guys regularly braved blizzards, snow blindness, and avalanches to get the mail through.

The most famous skiing mail carrier of the Cascade Range was John Craig. Sadly, he’s remembered less for the amazing feats he did accomplish, than for the one he didn’t. In December of 1877, Craig set off to ski the Christmas mail from McKenzie Bridge to Camp Polk (near present day Sisters) over McKenzie Pass. He never made it. In the spring, his frozen body was found in the cabin he had built near the halfway point. Apparently, Craig reached the cabin as planned and built a fire, but due to illness or misfortune, couldn’t keep it going. He crawled into the warm ashes, drew a quilt over himself and died.

Craig’s tragic end inspired an annual ski event that has persisted, off and on, for eight decades. The John Craig Memorial Ski began in 1934 over the same route pioneered by Craig. Since the historic McKenzie Pass road is closed to vehicles in the winter and left unplowed, it’s possible for cross-country skiers to imagine what Craig experienced. In fact, in some years, the memorial has even included a nineteen mile race during which the racers carried bags of mail.

Fortunately for me, this year’s memorial ski was less ambitious. Participants skied a thirteen mile tour to the pass and back from the east gate. Still, the almost two thousand foot climb to the summit was tough. I wasn’t carrying a heavy pack of mail, but I did have one letter from a friend I’d received the day before. It seemed fitting to carry a letter in my pack. It served as a reminder that staying in touch as easily as we do in the digital age is something I shouldn’t take for granted.


The Soundtrack of Life

This is the Flying J Travel Plaza in Winnemucca, Nevada. I’ve pumped a lot of gas here. This was the first gas station where I noticed music blaring out of overhead speakers. Whether you’re in the mood or not, vintage pop music invades your space. Most of the playlist harkens to my high school years and it seems to be all the songs I tried to avoid. As I fill my tank, I glance up at the looming black speakers and wish the fuel would pump faster. “Please let me get my gas and get out of here!” I plead to the cosmos. Why must some of the worst music ever made live on, and on, and on?

Since the sound system at Flying J shoved its way into my consciousness, I’ve become more aware of the music that lurks in stores. The offerings in small towns across the Intermountain West focus on classic rock, country, or pop singles from the last century. This background music has invaded my foreground. It makes me melancholy, a strange emotion to associate with an everyday shopping trip to town.

I inadvertently found my way out of the music-induced malady at the library. It was the last stop on my errand list. I’d never paid much attention to the library’s collection of music CDs but the cover of one caught my eye. Six guys, dressed head to toe in colorful robes, scarfs, and turbans, stood under a tentative-looking tree. A playa stretched out behind them toward desert hills. The cover type was not in English. It said Tinariwen Tassili +10:1 in letters that looked like the kind spray painted onto shipping crates. I was sure I’d never heard a song off this album during high school, or anytime since. I checked it out, took it to the car, and popped it in the stereo. Let’s just say Tinariwen drove the muzak out of my head in a hell of a hurry.

I never knew I liked Saharan blues music but this nomadic Tuareg band from North West Africa understands how to sing the desert primeval. The one song with a scattering of English lyrics describes the singer’s enduring love for the jealous desert and closes with the sound of the first rain in five years to fall in southeastern Algeria. Anyone who’s lived through drought can relate, no matter where their desert lies.

Tinariwen writes the soundtrack for the Ténéré, the desert of all deserts. But now they’re part of the soundtrack of my life too. They’ll never make the playlist at the Flying J, but that’s okay. Now when I’m there, I leave the window down and the stereo blasting, just to neutralize the ambient sound waves while I fill the tank.


Twenty Thousand Invitations

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever you go right now? Are you waiting

for time to show you some better thoughts?

~ William Stafford

Music students at Sisters High School in Central Oregon were offered a chance to put a William Stafford poem to music. The assignment grew out of a statewide celebration of Stafford’s 100th birthday. The students, all members of the Sisters Folk Festival’s Americana Project, performed their compositions at the Sisters Library on January 26. I wasn’t prepared for what happened.

Several of these teenagers created songs with such brilliant phrasing, one felt Stafford must have meant these poems to be sung all along. The musicians entered the poems and danced around, exploring the acoustics. For two or three minutes, they became Stafford, there in the room. I remember leaving the concert thinking, “I want an assignment like that!”

But adult life has a way of descending into mediocrity. Our artistic souls get lost in the chores.

But wait. Isn’t that what Stafford refused to do? He woke up and wrote every morning before dawn, whether he felt like it or not, whether he had an “idea” or not. He crafted essential poems before most of us were awake. He was a conscientious objector to mediocrity.

But that’s not really it. One of the meanings of mediocrity is to be ordinary. Stafford relished the everyday, the blessed ordinariness of life. He was suspicious of the precious. So, what makes his work so compelling for me?

I’m intrigued that he gave himself the daily assignment of being a witness. He got out of bed in the dark and set about appreciating what he’d been given to work with. He ended up writing twenty thousand poems. Only a fraction of them became refined enough to publish, but he welcomed them all. And in many of his poems he invites us to give it a try. Wake up and welcome your thoughts — all of them. William Stafford has written us twenty thousand invitations.

Horticultural Espionage

I was once a spy. I guess that’s what you’d call it. I agreed to smuggle seeds. This wasn’t contraband. These seeds weren’t illegal. It was more like a hostage situation. These seeds needed liberating, and I was just the person to do it.

My mission? Obtain a dozen chestnuts from two venerable trees growing along an obscure back road in California’s Mother Lode. I was to locate the sixty-foot-tall trees and keep watch on the ripening nuts so I’d be there when they plummeted to the ground.

Why? Back then, a large commercial nursery claimed to be the exclusive source for ‘Colossal’ chestnut trees and charged exorbitant prices for their nursery stock. A handful of scrappy organic farmers decided to bring ‘Colossal’ back to the people. It’s what Felix would have wanted.

Pioneer horticulturalist Felix Gillett birthed the ‘Colossal’ chestnut in his Barren Hill Nursery in Nevada City, California. A French immigrant, Felix began importing plants from Europe around 1870. He undertook an ambitious breeding program in which he crossed the best of European and Asian varieties with native North American stock. The results rocked the early California agrarian world. He’s been called the father of most of the perennial crop agriculture in the western United States. But unlike his contemporary, Luther Burbank, Felix Gillett’s contributions were largely forgotten. Which is ironic considering that hundreds, if not thousands, of his trees continue to produce fruit in backyards and backwoods to this day.

Just ask organic farming guru “Amigo Bob” Cantisano who, for the past forty years, has searched old homesteads and mining settlements for hardy survivors of the plants Gillet offered. Amigo Bob found so many of these heirlooms that he created the Felix Gillet Institute to document, propagate, and sell again Barren Hill Nursery’s hardy stock. (I suspect Amigo Bob is channeling Filex Gillet.)

The parent trees I gathered chestnuts from thirty years ago are still alive and healthy. They still drop seeds so hefty that a tree squirrel would be advised to wear a helmet during harvest season. I didn’t think my efforts to get those chestnuts into the hands of budding agricultural preservationists was any great feat, but recently I noticed ‘Colossal’ seedlings available from at least a dozen nurseries in a wide range of prices, coast to coast. What do you know? Our grassroots horticultural community is keeping Felix’s vision alive — and I was a small part of it.

Mission accomplished.

Wassailing the Orchard

There must be thousands of ways and reasons to light up the long dark nights of winter. In the western islands of Europe, where most of my ancestors hail from, they lit bonfires in the orchards and wassailed the trees. Wassail comes from the Old English meaning “to be hale” or “be whole”. The islanders toasted the health of the trees and asked for an abundance of next year’s crop.

Unfortunately, my ancestors didn’t do a good job of keeping this tradition alive when they came to America several centuries ago. But why should that stop us? Wassailing is too much fun to lose in the dim recesses of our ancestral past. How does one go about reviving a vague agricultural tradition? Well, there’s quite a discussion about wassailing on the web. We are not alone! It’s ironic and encouraging how well modern technology works to preserve archaic practices.

So, we cobbled together a wassailing ceremony to bless our little orchard of apples and apricots here in the high desert. We lit a fire, ate popcorn, drank hot spiced cider and shared it with the tree roots. Each person thought of a blessing or a wish as they visited each tree and tied a piece of yarn to a branch. We sang wassailing songs, and made noise to drive away any bad spirits. Finally, our youngest family member climbed the strongest tree and left a piece of toast dipped in cider high up in the crown. Afterwards, we huddled around the fire as the cold night settled around us. No one wanted to go inside. We couldn’t stop watching the sparks drifting up toward the crisp stars.

Next morning, I crossed the frosty grass to admire the trees festooned with scraps of yarn — the cheery affirmation of our relationship. We take care of the trees, they take care of us. I thought about how every bright strand secured a wish. The orchard will glow with our benedictions until spring birds take the faded yarn to build their nests.


The Archive of Voices

A mature forest absorbs sound. The bark, the leaves, the duff, the moss, the needles … don’t bounce sound waves along — they consume them. The hush of a dense forest can be thick with centuries of voices left by passersby. Walking along a trail near Santiam Pass, you might not hear those ancient voices but you can sense they’re there; the laughter of native children, the singing of shepherds, the newsy gossip of women picking huckleberries …

Whoa. Hold up there. It wasn’t all that warm and fuzzy.

For all their deep green beauty, I sensed a minor chord in these woods cloaking the Cascade crest. This section of old Indian trail made me uneasy. At first, I chocked it up to my “pronghorn” personality — I like wide open spaces. But maybe I was sensing some dark aspect of the human history of this route?

When I got home, I researched the Indian trails in this part of Oregon. No surprise that these paths were used for commerce. Everyone wanted to trade for something they didn’t have. During the 1800s, the Pacific Northwest offered everything from salmon to buffalo hides, obsidian to trade beads, horses to slaves.

Wait. Slaves?

Yes. As it turns out, the native people of this region practiced slavery among themselves long before Lewis and Clark showed up. The Corp of Discovery passed through the “greatest emporium of the Columbia” between Celilo Falls and The Dalles where slaves were a high ticket item. Other slave trading centers existed at Willamette Falls and the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers.

The trail I followed near Santiam Pass fed into a network of tracks the Klamath people used to bring slaves to the Willamette or lower Columbia markets from the south. Once the Klamath people acquired horses, they were a holy terror when it came to raiding Northern California’s Pit River and Shasta area tribes and carrying off their women and children.

Since slaves often try to escape if they think they can make it back home, the Klamath marketed their excess captives as far away as possible. Who knows where you’d end up if you were “sold down river” on the Columbia? Back then, you might as well have been shipped off to another continent. How many people trod north with little hope of returning?

Next time I walk that trail high in the Cascade range, I’ll understand better where the melancholy notes come from, now that I’ve roamed deeper into the archive of voices.