Road Trip: Ranching in Oregon

The Great American Road Trip

Heart of the Beast book cover
Book Cover:Heart of the Beast

Destination: Oregon

Check Music Road for music to take along on your road trip to Oregon. (Appropriately enough, one pick is Joni Harms, a farmer/rancher.) And while you are there, take a look around. Kerry Dexter’s blog has been chosen as one of the 5 best music blogs on the Internet. You can thank her for providing us with road tunes by voting for Music Road to be top blog. Go ahead. We’ll wait for you to come back and read..

Book: The Heart of the Beast (2002) by Joyce Weatherford

In this novel, first timer Joyce Weatherford definitely follows the advice “write what you know.”   I advocate writing about things you DON’T know in non fiction, but the mantra works in fiction. With Heart of the Beast: A Novel , we certainly get an insiders’ view from a writer who grew up on a ranch.

The fascinating main character, Iris,  traveled the world and went to college but chose to return to run the farm/ranch of her family.  The novel lives in her head as she struggles with generations-old family relationships and the larger family feud of Oregon’s European-American settlers versus the native Nez Perce Indians.

The story reproduces a gritty reality and fatalism that I have seen first hand in ranchers. Weather plays a big role, as it does for farmers anywhere.

Out here, the seasons conquered one another violently.  Fall was the most dangerous, sweeping in with adolescent energy like fire.  It took over summer’s spent and furious force of reproduction, the way chaos and carpetbaggers come in after a war.  Winter killed, had the most power…But spring was my favorite. Spring had wiles…I place my money on spring.

Wallowa Lake
Wallowa Lake from in front of Wallowa Lake Lodge

Along the way, Weatherford introduces us to the beauty of northern Oregon, as seen on the family ranches–one in the northwest of the state and the other cozying up to the Wallowa Mountains that border Idaho.

Ken and I once stayed at Wallowa Lodge, on the edge of Wallowa Lake. On our own road trip, we crossed through many of the small towns mentioned in this book, and drove out across miles of dusty ranch land on our way to see Hells’ Canyon.

Lonely Road, Oregon
Lonely Road, Oregon

I am glad to have found a book that talks about contemporary American Indian life and the historic roots of conflict. We can’t drive across the West and ignore the original population that is still a significant part of the population. Particularly in the land of Chief Joseph. (Follow that link for quotes from the most quotable of Indian chiefs.)

Iris’  ancestors arrived on wagons along the Oregon Trail. Every ranch family, declared one Iris’ ancestors, needed a farmer and a lawyer.  And that certainly is the case when your horse-trading great-grandfather  may have illegally acquired the Wallowa area ranch from the Nez Perce, and the Nez Perce nation decides to take it back through the courts.

Cash, the half-Indian lawyer says in court:

“Who were these pioneers?…Your relatives, some of mine, relatives of everyone in this courthouse.  We Americans have defined ourselves by the West It is what we have that differentiates us form our allies in Europe.  Open spaces, Indians, cowboys, pioneers, the rugged individualist.  As hard as it is to admit, the reality of these people was quite different form our fantasy.

He goes on to point out that most pioneers came west because they were misfits and malcontents.  Brought up to fight for the land, the independent heroine finds she has to balance her love of the land with love of a young niece who is half Indian. She has an easier relationship with combines and tractors than with her love of a childhood sweetheart.

The emotional struggles of the family make for a wrenching read.  Nevertheless, if you want to know  Oregon, this novel provides a view of a lesser known part of the land.

I have become ever more aware of the challenges faced by the indigenous people of this country, as I have worked on my new book with Charnell Havens, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of  a Navajo Artist.  If you have not had much exposure to natives in America, I hope you’ll take a look at our Facebook page and our blog.

Are you part American Indian? Are you descended from farmers and ranchers? Do you live in a areas where Indians and settlers still co-exist?  What do you think about the struggles for land?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Road Trip: Ranching in Oregon

  1. Thanks for leaving a link to this post on our Facebook page. How did I miss it? I’ll be reading “Heart of the Beast” in preparation for an Eastern Oregon road trip that’s somewhere down the road. Of course I’ll be booking a night or two at Wallowa Lodge based upon your good advice.

  2. How…interesting, that my tween is reading about pioneers and the Oregon Trail for school right now. Nothing in those hoary old textbooks about the pioneers being misfits and whatnot! Maybe she’ll read this book when she’s older.

    1. Jennifer: It is an interesting thought that those of us who brag about our immigrant ancestors and west-settling ancestors, never look too closely at what made them move all that way. From the disgruntled pilgrims with their accompanying poverty-stricken hangers on looking for an easier life (Hah! Fooled them!) to the Spanish Conquistadors who were exploring the world because their elder brothers had inherited the family lands back in Spain–people move for lots of reasons. As the character in the movie Insomnia
      said, “Two kinds of people live in Alaska. Those who were born here. And those who are running away from something.” Same thing goes for much of the West–and the whole continent, for that matter.

    1. Oh, my, for a special occasion, you cannot beat Wallowa Lake Lodge. And I think your family would love seeing Hell’s Canyon, and the little old mining towns in that area.

  3. Your photos brought back memories of road trips we have taken in Oregon. The state is magnificent, especially through the central farms and ranches. We particularly recommend stops in Pendleton (take the underground tour and visit the wool blanket factory), Lakeview at it’s very southern border, and of course Joseph and the Wallawa Lake Lodge – we celebrated an anniversary there; no better place to be!

    1. Delightful, Jackie, that we both have stayed at Wallowa Lake Lodge. How peaceful it is! And really takes you back to an earlier time. We loved watching the deer come up to eat out of people’s hands in the evening. BTW, Pendleton is mentioned in this book, along with several other towns you’ll recognize.

  4. A similiar nonfiction book is Gregory Martin’s Mountain City. It is about life in a small town just over the border from Idaho in Nevada. Thanks for sharing “The Heart of the Beast.” -r

  5. Even though there are fewer ranchers each year, they hold amazing power in Idaho and I’m sure in Oregon as well. I hope the BLM starts pushing back instead of allowing the ranchers to walk all over them. Politics of the west.

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