It’s noon already, Thursday, Nov. 15, Medford, southern Oregon.
Yes, it’s funny how time slips away.
Four days ago, I thought we’d be here by nightfall. But that’s just the way things are with the traveling Wallingfords. Progress, when made at all, always comes slowly.
We’ve made 260 miles in the past 72 hours. We’re hunkered down in the cafe at a Fred Meyer, charging two computers, two phones and a portable DVD player. After a nice, impromptu visit with friends Tim Christie, Janet Donnelly and daughter Sophie in Eugene on Tuesday night, we drove south on the interstate and into the winsome maw of the Siskiyou Mountains. Our halting advance southward continued apace until we stopped at the rest area adjacent to Valley of the Rogue State Park, about 12 miles beyond Grants Pass. We parked, exited the behemoth and stepped into a vale of elysian splendor.
Our way was gently shaded by a canopy of red and gold and orange and brown, provided by rangy maples and oaks decked out in full autumnal regalia. Towering pines and cedars reminded us we were still in the grip of the Pacific Northwest.
In such a spectral setting, it is hard not to be inspired. Before we got far, we came upon a little Frank Lloyd Wright-style kiosk that offered a thumbnail sketch of the early history of white settlement in the area.
First up: Free land – first come, first served, aka the Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850.
Good news! Oregon Territory goes Oklahoma before Oklahoma was cool!
We were duly informed that “This law allowed pioneers to claim up to 320 acres for free!” This means that a couple were legally able to snatch up one square mile of land.
Free land! And lots of it!
Was there a down side to this largesse? Maybe just a small one, as the next panel hinted at, though no explicit connection was made between the Land Donation Act of 1850 and the “Rogue Valley Trail of Tears.”
About 30 miles east of here, before dawn on Oct. 8, 1855, exactly 101 years before Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history, a company of white volunteers attacked an Indian camp at the mouth of Butte Creek. Twenty-three natives perished in the slaughter.
“Daylight showed that the dead were mainly old men, women and children,” reports Harper’s encyclopedia of United States history from 458 A.D. to 1906.
Harper’s also says this massacre happened a little more than two years after defeated Indians signed a treaty compelling them to sell their lands, “comprising the whole Rogue River Valley,” to the U.S. for $60,000. Oh well, $60,000 is a lot of wampum, especially in 1853 dollars.
In 1856, the surviving Indians of the Rogue Valley were rounded up and herded 250 miles to the north to the newly created Grand Ronde reservation.
“The refugees walked through mud and snow via the Applegate Trail. Followed by ‘exterminators’ intent upon murder, the Indians feared they might all be killed on this ‘trail of tears.’ In four short years newcomers had wrested away their homeland and all that had sustained their lives.”
It was nice while it lasted, I bet.
Everywhere you go in this wondrous and complex country, you are cautioned to encounter notions of American exceptionalism with great care. Sure, the ideals Thomas Jefferson encoded in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence are pretty cool.
You know, that self-evident and pesky truth “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We have been at variance with Jefferson’s words from day one, when roughly a half million Americans were held in chains and another two to five million saw their way of life vanishing.
We’ve hewed closer to our ideals at times and farther away at others. Mythology remains inalienable, reality inscrutable. And so it goes in the 21st century, when powerful interests burnish those ideals in public and lay siege to them in private. Corporations are endowed with rights that certain American people still find elusive.
Sure, there have been good years indeed along the road to liberty, 1863, 1920, 1947 and 1964 among them. But we have many more miles to travel before we fulfill the promise of Jefferson’s boast.
Not wanting to get too bogged down in the dark and bloody history of Manifest Destiny, we took a stroll through the park. We found ourselves hemmed in by the muscular Siskiyous and quickly seduced by the inescapable charms of fall along the Rogue. It was not a hike in any sense of the word, just a pleasant walk among the trees of autumn along the riverside.
Max decided he wanted to be a “nature scientist,” and this of course pleased us. It is probable we have already begun living vicariously through his promise.
Oh, the horror of enfeebled parenthood!
Always assertive, he entreated us to stay on the paved walkways so as not to risk trampling upon nature. We picked our way down a pathway through a forgotten campsite to the river’s edge. We sat on the rocks, listened to the tumult of the rapids and examined fallen leaves from Katsura trees.
The poetry of nature enveloped us. The churning waters of the Rogue silenced the roar of traffic on southbound I-5.
We had found an oasis, and decided to stay the night and flout the rules: 4-hour maximum parking and no overnight camping. Becky made tasty egg-and-cheese fajitas for dinner. We washed them down with the unmatched elegance of Carlo Rossi chablis.
We all piled onto the couch for a showing of “The Lady Vanishes,” one of Hitchcock’s last British films. It never fails to please, and remains among my favorite Hitchcock efforts. The DVD player died about halfway through, at which point Becky and I repaired to our bed above the cab and attempted to watch the rest on my laptop, which had about half its battery life left.
Max kept interrupting from his bed, asking if we’d like to “talk about our day.” Soon he insisted upon coming up, and not long after that the computer went dark, leaving Dame May Whitty, Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave & Co. stranded in great danger along an inhospitable railway siding.
Time for sleep, and a fitting coda for a day spent adrift among the delightful yet imperfect contours of the American dreamscape.