This is what I was thinking about Oregon Trail Pioneers right here at our usual Deschutes River swim spot, almost at the point of where it flows into the Columbia River —where we cool ourselves down when it’s hot out at the vineyard. After another harrowing river crossing* for these people here on the Deschutes, the long-awaited fertile land is now within a shortened reach, but with still a long way to go:
OMG, these people made it all the way here are to Oregon Territory, but it’s not the verdant valleys they see, it’s these basalt-y, dried out autumn golden grassy hills that are presently Wasco County, and on the other side of the river, in Washington State, Klickitat County. “We came here for THIS?” I know my thoughts would be along those lines, cursing the man who brought me here—feigning no free will, of course—and wondering, was it because we took a wrong turn and he didn’t want to ask for directions that we’re in this place? But inwardly I’d be enjoying my secret excitement of adventure and possibility, because that’s just how I am. Terrible, I know, I’ll work on it.
Maybe those settlers cooled themselves right here at the mouth of the Columbia, where the rushing waters and its temperature rise and fall with Mt. Hood’s snow-melt, the air scented with the sweetness of sage brush cooking in the heat. Yup, right here along the banks, I decide, where my small family and I now frolic, Sam dipping in and out of the pools with his long, yellow “noodle,” that long floaty tube you imagine geriatrics using for a pool work-out. It’s right here that those people washed their clothes or dipped their feet, set their fires, and wondered again: “We came here for this?”
“Oh, please, let me make it right with a good dinner,” the men may have thought, as I watch modern-day fishermen cast a line out into the waters, the Chinooks still running fast but not so plenty as days gone by. And in the morning, the settlers would continue on, wondering, wondering, are we almost there?
Along they’d go, another 15 mile trek down to The Dalles, maybe on the basalt lip running along the river where their trail is still visible, or maybe fanned out across the landscape, passing right by the base of our vineyard. But once at The Dalles, they have to decide two things (if they’re late comers to the Trail) in order to circumnavigate Mt. Hood: continue on over the treacheries of a late Fall Cascade Mountain trail, or put it all on a raft and navigate the wilds of the Columbia. So close, so close. Yet no matter which curtain they picked, I can’t imagine they’re NOT thinking, where is the green we’ve been promised? Where are those fertile valleys? And stands of timber? And quiet spots of respite, where we might eek out a new life?
Those valleys would be there, obviously. And only the toughest would reach them. As I watch a small school of fry try to hide in the reeds as I wade past, I look out and think, “We are so close, so close. And yes, Stephanie, we came here for this.”
*Years later around this very spot where I tool around in the water wondering all this, a Heritage Marker would be placed, one I have yet to see, reading: “The Oregon Trail crossed the hazardous Deschutes River at this point by floating the prairie schooners and swimming the livestock. An island at the river mouth was often utilized when the water was high and the ford dangerous. Pioneer women and children were frequently ferried across the stream by Native canoe men who made the passage in exchange for bright colored shirts and other trade goods.”