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A document reveals Baker County in its youth


It is a rare and pleasant occasion when someone brings to my office an historical document so rich in compelling detail that almost instantly on opening it I forget that I’m surrounded by the microchip-laden devices that define our era.

Kim Lethlean gave me a copy of just such a record recently.

Lethlean, who lives in Baker City, has a keen interest in local history — particularly mining history, as his family owns the Virtue mine.

The Virtue, a hard-rock gold mine in the arid sagebrush hills about six miles east of Baker City, plays an outsized role in the city’s story.

When its early owners, among them Col. J.S. Ruckel, realized there wasn’t enough water near the mine to process its ore, they decided, rather than dig a ditch as was customary in those days, that it would be simpler to haul the ore to where the water is.

Specifically, to the Powder River.

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Book examines virtues, vices of our freeways


When I stand in my driveway, and if the weather is fair, I can look east and see trucks climbing the Campbell Street on-ramp leading to Interstate 84.

Even when fog or a snow squall obscures the view I can still hear the diesel engines, as Bob Seger put it in the greatest rock song about life on tour, “moaning out their one-note song.”

Although the big rigs seem in fact rather small, and their noise is subdued at the distance of a mile and a half.

It’s a familiar scene, and sound, and as such I rarely notice either except at the subconscious level.

But I recently read a book that reminded me how significant that freeway, and that view, are.

Indeed the road’s presence represents a reality that would have seemed miraculous, were it believed possible at all, little more than half a century ago.

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An oddity on the Oregon Coast: A dusty trail


I have very nearly exhausted my internal thesaurus in describing the breezes that buffet the Oregon Coast, delving on occasion into that subsection of words which aren’t fit for publication in a newspaper.

Being by nature lazy, I tend to grasp for the low-hanging profanity when I’m annoyed.

Although I believe even the rare saint among us would have his equanimity sorely tested if, say,  he were scanning the retreating tide for agates while an onshore gale was trying to sandblast through his contact lenses to get at his corneas.

But never had I believed that the appropriate adjective for these almost constant winds was “refreshing.”

Until now.

It was a queer feeling to be hiking through a rain forest of moss-laden Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir, the Pacific breakers visible (and audible) below, and there to pine, as a desert traveler might, for even a gentle zephyr to fan my sweaty face.

Stranger still that my walk on Cascade Head, just north of Lincoln City, happened only a few days after I had hiked in arid Eastern Oregon and there dealt with conditions more familiar to the beachcomber than to the backpacker.

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Three decades later, a look at Orwell’s big year

British author George Orwell made the year 1984 famous decades before it arrived, but he was no Prince.

No Bruce Springsteen, either.

Orwell coined several iconic terms in his dystopian novel written in 1948, among them “Big Brother,” “Newspeak” and “thoughtcrime.”

But Orwell didn’t bust any ghosts.

Nor did he sweep the leg.

Three decades have passed since 1984, which bore little resemblance — in America, anyway — to the repressive regime Orwell’s fertile mind imagined and his agile pen rendered.

Certain Democrats might have disagreed, I suppose, what with President Ronald Reagan trouncing the hapless Walter Mondale that November to claim his second term.

 Liberals’ disdain for the Gipper has dissipated slightly over 30 years, although I don’t believe this is because his critics have soberly reappraised Reagan’s record.

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Fatigued by ongoing heat, and online idiocy


The heat barged in, the genuine article, and in the manner of a boorish house guest who was not invited, the heat has stayed on.

This summer has seemed to me especially oppressive because it arrived with all the subtlety of a John Bonham drum solo.

June was cool, but pleasantly so, with most afternoons ideal for pulling weeds or taking a nap in a lawn chair. 

The temperature topped 80 on just two days that month. June concluded with a week of highs in the 60s and 70s.

July, by contrast, betrayed its nature immediately.

July 1 was the hottest day of the year — 89 degrees — but it retained the title about as long as Clubber Lang did in “Rocky III."

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A year after crypto, feeling (mostly) relieved


My mind maintains that there’s no reason, with UV light now illuminating every drop of Baker City’s water, for me to fret about cryptosporidium.

My intestines beg to differ.

This reaction from my digestive system is not entirely rational, to be sure.

But a week-long bout of stomach cramps and watery diarrhea — a distinction from regular diarrhea that I would have discounted as redundant until I experienced it — is not conducive to sober contemplation.

A year has passed since Baker City’s drinking water, previously celebrated for its purity, turned on us, in the manner of a well-loved dog driven mad by a brain tumor.

I was among the residents afflicted with those unpleasant gastric symptoms in late July and early August of 2013.

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In praise of Pine Cr. Reservoir, and its ‘road’


Pine Creek Reservoir is the best place in the Elkhorns.

It’s one of them, anyway.

I just gutted a tenet of grammar, I know. Best is a superlative adjective and thus, technically, bestows on its subject exclusivity.

The phrase “one of the best,” then, is colloquially appropriate but linguistically clumsy — cousin to another common construction, “very unique.” Something unique, by strict definition, is one of a kind — the “very” is implicit and thus superfluous.

I don’t care.

Well, I do care about grammar and its sometimes stuffy conventions, as anyone who writes ought to care about those matters.

But the thing about the Elkhorns is that they’re so rich in places of astounding beauty, and since I can’t visit any two of them simultaneously, it seems to me reasonable to brand the place I’m visiting as the best if, while I’m there, it feels that way.

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Summer of love: Meeting the Elkhorns in ’89


On the first morning of my first job in Baker I was late because I went to the wrong place.

This was a quarter century ago, in late June of 1989. The town was no larger and no more bustling than it is today so I can’t blame anything but my own stupidity for the mistake.

I wasn’t even driving, so traffic wasn’t a factor, either (not that traffic is ever much of a factor in getting from one place to another in Baker).

It was, though, I’d argue, a plausible bit of blundering on my part.

The job was with the Forest Service’s Baker Ranger District. At that time the ranger station was a building at the northwest corner of Pocahontas Road and 10th Street (the building is still there; it’s the Oregon State Police office now).

So that’s where I went.

What I didn’t know then is that the Forest Service owns another complex of buildings at 11th and H.

That’s where I was supposed to go.

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One call, and nine years of motorcycle mania


I remember the day the man with the unusual last name phoned to tell me a fantastic tale about motorcycles and Baker City.

His name is Eric Folkestad.

I’d have remembered that, more than eight years later, if I remembered nothing else.

I asked him to spell Folkestad.

Later I asked him to spell it twice more so I could be sure I hadn’t swapped the “l” and the “k” or misplaced the “e.”

I was so worried about botching his last name I nearly forgot to ask him the equally vital question about his first name.

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Find Bigfoot? No. Move Mt. Hood? Why not?


Nobody on the cable show “Finding Bigfoot” can actually find Bigfoot, but they can, apparently, move an entire volcano a couple hundred miles.

Which seems to me even more implausible than the notion that an unidentified bipedal primate has been slinking around the forests of the Northwest for decades yet not one has been clipped by a Camry on the freeway.

Wolves can’t even avoid that fate, and wolves are more nimble than any biped.

I watch “Finding Bigfoot.”

I would describe this as a guilty pleasure except I don’t get a great deal of pleasure from the experience.

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