Baker is aging, gracefully
Baker City never seems to me quite so old as it does around Christmas.
I mean this in a good way.
With rare exceptions such as fine wine, advanced age is associated with an inexorable deterioration in utility, vigor and appearance, whether the object is animate or not.
Both cars and people, for instance, tend to accumulate sludge in their circulatory systems as their mileage rises. This comparison doesn’t hold up, of course — you can sometimes cure a balky fuel injector by simply pouring a bottle of additive into your gas tank; fixing a clogged artery is a rather more ticklish task, and not one you’d be wise to tackle with that tool set you got at Sears for 59 bucks.
Anyway, the sense of age I’m talking about, as regards our city, is more clearly expressed with a different analogy.
The notion I’m getting at is akin to the way the face of an elderly person can attain a peculiar beauty, when its wrinkles are clearly the brands left by a lifetime of smiles. The sight pleases our hearts as much as our eyes; we feel the welcome weight of many decades of love and laughter, and bask in their kind warmth.
When I walk past the great old homes of our town in this season I wonder at how many Christmases have passed within their walls.
I imagine children slinking in bare feet across cold wood floors in the thin light of dawn, and I hear the echoes of their squeals when they see boxes piled beneath the tree and lumps in the toes of their stockings.
I envision fathers shoveling the walk and carefully salting the steps to make safe passage for the grandparents who are coming for dinner.
I see in the new snow on the streets the tracks not of studded tires but of shod horses and buggy wheels.
I see reflected in leaded glass windows the soft flicker of kerosene lamps rather than the steady but sterile glow of incandescent bulbs.
Only the pleasant scent of pine smoke is as it has always been.
These links to Baker City’s past have for me seemed especially acute this season because I have been reading through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series.
This must be at least my 10th trip along this literary path since I first set out on it 30 years or so ago, yet the journey is no less enjoyable for my recognizing its every turn.
So far as I remember, though, this is the only time I’ve ambled through Laura’s simple yet evocative prose so near to Christmas.
She wrote in detail about the holiday in each of her books.
In “Little House on the Prairie” Laura told of Mr. Edwards, who waded a rain-swollen creek to bring tin cups and candy sticks and a penny each for Laura and her sister, Mary.
And in “On the Banks of Plum Creek” when Pa was lost in a blizzard and had to eat the Christmas candy to save himself.
What’s different about my current dalliance with the “Little House” books is that I’ve realized, for perhaps the first time, that although the era Laura writes about has always seemed to me very nearly ancient, Baker City is in fact older.
Our city was founded in 1864, three years before Laura was born in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.
When the Ingalls family was eating Christmas dinner in the log cabin in Indian Territory or the surveyors’ house on Silver Lake in Dakota Territory, families in Baker City were likely doing the same.
Probably their menus were similar — a roast goose, maybe, fried potatoes and biscuits, almost certainly.
We can’t know, of course.
Which is why, for me anyway, pondering the past frustrates as well as fascinates.
The future is interesting, too. But I know I’m going to live through at least part of it; the answers to today’s questions will be available if I’m willing to seek them out.
The past, though, is denied us, farther beyond our grasp than Neptune.
Fortunately we can at least glimpse history in the words of gifted storytellers such as Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Better still there are places such as Baker City, where we revere the patina of age rather than treat it as an embarrassing blemish that ought to be scraped away as soon as we can manage it.
You can immerse yourself in history here simply by strolling through the neighborhoods. Just remember to exercise your imagination as well as your legs.
Any old house is rich in stories.
But they need you to help out with the narration.