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.
Anyway, I jogged the several blocks, hoping I could hide my gaffe, but I was still late.
Probably it was a matter of 15 minutes although my memory, which preserves traumatic moments with an unpleasant clarity, insists it was closer to a full hour.
This was an especially embarrassing foul up because my girlfriend’s dad was sort of my boss. And when you’re 18, and you’ve just finished your freshman year of college, there are few people you’ll strive harder to impress than your girlfriend, or her father.
It was an inauspicious start to what turned out to be one of the more pleasant and meaningful summers in my life.
Most importantly it was the summer I came to know the Elkhorn Mountains.
And to love them, insofar as a person can love an inanimate jumble of ancient stone.
My affinity for the mountains, at any rate, has not waned in the ensuing 25 years.
The Elkhorns are rather compact as mountain ranges go, at least as compared with the Wallowas or the Cascades or the Sawtooths. By necessity, given this limited geography, I have hiked the same trails and eaten my lunches of granola bars and beef jerky beside the same lakes and taken in the same vistas many times over.
And yet, every time I scramble up the last slab below the summit of Elkhorn Peak, and suddenly see the inimitable shade of emerald that is Goodrich Lake, 2,100 feet below my feet, I feel rejuvenated as though it were my first glimpse of such a sublime scene.
The Elkhorns ingratiate themselves that way. They are ever changing yet instantly recognizable, in the manner of a loved one’s face, which looks different in shade than in sunlight but is always familiar, and welcome.
Dutch Flat Saddle on a July afternoon, when the bowl of the blue sky makes you truly understand that you’re standing on a globe, is quite a different place than when you trudge to the pass in an October blizzard, the whitebark pines’ windward trunks plastered with fingers of rime and a gale from the west stinging your cheeks with spindrift snow.
The major local event that summer of 1989 — my epiphany in the Elkhorns hardly qualified, of course, except to me — was the great lightning storm of late July.
I’ve listened to much louder thunderstorms here, and have had my hair mussed by many gustier ones, but I’ve yet to see that storm’s equal in frequency of downstrikes.
The storm pretty much skirted town, but it shot lightning bolts — and, unfortunately, almost no rain drops — all over the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Several dozen of these high-voltage discharges ignited forest fires. Two of those — Dooley Mountain south of Baker City, and Canal, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness southeast of Joseph — became conflagrations, each charring more than 20,000 acres.
The morning after the storm I was sent off to Halfway as part of a firefighting crew, and I spent much of the next week camped at the Pine Ranger District office. We were dispatched each morning to work on a different blaze, none of them much more than one acre.
In this way I became acquainted, although not quite so thoroughly as with the Elkhorns, with the Wallowas.
A lot of experiences since, with people and with mountains, have enriched my fondness for this place.
But I can trace the arc of my affection, as a cardiologist follows the beats of a heart on a computer monitor, back to that first summer and the series of introductions it brought me.
The only problem is that ever since I’ve been plagued by an unnatural fear — more of a panic, really — of showing up late for work.
Jayson Jacoby is editor