Lamenting a missed shot at being shovel scion

By Jayson Jacoby August 10, 2012 09:42 am

I wish on occasion that I could go back to the early 1860s, when Baker County was born.

I would sell shovels.

I’d make a pile, I’ll bet, peddling this most humble of tools.

The pioneer settlers around here were by most accounts a busy lot.

And what they were engaged in, generally speaking, was digging of one sort of another.

I daresay they could not have gotten by without a goodly supply of shovels.

(And whiskey.)

I was reminded twice recently of this local, historical propensity for excavation.

On the first occasion I was hiking near Elk Creek, on the south flank of the Elkhorns, when I stumbled onto a ditch.


When I saw the obviously manmade berm of earth I mistook it for the edge of a road. I clambered up the bank but instead of landing on a flat road I came down on the even steeper slope that forms the outside wall of the ditch.

I very nearly took a nasty tumble.

(When I’m in the woods, disaster, or at least the loss of substantial amounts of skin, is never far.)

This minor moat, which wouldn’t accommodate a single inner tube at full volume, is rather more significant in a historical sense than a topographical one.

It is a remnant of the Auburn Ditch, which carried water from high in the Elkhorns to Auburn Reservoir. Both the ditch and the reservoir were named for the town that was the first permanent settlement in Baker County.

It’s awful hard to accomplish much at mining without a reliable supply of water, so our gold-seeking forebears were inveterate ditch-diggers.

Or employers of ditch-diggers at any rate — Chinese immigrants did a fair amount of the heavy work.

The second reminder was a story that Devan Schwartz, the Herald’s summer intern through the Charles Snowden program, wrote and that was published in the July 27 issue.

Devan’s story described the journey that millions of gallons of water take every day from Baker City’s watershed in the Elkhorns to our faucets.

The connection between these two incidents — my clumsy entrance to the ditch, and Devan’s excellent article — is not mere happenstance.

The city’s main water pipeline follows for many miles the route of the Auburn Ditch.

The pipe, in fact, was laid in the ditch, which was then filled in (with shovels, probably) to make what’s known today as the Pipeline Road.

The epiphany for me in all this was not the lament that I could have been a shovel scion if only I had been born in the 19th century rather than the 20th.

Rather, I realized (not for the first time, either; I’m prone to epiphanies) how fortunate Baker City is, geographically speaking.

We live in what very nearly qualifies as a desert.

Los Angeles gets more rain, on average, than Baker City does.

Same for Salt Lake City.

Yet less than a dozen miles from Baker City the land more resembles an Olympic Peninsula rain forest than it does the Sahara.

The east slopes of the Elkhorns, which include the city’s 10,000-acre watershed, is a cool and damp island in an arid landscape.

S. John Collins’ Page 1 photograph that accompanied Devan’s story captures this essence.

The stream — Little Mill Creek — is fringed by a veritable riot of greenery — cow parsnip and columbine and a bunch of others my botanically stunted brain can’t identify.

It seems improbable that such a lush scene exists so near the sagebrush steppe, with its incessant grey and utter absence of liquid.

Such are the minor miracles possible when elevation and slope aspect combine in a particular way.

Were the Elkhorns not such a formidable obstacle, they wouldn’t wring copious moisture from winter’s prevailing westerly winds, and streams such as Little Mill might go dry during summer drought.

And if the alignment of the mountains were shifted 90 degrees they would be more exposed to the sun’s desiccating rays.

But we are, as I said, lucky.

Even as we broil down here in the valley — as we have surely done this week — I am comforted in the knowledge that by twisting a faucet I can summon a place where the water in all seasons bears the chilly flavor of deep winter.

I went for a walk around town just at dusk, after most of the heat had gone out of the day.

I don’t get much besides exercise from these strolls. I feel always constrained by the straight lines of the streets and the sidewalks, so different from the meandering, unpredictable, and therefore interesting, nature of mountain paths.

My meager attempt to compensate for the restrictions of urban planning consists largely of taking turns at random, a pathetic effort to inject spontaneity into the endeavor.

On this particular evening I detoured through the parking lot at the David J. Wheeler Federal Building.

I noticed that the Forest Service’s transition to a fleet of white vehicles is about complete.

This bothers me.

I much prefer that unique shade of soft green that the agency formerly slathered on its pickup trucks and SUVs. That paint’s hue seemed to me a near match for the fresh needles of the tamaracks in May.

What first caught my eye, though, was one particular white vehicle.

It seemed misplaced not for its color but for its design — a four-door sedan.

The Forest Service, what with all the rough country its employees oversee, usually opts to outfit itself with brawny four-wheel drives.

Sedans tend toward the banal in terms of design — automakers are loathe to offend the moderate sensibilities of the middle-class families that buy most of these models — but this car, wedged between a couple of bigger rigs, flaunts an exotic array of hard-edged creases and acute angles.

I stepped closer and recognized it as a Hyundai Sonata. (Hyundai was thoughtful enough to paste an identifying badge on the trunklid, as well). A hybrid Hyundai Sonata, to be specific. With government plates.

This struck me as passing strange, that an agency of the federal government would send tax dollars clear to South Korea just to procure a thrifty four-door for mid-level bureaucrats to tool around in (although the Sonata hybrid is assembled in Alabama, the company is based in Seoul).

Ford sells a hybrid version of its Fusion sedan — pretty much a mechanical doppelganger of the Sonata, though with rather less flamboyant flanks.

You can buy one of those just a handful of blocks from the Federal Building. Which is a lot closer than Seoul. Or Alabama.

And Ford, unlike its two domestic competitors, never took any of that money the feds were throwing around a few years back.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.