The difference between driving past, or through

By Jayson Jacoby April 05, 2013 08:55 am

Baker County has never been what you’d call a bustling place, but today it’s a trifle lonelier than usual, even though there are no fewer people about.

The recent closure of the only gas station in Durkee seems to me a minor milestone in a transition that started more than 40 years ago, when the freeway began to replace old Highway 30.

The major change, of course, happened as soon as the comparatively straight, four-lane swath of I-84 (originally, I-80) supplanted the ostensibly outdated two-lane.

Baker County became a place to drive past rather than a place to drive through, which are altogether different propositions.

Before the interstate came along, if you wanted to travel by road from Boise to Portland the odds were great that you’d go through the centers of Huntington, Durkee, Pleasant Valley and Haines.

You had little choice in the matter, in fact, unless you were willing to take the long way around.

(And in these parts the long way frequently requires a detour best measured not in hours but in states. Or mountain ranges.)

Except you didn’t just pass through. Chances are you’d stop at least once, to cool your engine or slake your thirst or just to stretch your back, which was aching because no one had invented a seat with adjustable lumbar support.

Highway 30, in common with roads built when cars often needed gas or water or something more involved — a valve job, say, or a rear differential — went into town about as often as it could manage.

Drivers didn’t want to stray too far from a good set of adjustable wrenches and a reliable supply of 30-weight oil.

The mechanical reality of motor travel during that era meant that businesses catering to drivers prospered not only in well-established places such as Baker City, La Grande and Ontario, but also in villages such as Durkee that never even got around to needing the typical accoutrements of a city, such as a mayor or a water system.

But as the engineers devised cars which were much more reliable, as well as better, faster roads on which to drive them, it became not merely possible, but easy, to cover a few hundred miles without a stop.

The bladder replaced the fuel tank and the oil pan as the storage vessel you had to worry about.

For me this trend, in which main roads become backroads, is nowhere displayed so poignantly as at Pleasant Valley, about 15 miles southeast of Baker City.

And the symbol is the sign for the motel there which once beckoned weary travelers. Only speckles of its paint remain, but the sign’s shape is that of a thousand roadside travel inns which, in the post-war era, were as quintessentially American as a fast-food restaurant is today.

It requires little imagination, when you see that sign, to conjure the rest of the postcard scene: A couple of station wagons parked out front, looking as long as cabin cruisers with their wood-clad flanks and rear-facing back seats and  plaid-patterned luggage lashed to their roofs.

It was the American family on vacation, at a time when American families didn’t miss the little towns by miles and skirt the big cities by way of ring roads. They slowed at every cluster of houses because that’s where the roads went, slowed so they could see the local kids tossing baseballs in dusty front yards and see the local parents mowing the grass or chatting with a neighbor across the back fence.

In that era travelers knew a place intimately because they saw it on a human scale. Today you could drive across Baker County and maybe never see another person except those in the other lane.

I don’t mean to come across as maudlin.

Shifting almost all the traffic to the freeway surely must benefit ranch cats and dogs, which have so many fewer vehicles to dodge.

And the 45-mile gas-free stretch that the closure of the Durkee station created hardly counts as a daunting distance in an era when most cars can go that far on less than two gallons.

There’s already a slightly longer such span between La Grande and Pendleton.

Still and all, whenever I drive through Pleasant Valley, slowing briefly in deference to the 45 mph speed limit that is, along with its barely legible road sign and that motel, a vestige of this place’s status as the proverbial dot on a map, I feel a twinge of melancholy.

It is ever such, I think, in those places which progress and time have sped past, those places where everybody used to go and where today nobody goes except those few who relish the silence and are not unsettled by the somehow queer tranquility of forgotten places.

And those who haven’t figured out their GPS gadget.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.