On the next-to-last day of 2017 I went for a walk in the snowy woods where Baker County was born, so as to ponder the past and almost fracture my tailbone.
It was a fine sunny day but also a treacherously icy one.
There’s nothing left of Auburn save a few poorly exposed photographs. I don’t mean to malign the unknown photographer, who after all did not have an iPhone. Capturing a scene a century and a half ago, and reproducing it with any sort of fidelity, was no minor feat in that era of tintypes and glass plates and Daguerreotypes. Matthew Brady was occupied with more vital matters, of a military nature, in that era.
Auburn was founded in 1862. The previous October a group of prospectors, among them Henry Griffin, found gold in what would later be called Griffin Gulch. Auburn, several miles southwest of Griffin Gulch, was the first seat of Baker County, which the Oregon Legislature created on Sept. 22, 1862.
Most of the land where the town stood is privately owned, so you have to confine your travels to the road that branches off Old Auburn Road and descends to Blue Canyon.
This is a tranquil walk during benign conditions.
But there is nothing benign about ruts filled with ice so perfectly smooth you could crack it into cubes and serve it in cocktails.
I wasn’t surprised that the road was slippery.
After the modest snowfall around Christmas, a few ATVs had driven the road and packed snow into the ruts. The multiple freeze-and-thaw cycles in the following week had predictable effects.
But even so, rarely have I seen a road so lacking in friction as the road that goes past the site of Auburn. I had to creep along, taking tentative strides and trying to step in the comparatively grippy snow between the ruts when possible.
Which wasn’t often, unfortunately.
I’m sure that had anyone seen my hesitant, jerky gait they would have suspected I had either suffered a grievous injury to one or both legs, or that I had seen a Sasquatch and was temporarily overcome by fright.
Despite my caution I still very nearly took a tumble several times when the cold blue shadows tricked me and I stepped onto a patch of ice that I thought was grainy snow.
As I made my ungraceful way along the road I thought, as I often do in this place, about all that happened here before my grandparents were born.
I wondered what the miners thought exactly 156 years before, on the penultimate day of 1861, as they sat before a crackling pine fire in their rough cabins.
I wondered whether they talked about the Civil War, then in its ninth month, or whether their conversation never strayed far from their latest glittering discoveries in the nearby gulches.
I wondered if these miners had an inkling of what their efforts would spawn, if they could conceive that within a couple years a few thousand people would live within a mile of where they sat, that in just a few more years Auburn would already be in decline due largely to that upstart to the northeast, the place called Baker City.
I wondered whether that Dec. 30 was a fair day, as on my visit, or whether it was foul, with a chill north wind screaming in the eaves and snow flying thick.
And as my boot slipped yet again, nearly sending me sprawling, I thought about how those men got around when ice mantled the ground.
I suspect our forebears managed pretty well despite the comparative crudity of their footwear.
They didn’t know much about the properties of rubber compounds, but living as they did in the wilderness, they were by necessity a prosaic lot.
When their boots slipped — and surely this must have been a common problem, considering the miners spent much of their time mucking around the banks of streams — they simply pounded a handful of nails into the soles.
Hobnailed boots might not be as convenient as the removable webs of spikes or chains we can strap onto our shoes these days, but I’ll bet those boots were effective.
I had neither nails nor chains.
But of course I had the option, had I chosen it, to augment my traction by driving to a store that was maybe 20 minutes away.
The miners, when they ran low on nails or most anything else they couldn’t trap or shoot, had to go all the way to Walla Walla.
And they couldn’t take the freeway.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.