I probably wouldn’t have detoured from the trail except that my son, Max, insisted.
I’m glad his power to persuade is considerable for a kid who’s celebrated just nine birthdays.
Because without Max’s cajoling I likely would have plodded ahead, as though I were on a schedule, and in my stubbornness I would have missed one of those serendipitous and joyful moments that happily interrupt the humdrum passage of our days.
But that’s not quite what happened.
We were, it turned out, two days too late for what would have been a memorable encounter for me and for my wife, Lisa.
Max would have remembered it, too, albeit for different reasons.
The person we missed meeting is not a celebrity on the level of, say, Paul McCartney.
But William L. Sullivan is, I daresay, famous among many of us who think one of the better ways to appreciate Oregon’s beauty and variety of landscapes is to get our boots dusty tramping its trails (or muddy, or snowy, as the season and the situation dictate).
Sullivan is to Oregon hiking guidebooks what Stephen King is to horror novels.
Not that I mean to typecast either of these fine writers.
King, as anyone knows who is more than slightly familiar with his work, has authored many compelling tales which feature no monsters and carry nary a whiff of the supernatural.
Sullivan, though he is best known for his series of “100 Hikes” books that divide Oregon into five regions, has also penned many other books. These include “Cabin Fever,” a memoir about building a log cabin with his wife near the Oregon Coast, a history of the state’s greatest natural disasters, and six novels, including ones that feature such iconic (and real) Oregon characters as skyjacker D.B. Cooper and guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
But Sullivan’s first book has always been my favorite, and I suspect it will retain that title no matter what subject he turns his prodigious talent to.
“Listening For Coyote” is Sullivan’s story about the 1,361-mile solo backpacking trip he made in 1985 from Oregon’s westernmost point, at Cape Blanco, to its easterly extremity in Hells Canyon.
As someone who relishes hiking but rarely stays out for more than a couple nights in a row, or covers more than 30 miles in one excursion, I have long been drawn to accounts of truly epic journeys such as Sullivan’s.
I own several books describing hikes on long-distance routes such as the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails, and I can while away hours following in the authors’ bootsteps while I relax on a sofa or a reclining lounge chair in the backyard.
But none of these accounts has ever endured itself so thoroughly as “Listening For Coyote.”
I suspect this is due in some small part to my age when I first read it. I was in high school, an era when I think many of us are susceptible to the lure of an adventure story in a way that we never are later, as our own experiences accumulate and our sense of wonder at new things atrophies. It’s a sad, but I think also inevitable, transition.
But for me the most powerful attraction of “Listening For Coyote” is that it’s simply a cracking good story, and Sullivan tells it with deft and piquant prose. I have probably read the book a dozen times, and never does the scent of Sullivan’s campfires fail to reach my nose, never do I not shiver when he’s trudging through snow after an early blizzard in the Blue Mountains.
That snowbound trail where Sullivan left his tracks is the very one that Max, Lisa and I walked earlier this summer, the path that follows the North Fork John Day River through its wilderness canyon west of Baker City.
The conditions could scarcely have been different on the day of our trip. The mid-July afternoon was that rare sort when the old chestnut about there not being a cloud in the sky happened to be true.
We couldn’t, at any rate, see so much as a scrap of cumulus or tendril of cirrus in the somewhat abbreviated scope of sky visible from our vantage point in the depths of the densely forested canyon.
We bought Max his first real backpack a couple of years ago and just lately he’s been nudging us, like a frisky horse too long stabled, to get out in the woods. Lisa and I picked the North Fork trail, which we had hiked before, albeit without children in tow. We chose the path largely because, as riverside routes often are, it lacks the lung-straining climbs that can quickly sap a young hiker’s enthusiasm.
(And, if I must be honest, a somewhat older hiker’s.)
When Max spied the cabin’s metal roof glinting among the lodgepole pines he darted onto the spur path leading toward the structure.
Guy Hafer of Cove, who died in 2007, built the cabin on his mining claim. It stands on public land and the cabin is left unlocked. There were a few rodent droppings inside but it appears the people who use the cabin respect it, and Hafer’s legacy, and try to ensure it remains usable.
I noticed a notebook ensconced in a plastic bag on a table. It looked to be a sort of guest book. I pulled it out and was shocked by the most recent entry. It was signed “William L. Sullivan.” The date was July 16, just two days earlier. He was doing research for an updated version of his “100 Hikes In Eastern Oregon” book.
I hollered at Lisa, who was outside.
We were both thrilled, albeit a trifle disappointed to have come so close to having met Sullivan.
I interviewed him in 2006 when he made a presentation at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
But meeting him on the North Fork trail would be another matter altogether. And the reason is that one of the most memorable chapters in “Listening For Coyote” is the one in which Sullivan, hiking through a rainstorm that soon turned to snow, was spared from having to pitch his tent in inclement weather when he came across another old mining cabin about a mile or so downriver from Hafer’s.
This other cabin, nicknamed the “Bigfoot Hilton” by someone who visited it before Sullivan, has become something of a shrine for hikers due to its inclusion in “Listening For Coyote.”
Not to belabor my earlier reference to Paul McCartney, but for me, coming across Bill Sullivan in a cabin on the North Fork John Day would be comparable to bumping into the ex-Beatle while taking the requisite photo in the most famous crosswalk on London’s Abbey Road.
It was not to be.
But I was pleased just the same to have shared a trail, in a manner of speaking, with the man who must be Oregon’s most famous hiker.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.