A lot of people ask me about what it is like to live in Burns/Hines, Oregon, especially after living in Jerome, AZ for thirty years. Although a piece of my heart will always be there, life here is sweet as well. Just different.
In 2008, my husband and I have moved to a community in which we know no one and had little knowledge of the ranching and logging life that dominates its history and politics.
Burns/Hines is an urban island of some 5000 people. The communities are contiguous, separated by a small cemetery. You can drive through both in 10 minutes or less, depending on how long three stoplights hang you up. Burns grew up as the ranch center; Hines was the logging community, until the mill closed in the nineties.
The city is surrounded by ten thousand square miles of wild high desert in Southeast Oregon and about 110,000 cows. The nearest big city is Bend, Oregon, 132 miles to the West; and the nearest freeway is 130 miles east, at the Idaho border. The distance between ranches in the county is so vast and so far from Hines/Burns that there are still nine one-room schools. Our friends who have visited us always remark on the scarcity of traffic on the roads to just about anywhere.
We live in a cottage in the middle of the city on about half an acre, with eight large pinons, a small grove of Aspens, two crab apple trees, and a lot of deer-proof flowering shrubs and perennials. We have seen as many as a dozen deer in our yard.
Just a few miles north is Radar Hill, where I used to take my dog Amanda for walks and practice tai chi. For about three months, I saw no one in these juniper and sage-strewn hills.
But one day, while matching the rhythm of tai chi’s movements with the slow shuffling of juniper branches, I sensed that someone was behind and turned to see an old cowboy on a horse. He’s in his sixties, near my age, with wrinkles woven and set into his face.
“Ya seen my cows?” he rasps through amber, chipped teeth.
My puzzlement and astonishment must have registered on my face, so he asks again, “Ya seen my cows?”
Both of tried to filter what we were looking at through lenses of what is familiar and coming up pretty empty. He was probably pondering the strange behavior of a grey-haired lady dressed in skimpy shorts waving her arms in a slow, dreamy dance. I can only imagine how he was going to describe this encounter with his buddies.
And I’m sure I didn’t know much about the life he led.
“Sorry, haven’t seen your cows,” I say, politely. He touches the brim of his hat and drifts off into the junipers.
The wake of his leave-taking was followed by the thought that since moving here, I had forged no bonds beyond pleasantries. Most of my contacts with people had, like this one, left me standing puzzled and alone.
It took me until about two years ago to begin to feel a comfortable sense of place.
I learned to understand the common vocabulary: guns, llamas, cows, calving, goats, alfalfa, pivots, cheat grass. Hunting is a major recreational activity. In the Fall, it’s common to hear, “Did you get your elk?” My neighbor is a woman who bow-hunts for cougars. My accountant wears starched shirts with rolled collars, pressed jeans with a crease that could cut and snakeskin boots. Mounted on his walls are heads of rare bighorn sheep. At one gathering, in a discussion about rattlesnakes, I announced I was opposed to shooting them. One of the men jumped on that remark. “You wouldn’t think so if you were fifty miles out of nowhere and a snakebite lamed your horse.” I said, “I’d have to agree with you about that.” In acknowledging his point of view, I had just crossed one of the divides to finding common ground.
Teaching tai chi was another. Everyone could agree about the importance of living healthier and more relaxed; my students appreciated being taught how to take care of themselves. They include a woman who raises bulls, another who raises llamas, a farmer in his fifties with creaky joints, veterans with PTSD, nurses, a potter, a woman in her eighties who arrives with a walker and another with an oxygen pack. The woman who raises bulls eases the arthritis of an elderly one with the energy work she has learned from me.
Soon after I started teaching, I began attending meetings of the Writer’s Guild. Members listened to some of my early Jerome stories and encouraged me. I could always tell from their questions what it was they weren’t getting or when they began getting bored. One day, Myrla Dean, a former teacher here, turned to me and asked, “Who are you writing for?” I was stumped. “It’s perfectly okay to just write for yourself,” said Myrla. That broke some dam inside me and I started writing the stories that became this blog, some excerpts of which are included in my new book Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona’s Richest Copper Mining City (due out in late April, early May). Novelist Marjorie Thelan, one of the members of the guild, took me in hand when I was floundering and came over to my house and set up the official book files on my computer. We loaded in all my notes and stories. Then she said, “You start at page one and don’t’ stop until you are finished. Don’t go back and rewrite. And I did. It took me about a year before I had something resembling a manuscript.
I love living in a paradise of birds.
It’s very early Spring and our abundant wetlands draw hundreds of thousands of Ross’s geese, formations passing in large spiraling waves. Thousands of swans and ducks crowd waterways. Bald and golden eagles, falcons and harriers are abundant. Sandhill cranes roam the alfalfa fields. In early April, birders will gather by the thousands for the annual migratory bird festival: https://www.migratorybirdfestival.com
A snowy white owl visited, a rare occurrence, and my friend Kelly Hazen spent about a 150 hours observing it. A wonderful video she took can be seen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwcPp1KVtXw&feature=youtu.be
Hundreds of quail scurry across the road I live on, scattering like fall leaves when cars approach. One morning, I woke up to see a huge Goshawk devouring a quail in my yard as a few deer watched from the neighbors. Burns/Hines is the quail capitol of Oregon. My biggest treat last Spring was being taken to a lek where male sage grouse were strutting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0M8pZnNlnI
The air is exceptionally pristine, the water out of the tap tastes delicious, and noise and chem trails from jet planes are rare.
By day, birdsongs fill the air. At night, the city is so still that when the Milky Way blooms, you can hear its pulse.
I’m at rare peace with myself in ways that continue to surprise.