A WALLOWA GAL'S STORY
By Katherine Stickroth
The title of this column is derived “tongue-in-cheek,” in that I have lived in Wallowa County for only twenty months and have no claim to ancestry or longevity that would qualify me as a true Wallowa gal.
My friend Janie Tippett laid this moniker upon me. After pulling up to her house for a visit last summer, she came out and cheerily greeted me as I stepped out of my truck, “You’re a Wallowa gal!”
Puzzled, I asked, “What do you mean?”
She pointed to my rear fender above the wheel. “See that manure splashed on your truck? Every Wallowa gal has that. You must have driven through cow pies while coming up the drive.”
I burst out laughing. This city girl from the South had different ideas about how to recognize whether I belonged to a place. But apparently, in Wallowa County, once one is baptized with the excretions of a bovine creature, she is “in.”
“This is different!” I thought. I’ve said that countless times since I landed here.
Each morning I open the shades and am greeted by Chief Joseph Mountain rising outside my bedroom window. I pull open the living room curtains and Ruby Peak says, “Good morning!” Countless times my first words of the day are, “I can’t believe I get to live here!”
I walk to my neighbors’ house down the street, where we discuss that day’s plans. They are included in my gathering of elder friends I could collectively call Wallowa Dad and Wallowa Mom. The wisdom they have shared with me has laid the foundation for my quick assimilation into Wallowa Life. Their lessons have included how to drive safely on snow and ice, how to plant a garden, and the intricacies of fence repair, including building rock jacks.
When I walk the sidewalks of Enterprise or Joseph, I am greeted by new friends I now count as family. I meet newcomers with the most unusual stories of how they “landed” here.
January 2016 will mark two years since I began calling Wallowa County my home, and I wouldn’t trade anything for my experiences in meeting a new landscape, a new culture and especially new people who think so differently from what I’m accustomed to. In this column, I will be sharing my encounters from these past months and the days to come with a sense of delight and wonder, seasoned with humor and a slight Southern accent.
Hope you come along for the ride.
Originally published September 2, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
WHY THE WALLOWAS
My husband had been from Coos Bay and throughout our marriage he had begged that we move to Oregon. I thought all of Oregon was like Coos Bay, its major downfall being next to the sea. Having survived many hurricanes while living in Mississippi, the most devastating being hurricanes Camille and Katrina, I wanted no part of ocean life and respectfully declined that idea.
In 2007 Richard suggested we go on vacation to anywhere in Oregon. I agreed, as long as I could plan the trip. A web search led me to Joseph, Oregon and I fell in love with the scenes which reminded me so much of Lewistown, Montana. There, Richard and I had met, married and lived for six years. When we later moved to Mississippi, not a day passed that I didn’t long for those mountains and plains.
After driving across the country, we entered the valley where my eyes fell upon the Wallowas. I immediately knew I was home.
That week spent touring the area, including Baker City, proved I could indeed live in Oregon. The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center was the final persuasion. Richard was a professional storyteller who recounted stories he had gleaned from the diaries of pioneer women on that long trek.
We headed home, inspired by his dream to be involved with that history organization. I would get mountains.
Within five months I gladly announced the last bill had been paid which freed us to move. But he said, “I don’t know why, but my gut is saying now is not the time.”
The next month he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Twelve months later he was gone. Through all of that, and the dark months which followed, the Wallowa Mountains always loomed in the fog of my mind, as though calling “Come.”
I began to see daylight four years later. My sons, Matthew and Sam, suggested I move close to them. I now wonder if they sensed my restlessness and wanted to keep an eye on me. Upon visiting them to consider such a move, two things became apparent:
1. They wanted to boss me around.
2. I could not control my urge to advise them on how to raise their children. They felt very comfortable declining my wisdom, thank you very much.
With this useful information, I loaded my Trailblazer and headed west.
Originally published September 9, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
HAVE YOU SEEN IT?
Wondering if I could make it on my own, I directed my travel to Wallowa County, where my last good memories with Richard resided. Maybe I could determine what to do with my life with that connection in mind.
I arrived in Enterprise, Oregon, the night of October 30, 2013. Exhausted from the 2400 mile journey, I checked into the Ponderosa Motel, which I was pleased to discover was pet-friendly. My four-legged family members were with me: my little Aussie named Brownie, and Mosie, a calico cat.
Though I lived in the South for most of my life, my years in central Montana had taught me certain unspoken rules to adjust quickly as a newcomer to a small western community, the first being:
1. The best way to find out the character of a town is have breakfast at the local café.
So early the next morning I walked to Best Friends Restaurant on the other side of the courthouse. The “Junk Omelet” emblazoned on the window invited me to a good meal. I pretended to be interested in the art hanging on the walls as I waited for my order, but the truth is, I was listening.
Other patrons were excitedly showing the screens on their cell phones to each other, asking “Have you seen it?” When the door jingled and a familiar person entered, he was greeted by five phones raised in the air pointed toward him, “Have you seen it?” cried in unison. It took a few minutes, but I finally figured it out.
A moose had come to town.
I forced myself to stare at my breakfast and didn’t need to salt my omelet. My tears did the job, from quietly laughing in delight until my stomach folded in half.
I thought to myself, “Let’s see. Where I come from, most of the conversations are about unhappiness with the government, the Mideast conflict, the economy, poor health and Social Security. Here, today’s topic is a moose came to town.”
My heart smiled with delight, “I think I want to live here.”
In the days to follow, I spent time soaking in the landscape and questioning whether I could actually pull off a move halfway across the country. I would have to dig deep to find the courage to do this alone, and I had never thought of myself as a brave woman.
I sat at the foot of Wallowa Lake and remembered years ago Richard with his camera, searching for a spot to take the perfect photograph of that sublime scenery. What would he think?
“Absolutely!” my mind echoed with his deep voice and the image of his smiling face.
Originally published September 23, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
ROOSTER AVAILABLE TO GOOD HOME
Years earlier, Richard had convinced me others would enjoy my writing, which I only considered a hobby. I then had a few things published in Montana. But I parked my writing when we moved to the Deep South.
Pondering my future in Wallowa County, I wondered if I could write again. Thus the decision: I would not introduce myself as an engineer, which had been my career, but as a writer, just to see where that would take me.
I asked a docent at the Josephy Center in Joseph about available housing in the area. She gave me the address of a writer friend who was about to move from a rental. This led me to Ruth Wineteer and though the house had already been rented, we had a delightful conversation about the writing life.
The weekend approached, and loneliness crept in. I awoke Sunday morning thinking, “I’ve GOT to meet some good people.” Ruth had mentioned she attended Joseph United Methodist Church. Although I didn’t identify myself with that organization, I drove there hoping I could sit with her.
I have a long history in the Bible Belt of the South, where it appears sedate church people attend strict religious services with somber countenances. The culture is such that once a local asks a newcomer, “What’s your name?” the next question is, “Where do you go to church?”
Seated by Ruth, I observed the microphone being passed around for attendees to ask for prayer or to praise answered prayer. A lady with a long white ponytail on the front row spoke.
“I have a rooster named Fred who is causing trouble in the hen house. I don’t feel like plucking him, but he is good for eating. So if anyone wants a rooster to stick in the pot, they can come get him. I just don’t have time to pluck him.”
The rooster announcement caught me off guard, and I fought the giggles. Ruth afterwards introduced me to Fred’s owner, Janie Tippett.
I had never met a real author and I purchased Janie’s book, Four Lines A Day, where the life of Imnaha’s Mary Marks is recounted. I was enthralled with how this western woman lived, especially how she packed into the wilderness to cook for her husband’s cow camp. The full impact of Mary’s resilience, courage and resourcefulness became apparent when I wound through the canyons on the highway to Imnaha.
Renting a U-Haul was definitely how my belongings would be transported to Wallowa County. Until I read 4 Lines A Day, I doubted my ability to drive a loaded truck alone across the country.
But after turning the last page, I thought, “If Mary could do what she did, I can do this, too.”
Originally published October 7, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
THE BIG MOVE TO WALLOWA
By Kat Stickroth
Having kenneled my pets Brownie and Mosie in Joseph, I flew from Portland to my hometown, and sorted through my belongings. Every five minutes I asked myself, “Why do I have so much STUFF?”
I warily monitored the weather between me and northeast Oregon, for I had been warned, “Once winter rolls in, you may not make it back until spring.”
A winter storm descended on the West of such magnitude the initial use of “Polar Vortex” was established by The Weather Channel. I grew anxious with each passing day of watching TV, where semi-trailer trucks slid off highways. An extended separation from Brownie was worrisome, for we had never been apart this long.
On week four, a ten day period of clear skies was forecasted as the polar vortex moved east. I hastily reserved the rental truck.
My helpers were my niece and two self-employed brothers who called their business “Stress-Free Moving.” Perhaps enamored with an old lady on an adventure, their questions and jokes indicated they had formed my own personal fan club.
If someone complains, “Young people don’t know how to work anymore,” I challenge that. Unsupervised, these two kids did a great job in packing and loading the truck.
Soon after leaving my home, with a portrait of Sacagawea emblazoned on the side of the truck, I nestled within a convoy of large semis. It was fun to be sitting so high behind such a powerful engine. At a stopover I texted my fan club, “I found my Inner Truck Driver” and cracked up at their responses.
After filling up at an unmanned gas station at Potter, Nebraska, I discovered my keys were locked in the vehicle.
I had just passed through a terrible dirt storm (not dust storm) with poor visibility and was already rattled. Tumbleweeds floated past as the wind whistled overhead. There was no one or any vehicles in sight. I gathered my thoughts and started walking toward a seemingly deserted town.
I came upon a tavern where a handful of ranchers were eating lunch. It took a few hours, but soon I was back on the road. Make no mistake. Regardless of what you see on television, there are still good people in our country.
Originally published October 21, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
THE COMPOUND, MY VERY OWN RETREAT
By Kat Stickroth
A large part of this new adventure was about me making my own choices for the first time of my life and proving I could do this successfully.
Before going south to get my things, I chose a manufactured home with two feet of snow blanketing the large lot. “I’ll have a lot to mow in the summer, but I’ll deal with that then,” I thought.
Enclosing all of this property was an impenetrable metal fence and a tall lockable gate, providing much needed security. Though others commented how brave I was to make this change, deep inside I was terrified.
Arriving after a seven day journey in the rental truck, I pulled up to the new abode which now had no snow. Instead, a large graveled lot with a small patch of grass around the house lay before me. I met my neighbor soon after unpacking and inquired about the gravel.
“It used to be a salvage yard, with abandoned cars and trucks,” he said.
I laughed at myself. My first big decision, and I had landed in a junkyard.
I mused, “I hope my boys never find out.”
As the days passed, I realized for the first time in my life, I was alone. With no obligations, I was completely responsible for my life and the direction it would take. Pen and paper in hand, I reflected on my past- for 56 years, what worked and what didn’t. Taking breaks, I began to meet friendly people and would join them for coffee or excursions into this beautiful wild land.
They were amused at my parting comment, “Well, got to get back to The Compound.” This place had become like a self-imposed retreat, to quiet myself for a time of soul-searching.
I found beauty in that former scrapheap. Upon a full moon night, the broken glass from countless shattered windshields shimmered as a field of diamonds. During the day, I wandered about, picking up various shards of colorful plastic and chrome. A killdeer couple nested three clutches of babies. A family of quail gathered on my porch to eat the bird seed tumbled from the feeder overhead.
One day, I awoke to the property owner dismantling the gate. He had said from the beginning he planned to do so, but I still panicked. Then an image came to mind, as though God was saying, “Okay, little birdie. It’s time to leave the nest!”
Friends helped me find a home with a breathtaking view of the mountains. Settled in now, and with a new confidence, this Wallowa Gal couldn’t be happier.
Originally published November 4, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
REMEMBERING MY VIETNAM HUSBAND
By Kat Stickroth
My husband Richard was a Vietnam veteran, and retired with 25 years of military service. He was deployed twice to that Asian battlefield. Laughing, he’d say, “When I saw they were going to send me a third time, I left the Army and joined the Navy. They sent me back over anyway, on the Tolovana.”
Those were rare times when he found humor about anything in his Vietnam experience. He held those stories close, but occasionally he revealed different horrific experiences that to me were beyond comprehension. At first I reacted with more questions or tears, and he would close up again. He didn’t want his stories to hurt me.
So I learned to be silent and simply listen with a poker face. Upon finishing, we’d sit quietly. Then I’d reach and hold his hand, saying, “I’m so glad you made it home alive and that you are with me.”
In just a few moments he would step outside and sit on the porch, smoking a cigarette with our dog Brownie at his side. As I watched Richard through the window, I wanted to go put my arms around him and just hold him.
But something inside said to leave him alone, give him his time and space.
All I knew to do was honor the unseen sacred places of his heart by creating a home of peace, of safety for his mind and emotions, with little stress to trigger him. He never asked for anything, so it was a challenge to meet his needs.
He was diagnosed with a cancer defined as a presumptive disease from Agent Orange exposure. I can only describe that year as a living hell of keeping him alive, battling the V. A., the medical system, and the side effects of chemo.
A few days before he slipped into unconsciousness, he called me to his side.
“You don’t talk much anymore,” he whispered.
“Anytime I begin to open my mouth, I choke up, and I don’t want to upset you.”
He reached out his arm for me to lay next to him, and I wept in the quietness of our friendship.
I only have one question for you,” I finally sighed.
“Do you know you were loved?”
He chuckled, “Oh, yes!”
My veteran is buried at Willamette National Cemetery. He has an awesome view of Mt. Hood. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him, what he meant to me and what he did for our country.
God, how he loved America.
So on this Veterans Day 2015, I thank all our veterans with a salute, then a warm hug.
I’m so glad you made it home.
Originally published November 11, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
By Katherine Stickroth
A friend invited me to her church service and then to the luncheon to follow. I am familiar with the congregants there, yet a man about my age I’d not seen before caught my attention. His dress, hairstyle and deportment were not usually seen in Wallowa County.
With our plates full from a run through the buffet, my friend sat to the right of me; the minister sat across from me, and the object of my curiosity sat next to her, across from my friend.
I observed the following conversation:
FRIEND (who never meets a stranger): “Where are you from?”
MAN: “Hollywood, California.”
“What do you do?”
“I work in the film industry.”
“I’m from Lincoln, California.”
The man seemed more interested in the food than my friend’s inquiries.
Seeing chit-chat wasn’t getting her anywhere, she nearly boasted by saying, “My 13 year old granddaughter got a buck deer yesterday. It was her first.”
His face lit up with a smile as he lay down his fork. With genuine interest he replied, “I’m so glad this is the first time she got her butt in gear.”
The ease with which he said this made it appear that discussions of whether someone’s butt was in gear or not was a common topic in Hollywood.
I nearly choked on my food to refrain from laughing. I looked at my friend for her reaction, then looked at him. He smiled at me to share my friend’s good news. I looked at her again.
My friend didn’t “get” that he had misunderstood.
I slowly enunciated, with a firm yet friendly tone, “She said HER-GRANDDAUGHTER-GOT-A-BUCK-DEER, not SHE-GOT-HER-BUTT-IN-GEAR.”
Perhaps it was the background noise of chatter in the small basement which kept him from hearing me correctly, for he only nodded in appreciation that I repeated her good news. I wanted to climb over the table, hold his face so I would have his sole attention, and clarify that “IN-WALLOWA-COUNTY-WE-DON’T-CONVERSE-ABOUT-BUTTS-IN-GEAR, WE-TALK-ABOUT-HUNTING-AND-BUCK-DEER!”
But I was a guest, after all, and restrained myself to not embarrass my friend. “Let it go, Katherine,” I repeated in my mind. “Just let it go.”
This episode became a gift to me. On restless nights when I am trying to go to sleep, this comes to mind, and I have to bury my face in a pillow to prevent my neighbors from awakening in the dead of night to hysterical laughter.
Originally published December 2, 2015 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
MY FIRST BRONC RIDE
By Kat Stickroth
In keeping with the Bible’s saying, “A merry heart does good, like a medicine…,” the local hospital has acquired something which incorporates humor to enable a speedy recovery for its patients.
As a hospitalized friend rested nearby, I sat in one of the tan leather recliners accenting the room.
Not finding a lever on either side, I spied its cord plugged into the wall. The remote was found in the depths of the cushion. I pressed what I thought was the appropriate button.
The back reclined to nearly horizontal, though my feet stayed on the floor. Stretched out like a deer ready to be gutted, I felt for another button because I couldn’t raise myself to get a sure look at the remote. Up I went, back to square one.
I reviewed the buttons again, certain I could figure this out- I was an engineer, after all. But in the pressing of the next button, I left that career and became a bronc buster.
My feet flew up with my knees nearly knocking my teeth out. Off balance, I threw up my right hand in proper style and inadvertently pressed another button which almost launched me into a somersault over the back of the chair.
My natural inclination was to exit the beast, but it refused to turn me loose. The rodeo continued as I frantically mashed every button.
My friend, who had been sleeping, awakened to the buzzing of the chair’s motor off and on, coupled with unbridled curses that flew from my direction. I don’t normally talk that way, being a writer who cherishes words. But for this moment that colorful language was the extent of my vocabulary.
“What are you DOING?” she queried.
I didn’t have time to talk, because the ride was on. She observed for a few minutes then broke into the giggles. I started laughing too, initially making things worse. Whenever I laugh too hard, my eyes squint shut.
The blindness turned into a blessing, however. I dropped the remote, and the buckskin bronc finally settled down. My feet were raised in thanksgiving and praise, with my head nearly touching the floor.
Fashioning some kind of roll where I piled onto the floor, I felt like kissing the ground.
“I think I went past 8 seconds,” I gasped.
By then we were in such hysterics, I had to remind my friend she was sick and to act accordingly. Very soon she was released from the hospital.
I was glad to be a part of my friend’s cure, but now when visiting patients, I stand by the bed and warily eye the bronc’s invitation for another ride.
Originally published December 16, 2016 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
WALLOWA, WHERE I BELONG
by Kat Stickroth
Before leaving on a weeklong trip to visit my boys last December, friends Manford and Vera Isley asked if I wanted to put up a Christmas tree before I left. I decided not to bother with it, though it would be my first Wallowa County Christmas.
That week, my grandmother-heart enjoyed a wonderful dose of 5 grandchildren under six years old. I taught Colston and Silas, the two older ones, how to bake Christmas cookies. The next two, Annabella and Tate, gave me sideway glances, trying to determine who I was.
And baby Stanton crawled around in the melee, often getting stepped on.
Soon, however, all children clamored for my lap when I announced it was time for their book reading. I couldn’t have been happier.
By phone the Isley’s kept me apprised of pets Brownie and Mosie who were left at my house. These were constant reminders of my life in Oregon.
I was exhausted as I debarked my return flight. I knew sleep would be beneficial, but was so stimulated I decided to head home. I drove along the Columbia River near midnight and fatigue fueled debating thoughts of whether to move back to be close to the children, or follow through on my new life.
Pendleton. Tollgate. Inching over the Minam, the quibbling continued in my head.
“Should I go back?”
“No. This is your life now.”
“But I miss my grandkids.”
“Think of your beloved mountains, your friends, and your writing.”
“It’s too dark to see the mountains right now.”
“Believe me, they are still there.”
“But where do I belong?”
In early morning blackness, I passed through Wallowa, Lostine and Enterprise sleeping in their illuminated holiday decorations.
Joseph looked like a Christmas card.
“No one even knows I’m back,” gasped my last tired thought.
I made a few turns and approached my neighbor’s side of the tall board fence between us. My house appeared, with the front curtains pulled open.
Through my picture window stood a Christmas tree shimmering with bright colorful lights. It seemed to shout with glee, “THIS is where you belong.”
On that silent night, I rested my head on the steering wheel and cried, so grateful for Manford and Vera.
Within minutes my Brownie dog was wiggling in my arms, and Mosie was at her dish, insisting on food. Yes, this was my home, not because of the unseen mountains looming in the darkness, and not because of my writing, but because of the meaningful friendships I’ve gained here, people I claim as my “family by heart.”
Merry Christmas, everyone, and enjoy your family, whomever they may be.
Originally published December 23, 2016 in the La Grande Observer newspaper. Reprinted with permission.