I have confessed that I love all things West. So I may as well write about this some more, and today I go back to a July, 2007 trip to Eastern Oregon.
My husband was born in Pendleton, Oregon, and visited a raft of relatives from the very upper northeastern corner of the state, south of the Columbia river, east of the Snake, on the borders of Idaho. Just after we married, we took a trip to Moscow, Idaho where he had mis-spent much of his youth. On the way back to Seattle in our 1984 Subaru GL, he took me through rolling wheat fields—the Snake River hiding in the folds somewhere—and to a highway winding down from the plateau.
All I remember is verticality. From our vantage point on the Columbia River plateau, I could see what seemed like miles down into the Wallowa Valley. Backing the valley to the south stood the the Wallowa Mountains, a granite massif pushed up from the bottom of a tropical sea 130 million years ago. Now part of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, these glacier-carved mountains lie at the intersection of 3 western states, and frown above the deepest canyon in the U.S.: Hell’s Canyon.
I never forgot the place. I’d seen spectacular places: Yosemite Valley, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Cascades Highway, but I had to go back. A trip with family members from California was arranged, a cabin on Wallowa Lake outside of Joseph, Oregon procured, and a long, long drive in our 1995 Subaru Legacy was performed.
A gondola tram will take you up to the summit of Mount Howard, one of several Wallowa peaks—the Eagle Cap (9500 ft), Sacajawea (9800 ft), Chief Joseph (9600 ft) among them—from the Lake elevation of 4500 feet to 8150 feet. You have the options of a restaurant/gift shop and a two-and-a-half mile trail looping around the mountain’s summit with gob-smacking views. The day we “summited” was warm and clear with views to Idaho’s Seven Devils to the east, the verdant Wallowa Valley to the north, Wallowa peaks to the west, and an overlook to see Washington, Idaho, and, the brochure claims, a glimpse of Montana.
Our field trip the next day was a drive to Hell’s Canyon, (see the photo at the top) or at least the rim of the canyon, as there are no roads in this stretch of the Snake River waterway. A relatively polite gravel road took us to an old fire tower, where now tourists like myself, husband, sister and brother-in-law could look across the canyon to Idaho. The canyon may be North America’s deepest river gorge, but it’s very difficult with our simian vision to feel like you’re looking 10 miles across and 7100 feet down. 2 years later I would be staring down into the Grand Canyon. But that is a different story.
The river has worked on the canyon for about 6 million years. The Nez Percé (Nimíipuu) occupied and used the entire northwestern stretch of land from eastern Washington and Oregon, through Idaho and as far east as Montana and Wyoming. After reading through their tragic history, I was happy to stumble on the Nez Percé horse breeding program. Meriwether Lewis shared his impression of the Nez Percé horses in 1806.
“Their horses appear to be of an excellent race: they are lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable: in short many of them look like fine English horses and would make a figure in any country”.
I did live in Pennsylvania for a while, and marveled at the history still present, the age of the homes and thoughts of early settlements—and in my naïveté shook my head and told myself “We don’t have anything like this in California”. Years later I began to understand that the West, so recently settled—maybe “occupied”is a more descriptive term—by European descendants has a very, very old history, reaching back past Spanish missionaries to the true citizens of the lands, the people who lived here long before California was a glint in a Spanish rancher’s eyes.