Monday, April 30, 2012

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Dayville Oregon

I have a love affair with the High Desert. I grew up in it, playing barefoot on its clay-filled soil. Outside of Madras Oregon, a small farm community North of Bend, thousands of acres of government-dubbed "wasteland" were my childhood stomping grounds. Chasing wild jack rabbits or stalking antelope were common hobbies of mine, as I dreamed of someday seeing the outside world. It was a rare occasion when my older brother and his wife took me on an outing to the eastern Oregon town of Dayville. To get there from central Oregon, we took Highway 26 East. I was only 16 at the time. Compared to the desolate surroundings I was accustomed to, the thought of any road trip was exciting.

To reach the arid, desert landscape of eastern Oregon, we first passed through the Ochoco National Forest. This stretch of highway is blanketed by dense pine trees and rimrock formations that are visible from the road. The twists and turns through various canyons made me forget I was on a highway. After an hour on the road, we reached Mitchell, another small town along the highway full of Old West history and considered the gateway to the Painted Hills. Mineral deposits make these hills, one of three parts of the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument, spectacularly striped with vivid colors. Up the road a few more miles, the Picture Gorge is a great place to stop and take photos along the John Day River.

When we reached Dayville, I spotted a place called Dayville Antiques & Hardware. After convincing my brother to stop, I made friends with the store owner Barbara. She was a kind lady in her 50s who wore bright purple lipstick. My visit with Barbara was cut short by my brother, who wanted to head back home. I remember her smiling as I left and telling me to “comeback anytime.”

Naturally, six years later, I found my nostalgic self yearning to go back and experience eastern Oregon on my own terms, all grown up. I packed a bottle of wine plus cheese and crackers in a basket then drove East on Highway 26, through the Ochoco Forest and on to Mitchell, home of approximately 200 people and one black bear named Henry. I’ve heard he’s still there, living in his deluxe cage with manmade cave, but visitors are no longer allowed inside to visit and feed him apples. Guess I was one of the lucky ones.

Henry’s owner, a dude named Hugh (who looked like Popeye), was more than happy to let me into Henry’s abode. Bearing gifts of apples that I purchased at the old-time local store across the street, I entered Henry’s cage. The black bear was lounging on a large flat rock, unimpressed with my arrival. His interest was aroused when Hugh motioned for one of my apples. He cut it into slices and handed one to me. “You can put it in your mouth and feed him that way, if you want to,” Hugh said. It made perfect sense to me to embrace this suggestion of feeding an 800-pound bear like a baby bird straight out of my mouth. When I did, Henry gracefully accepted the fruit. After the food was gone, he wasn’t shy about cleaning my lips with his tongue.

I bid farewell to Henry and Hugh then continued East, until I reached Dayville Antiques and Hardware. It hadn’t changed a bit in six years: the same dilapidated building stood cluttered with dusty glass dishes and old furniture inside, frozen in time. I was greeted with a warm hello from my friend Barbara. She remembered me as if we had met yesterday. I bought a small musical jewelry box from her, a memento I still have today.

After saying my goodbyes, I headed West on Highway 26, back to Bend. I took in the smell of desert in summer. The rimrock of the Picture Gorge appeared ahead, just as the sun was starting to set. The lighting reminded me of a southwestern painting. I stopped on the side of the road, grabbed my basket of goodies and climbed down to the edge of the John Day river. There, the seat of my pants soaked through as I sat on a polished river rock and opened my bottle of Chardonnay. With my feet in the cold river, I ate my snacks and sipped my wine. When I felt something smooth against my toes, I looked down to find a small snake using them as an anchor against the river current. After having a bear’s tongue on my lips and a snake on my toes, I realized I had animal magnetism, which I try to use responsibility.

Two months after my visit, Barbara passed away. I dedicate this article to her memory. Many thanks to her for asking me to come back to Dayville. It's a day that lives in my reflections with the vividness of the Painted Hills.

Aimee Conner crawled out of a cave in a remote part of central Oregon. She can play the old-time fiddle and work the ancient magic of baking. She has now joined "civilized" society in Los Angeles, where you can't shoot the animals, but the animals sometimes shoot at you. She's the author of the psychological thriller Scrapbook.


  1. I really need to see this part of the continent for myself. I've heard good things about it.

    Henry looks like a grand fellow! Beautiful pics, and a terrific post!

  2. Thank you William ! I really do think you'd love the pacific northwest... Maybe you could even talk your way into the bear cage :-)

    Thanks again for reading , miss Aimee

  3. Those who take these creatures lightly and with such disrespect shall be devoured and not mourned.

    An excellent meal you would make, is that the way you which you wish to leave this realm this time?