Will the legitimate economy please stand up?
Janet and I landed in a vacant lot of county land across from a locals’ bar in Fort Rock, Oregon, after my morning soak with other tourists in Crane Hot Springs. Fort Rock has one other restaurant, a gas pump, a huge roadside sign that says “TRUMP WON,” and–outside Janet’s window–a church and the green roofed grange hall.
This morning I got to the hot pool at the springs nice and early, so it was it was right around freezing out, and all the steam rising up in the sunny desert air was pleasant to see. I had it all to myself, and it was heavenly. After a bit comes an old guy, early 70s, admirably lean and fit, his weathered skin clinging loosely and grey hair covered with a baseball cap. His jauntily trimmed beard completed the silver fox look. He gets in, I squint open one eye, then close it and say nothing. He goes to the other corner and we soak, quiet, for a bit longer.
Then two women come up, the first about the same age as the old guy, early 70s, and just as skinny and silver-haired. She wears big dark sunglasses and a straw hat. The other woman turns out to be an early Millennial, brown-haired, brown-eyed, perfectly average body, and free of noticeable accoutrements. They radiate friendliness, and Boomer Woman flashes a big, perfect set of probably dentures and says ‘Hi!’. The Millennial echoes an eager “Hi!” as well, so now I sit up, willing to chat, and Boomer Woman announces she’s from Winnemucca, and Boomer Man duly announces he’s from Portland, the Millennial says she’s from Boise, and I say I’m from Springfield. Boomer Man knows where it is, but Boomer Woman demands,
“It’s next to Eugene, where the University of Oregon is. It’s where people live who can’t afford to live in Eugene,” I say. Boomer Man directs his attention to the two women friends.
“Are you two here together?”
“Yes, we’re all renting the big house. It’s her 40th birthday,” says Boomer Woman. We all say ‘Happy Birthday’ to Millennial Woman. Boomer Woman continues.
“She grew up in Winnemucca, and our group stayed in touch while she got a new group of friends, and so we all got together here. We call our group the Winnemucca Witches, and they’re the Boise Bitches!” This gets smiles all around, except from me. Boomer Man chuckles. Millennial Woman gracefully interposes.
“What does that picture on your hat mean?” she asks. His hat has a picture of a giraffe with a horn coming out of its forehead. There are no words on it.
“It stands for a woman’s group, but I don’t remember the name,” he says. This doesn’t impress the ladies, and I suddenly remember I’d heard of them.
“Oh, do they do outdoor adventures alone, and things like that?” I ask, encouragingly. He seems to think so, but he sees that the other women are losing interest. He looks at them eagerly.
“My friend gave it to me. He went to India, and got a chain with a pendant they call a mangala sutra. It’s traditionally worn by married women in India, but he didn’t care. He wore it all his life.” He’s really waxing eloquent now. “He died not too long ago, but he died with his boots on.”
“What was his name?” asks Boomer Woman, now suitably impressed.
“Robert Paul Wallace” says Boomer Man. I am making up the name a little bit, because I can’t remember it exactly.
“Did he live in India a long time?” I ask. He looks a little nonplussed.
“Well…he visited a lot,” he says. “He got asked a lot of questions about it, especially in India, because it is only worn by women there. But I wear a woman’s watch!” He lifts his wrist out of the water, showing a white plastic watch with a square digital face. There is a curious silence. “It’s a nurse’s watch,” he says. Boomer Woman looks at Millennial Woman and says,
“Oh, you’d know about that.” She looks at Boomer Man, “She’s a nurse.” Millennial Woman demurs quietly, but nicely.
“I’m a doctor, actually,” says Millennial Woman. Boomer Woman is at a momentary loss.
“Oh, are you an M.D.?” asks Boomer Man.
“Yes! So you know what that is?” says Millennial Woman, to my total bafflement and confusion. Is this a real conversation? Boomer Man nods that he indeed does know what an M.D. is, amazingly. And now Boomer Woman has rebounded.
“Is it hierarchical there, in Idaho?” she asks. Millennial Woman very agreeably considers the question.
“Uh, no. Not really,” she decides. But Boomer Woman is on a roll.
“Don’t you all get paid the same now, nurses and everybody?” she asks. Millennial Woman doctor hesitates to answer this question, and Boomer Woman turns to Boomer Man.
“They’re working to have equal pay for everyone, at least in Oregon and Washington, because they’re really progressive about equality,” explains Boomer Woman, although Winnemucca is actually in Nevada. Boomer Man is sensibly quiet, while my mind is churning out sarcastic comments about the equality of student loan debts between nurses and doctors, which I elect to keep to myself. Boomer Woman looks at Millennial Woman, who is also being quiet.
“Do you think that’s a good thing, equal pay for doctors and nurses?” she asks.
“Well…I don’t take on all the politics, so I’m not really knowledgeable about it…,” says Millennial Woman.
“Yes, but politics aside, what are your feelings, personally?” says Boomer Woman. I watch Millennial Woman squirm and mumble. Boomer Woman then gives her a break.
“Well, Jackie, I’m sure it’s a great place to work,” she says to Millennial Woman. Still, incredibly, very friendly, Millenial Woman looks at them both.
“Um, my name’s Melanie,” she says very quietly. This does not embarrass Boomer Woman in the slightest. A great guffaw erupts from her, and I sit up to watch her break into a big grin.
“You’re all the same person to me!!” says Boomer Woman, clearly meaning this in what she thinks is the nicest way possible. Boomer Man is right there with backup, and makes an expansive gesture.
“We’re ALL the same person!” he declares. “We’re all iterations of the Universal!” All three agree with this conclusion, but I am simply stunned, and close my eyes and lean my head back against the edge of the pool, wondering if I can remember all this in time to write it down. In fact, I was so motivated to do just that that I only listened to their banalities a minute more before I rose up and climbed out of the pool. I do wish I’d asked Boomer Man which occupation he had retired from.
Janet and I headed back west, by way of Wagontire, which I’d never seen, and for good reason. Hwy. 395 there is more tedious wasteland, until the cutoff for Christmas Valley.
I came upon a herd of about 12 mule deer just before I came into that town, and they did that awkward thing where they decide to run from Janet, but rather than turn tail away from the road, they all cluster up and run ALONGSIDE her. Really, she’s slow, but not that slow.
Stopped for gas at the only store in Christmas Valley, and perused the community bulletin board on the way to the ladies’ room. This is one of the few fertile areas in southeastern Oregon, and because of the very short, high altitude growing season, they specialize in hay, mostly alfalfa. I think it is the only crop suitable in these parts. It’s supplemental fodder for the cattle that run on the thousands of acres of leased BLM lands. Bureau of Land Management.
After Christmas Valley, I zigzagged through the crop land and came into Fort Rock. I ducked into the two restaurants, neither of which served breakfast, which had sounded like a good idea tomorrow morning. Inside The Watering Hole the smell of fried hamburgers was surprisingly good. Mine was indeed good, as I told one of the chatty men standing next to the bar.
He and his neighbor, a red-faced man with a chaw in his lip and a big, black cowboy hat, were asking me questions as to where I was from. They seemed dubious when I said I was from Springfield, and when I said I had grown up there, but had came back from New York City, they nodded knowingly and said something like “That’s more like it.” Oh, is it now?
Then the older guy says I was eating the best grass-fed beef you’ll find anywhere, but that the guy who raised it was “kind of an asshole.” I turned and said “It’s you, isn’t it?” He said the breed was “Brangus.” A cross between Angus and Brahman, weirdly. Surprised, I asked if he meant the rodeo kind of Brahma, from India, and he said yes. So they taste good, how perfect. He said that Angus by itself is too weak to get on here, in this climate.
Somehow the conversation turned to the political climate, and the younger guy in the black hat looked angry and said that “the Democrats have never been hungry.” I doubt he has either, being a large rancher himself, but I sort of knew what he meant. I got up to go back out to Janet, and Black Hat man said “You take care of yourself.”
But I’d been feeling heavy and sad. I remembered visiting the actual Fort Rock with my kids and husband, on an exploring trip I’d planned, and I realized I feel so strongly about this area–and the Cabin Lake Bird Blind north of here where we camped, because I must have been the happiest I ever was in my marriage and family life at that time. I was constantly finding little outings and adventures for us, on the cheap, and everything seemed optimistic, and the kids seemed happy. It must have been the best time of my life as a mother. Aside from the day of each of my kids’ birth.
Anyway, later I thought, what if I knew then that I would lose them all? As if they are dead and gone. As if I am dead and gone. But wait. Right now, as I’m writing this in the gravel lot across from “The Watering Hole” and in full view of Fort Rock itself, looming up above the grange’s green roof, I’m thinking oh no, I am not dead and gone. And neither, I think, are they. Not a bit. Not one bit.