Running this morning before the heat of summer tunes up, I pause by each old barn along Foothills Road that traces the edge of Glass Hill to the west and ruffled hayfields and cat-tail, willow and camas wetlands of Ladd Marsh to the east.
Normally drawn to the barn swallows that nest under eaves or the chubby marmots that romp in open doorways, today it’s all about clean symmetry against a periwinkle sky and tin can lids nailed to knotty planks with flaking paint.
Stories. I once knew a wizened, hunched rancher named Gene who grew up in the leaning, narrow, wooden two-story house I lived in for a year, 12 miles outside of Helena, Montana, on a 2,000-acre ranch. Gene would show up in his 1940s vintage tractor, heading my way from the new place nearby to find a useful part for repairs in that classic heap of rusted metals and old farm machinery in the field.
He’d tell me about the big red barn, the one that burned down on a 4th of July. Fireworks. The whole sky flaming, the sizzle, the smoke, the terror of that day seemed so recent that I thought I’d just missed the fire of a half-century ago.
I wondered if Gene’s barn looked like the red barns of Foothills Road. He could have told me every detail, recalled every diamond-shaped window, gate a bit off its hinges, and the sound of the weather vane creaking in a high wind. I wish I’d lingered with him more. Not hurried off to work. Taken time, for he’s long gone.
What I did have was a year in Gene’s barn-like house of his childhood, long enough to struggle outdoors in a minus 40 degree blizzard with a wind chill that sent the temperatures pummeling down down to a cold so numbing I can feel it still- 25 years later.
Like the outer barn walls I saw this morning with nailed on pieces of tin and lids, Gene’s house harbored a dozen or so car license plates nailed at odd angles. They had their purpose too, covering flicker woodpecker holes and entry points for the honeybees that hummed within the walls.
The efforts failed over time. Inside, the living room wall buckled inward with the weight of liquid, golden honey. At the top of the steep stairs was an imprint of an iron on the wood floor. I’d touch that burned engraving of the too hot iron and think of Gene’s mother, raising eight kids there in the wind-struck plains just off the Continental Divide. Gene’s father came back once a year from the railroad for a week, but the rest of the time his mom took charge of everything- the kids, the gardens, the hayfields and horses, the cattle, and the chickens.
Storied houses. Storied barns. I want to meet an elder like Gene again. Listen. Take time. Peer through cobwebbed windows to know what it is to be rugged and brave, like Gene’s mother there on that Helena ranch, pulling on her boots and shouldering a door open into the night to tend to the latest emergency while her eight children dreamed, nestled together in two tiny bedrooms. Perhaps even then the walls hummed.
(Note–Foothills Road is on the edge of La Grande, Oregon)