Every year about this time in the fall, I make a pilgrimage back home to Eastern Oregon where my Great Grandparents homesteaded. Returning to the soil where my family originated is a cathartic experience for me. I leave every year with a sense of belonging and a desire to live simply and honestly. The land, now barren, with only a crumbling cabin left standing, serves as a reminder that success is possible with hard work and a strong will to persevere.
My family scratched out a living in this rugged country after emigrating from Sweden in the 19th century. After serving for the North in the Civil War, my Great Uncle Andrew Anderson was the first of the family to homestead north of a booming mining town called Canyon City. The homestead is nestled in a lush green valley at the base of the majestic Blue Mountains. Near the end of the 19th century, my Great Grandparents followed in Andrew’s footsteps and joined in his endeavor to prosper in America where rich soil was abundant and the land was free.
The cabin, which was the first structure built on the ranch, is now the only one left standing. The barn, corral, fruit cellar and smokehouse collapsed and disintegrated years ago. The cabin is now wide open and exposed to the elements. Doors are missing, a part of the roof has caved in, a window is broken, the floor sways with each step, tiny remnants of faded fabric wallpaper scarcely cling to one wall, the front porch has since wasted away, but the foundation made of heavy squared stones still holds the structure firmly in place. As I stand before it in awe of its grandeur, I sigh with relief, grateful for having one more beautiful fall to bond with its old wooden bones.
I sometimes wonder what other people see when they look at the cabin. Do they see a cabin nearing the end of its life or do they see it in its prime, as I do? When I look at the cabin, I envision my grandmother sitting in her rocker on the porch peeling potatoes watching her children play cowboys and Indians over by the chicken coop. A smile spreads across her face at the sight of her husband riding a sorrel horse off the upper hillside pushing a herd of sheep down to the lower meadow. Inside the cabin, a cloud of smoke from Uncle Andrew’s pipe lingers near the fireplace where he sits telling old war stories to his nephews. A pan of biscuits sits on the windowsill in the kitchen to cool. The aroma is carried by a soft breeze, which blows gently through the kitchen. Plain white curtains, yellowed by the afternoon sun, sway with the breeze.
Suddenly, I’m jolted back to 2015 by the sound of my dog barking. I turned around to see what the fuss was all about. Standing behind me down by the creek was a willowy young doe feeding with her small fawn trailing behind. After watching them for a few moments, I turned my attention back to the cabin. This time though, there were no apparitions of ancestors or the smell of fresh-baked bread. Instead, the vacant cabin stood eerily still and void of life.
With a heavy heart, I walked to my car, loaded my dog and took one last long look at the cabin and land surrounding it. I breathed in the juniper fragrance and listened to the golden-yellow aspen leaves rattling in the wind.
I left behind my beloved homestead, but walked away with a compelling story, which I hope to tell one day.