We've been talking about an expedition to Fossil for a long time. Or rather I've been talking about it and Carolyn's been muttering under her breath "why don't we just do it?"
This is about my mama, really. She's been gone since 1983, (can it really be 35 years?) but I still hear her voice in my head. Anytime I'm about to do something silly, or stupid or inconsiderate she pipes in. "Schmuck!!!" Oh, wait that's someone else's Jewish mother. We were lapsed Protestants. No, mom's voice is saying "Michael Alan!!!" (The only time I ever heard my middle name was just before or after I'd screwed up.)
So we set off for Fossil, the small Northeast Oregon farming community where my mother grew up. All I knew of it were snatches of remembered stories about 5 year old Jo Eleanor Lewis and her 3 year old sister Ruth being put on a train in St. Louis, bound for Oregon in the mid-early part of the last century after their mother died. They landed at their Uncle's ranch, where life was hard and the winters mean.
Carolyn and I, after meeting my sister Lana in Bend for a catch-up lunch, set out on the twisty road from Madras, through the ghostly Shaniko, into Antelope (where the ghost of the Bhagwan lingers) and S-turning our way down the canyon on a trek we shall call our
This is a part of Oregon I hadn't experienced. I'd imagined a flat or gently rolling farm landscape where wheat fluttered in the breeze and cows mooed the daily farm gossip over abundant grass. What we encountered was more reminiscent of Arizona or New Mexico.
As we slid down the canyon into Fossil, I recalled stories my other sister Birdie shared about mom being sent out with a shotgun to go after marauding coyotes (I'm guessing she was older than 5 by then, but who knows?) and how she loved to see the wild horses galloping through the canyon. It was easy to imagine given the landscape we saw.
Although I couldn't pin down the exact location of the farm they'd lived on, we passed several that would have fit the bill. The town itself, all four hundred fifty or so souls of it, had a lot of charm.
Small as it is, Fossil is the county seat of Wheeler County. (population 1358 according to the 2015 census) The courthouse, pictured below was built in 1902 and still carries out it's function every weekday.
The consolidated high school serves about 40 students and the elementary school about the same number. There are fossil beds up behind the football field and for a $5 per head donation you can go up and dig to your hearts content. Here's fearless fossil hunter Carolyn holding what we believe to be either a bone from a 20,000 year old arachnid or a 50,000 year old fossilized bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Since there weren't any obvious overnight accommodations in Fossil, we moved up the road 20 miles to the bustling community of Condon. (population 720) Luckily, there was a vacancy in the town's only motel.
The rooms were inexpensive, clean and had everything we needed. Namely beds, a table, a microwave in case we needed to nuke something a refrigerator and wifi. (Although, honestly, checking your e-mail when you're time traveling seemed a bit incongruous). There was also a shower I had to hunker under to get my whale-body wet but Carolyn, being an official short person didn't have that problem.
Having grown up in Bandon, Oregon before it became chi-chi golf central I have an abiding love for small towns and here's a shot of Condon's downtown that says it all.
there to be greeted by Al, coffee pot in hand, and joined the locals in choosing from the tantalizing choices on the breakfast menu. Also on hand were a gaggle of construction workers who we'd met the night before in the bar next door. Being unable to finish our pizza, we'd told the barmaid to ask if "the boys" would like to finish it and they said. "Sure, M'am, anything we can do to help." The next morning in the diner, they urged us to order the Full Monty breakfast as they were pretty sure we couldn't eat all of it and they were fond of ham, pancakes, sausage and eggs.
Carolyn settled for the two egg and toast special and I scarfed up the "secret recipe" cinnamon French toast as prepared by the chef de grille David. We'd recommend the Condon Diner not
only for the food, but the friendly service and unique decor.
Fully fed and ready to roll, we ducked back to Fossil for another heapin' helpin' of nostalgia and a look around, and then set off North to make our way home.
The landscape along highway 97 was, in it's own way as unique and interesting as the twisting canyon drive from Shaniko to Fossil. If you're a fan of wind farms (and I am) this part of Oregon and Southern Washington is Nirvana. What's especially novel is watching the tips of the propellers flap past the tops of hills, without seeing the column that supports them. A little eerie, still fun. There's also a great view of 5 snow-capped Cascade mountains, including Hood, Adams (below) the stub of St. Helens, and Rainier way off in the distance.
It was a bit of a let-down to return to our hum-drum life in Vancouver. After all, once you've been to Fossil and Condon, nothing else can compare. I accomplished what I'd set out to do, which was spend time in the environs that nurtured the unique lady that was my mother. And, once home, lounging in my easy chair, I could hear her soft and patient voice chiding me. "Michael Alan! You should have left some of that french toast for those nice construction workers."