Wallow Mountains: A Return to the Heart

Chief Joseph Mountain now…

The past two days back in the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon have been full of reflection and beauty. Back in 2011, I lived and loved here for six months. Long enough to make friends, start a relationship, get a job, consider buying a house, and teach flash fiction to dozens of local teens. Also long enough to solidify my already explosive love for this county…and for those who don’t know, by way of quick introduction: Wallowa County, Oregon is in the very northeastern corner near Idaho and Washington. It includes a dozen peaks over 9,000 feet (and some over 10,000), plus the 2nd deepest canyon in North America, and over 50,000 acres of high prairie with rare grasses, wildflowers, and songbirds. It is, by my standards, one of the most ecologically and geographically satisfying places in the United States. Add to that the fact that the small communities of people here are kind, generous, creative, unique, hard-working, and gentle and, well…you’ve got a recipe for one of the best places on Earth.

So, why didn’t I buy that house? Stay with that man? Apply for that job or keep the one I had? Several reasons. First, I wasn’t done with my three years on the road for my writing career. Second, that man didn’t want to stay with me (and that was for the better). Third, I wasn’t entirely financially prepared to take on a mortgage unless I accepted full time employment along with it–which I had an offer for, but not the heart for. Fourth, throughout all my 3 years on the road, I knew I needed to give North Carolina one more try. My parents live there. The South Toe River Valley is my Southern equivalent to the Wallowas and while it still doesn’t hold the history I have here, it holds a lot more–like my future. So in June 2011 I left, and the ribbon of highway miles that rolled beneath THE CLAW were some of the most hard-earned of my entire life.

For these reasons, being back is somewhat bittersweet. But I’m happy to report that, more than being bittersweet, my return feels satisfying. My ex and I are friends now, and supporting each other in our new and separate loves. The chocolate shop I worked for is still going strong, and uses the same barista/drink making set up that I first advised them on when their business began. They are a truly unique, family-operated business, making nationally renowned truffles. I also put out an email to a few friends in town before I arrived–on a whim–hoping they could join me for a dinner at the local brew pub (lord help me, the Terminal Gravity ESG!) and was so touched when nearly everyone showed up. It made me feel very lucky and it reassured my belief in humanity–that even through the distance of time, memory, and miles, friendships and meaningful connections still endure.

Chief Joseph Mountain during my winter stay, 2011.

This morning, I woke early to get a hike in before an otherwise busy day. Sure, I don’t have events today, but I have 4 events next week and over 700 miles to drive, so you can bet I’ve got to stay caught up on my editing and reading work in the meantime. I
ate a huge breakfast, guzzled water, put on my hiking clothes, and hit
the trail sans pack. I knew I only had two hours, so I hit it as hard as
I could for an hour and then turned around. The trail around the backside of Cheif Joseph Mountain, heading up Hurricane Creek and in the direction of the Lakes region of the National Forest, was just as I remembered it…except without snow this time. The valley was drenched from last night’s rain, but clouds lifted against the backdrop of a light, yellow sun. Fog moved alongside me and above me, sometimes revealing a peak but mostly keeping the range a secret. I knew that I was surrounded on all sides by 9,000-foot peaks, but my eyes stayed trained on the rockslide trail, the glacial rivermelt, and the fading green shrubs of fall in the mountains.

Higher up, a dusting of snow teased the ridgelines and suddenly, gray clouds dropped down. I turned around and headed back toward the trailhead, rain drizzling onto my cap and tickling my arms. If I stopped, I’d catch a chill, but that was part of the fun. Yesterday, I ran four miles alongside Wallowa Lake. My knees can only take so much, so I knew I was pushing my limits today with pace and gear but I also knew I could get away with it, for just these six miles, just these two hours, just one memory made in the mountains I love so much.

In 2011, my time in the Wallowas was hugely productive in terms of writing. The Writing Life blog grew in popularity and I grew myself as a place-based writer. For those interested, enjoy these photos and most popular posts from my six months here: The Sea Cow of Wallowa Lake, Bookwork and Footwork, The Enduring Elk, Week 2 Reflections, Success, Photo Collage, Week 7 Reflections, Walking Backwards Through Time, Close But No Offer, There Are Places Here, The Zumwalt, Rail Canyon Road, Three Cowboys and a Writer, The Living End, Farewell, Writer’s Retreat, Imnaha River Canyon, Craft in the Canyon, Lessons from the Canyon, and Canyon Photo Collage.

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