I had occasion to visit Pendleton, Oregon recently. It is the “purple mountains’ majesty, above the fruited plain” that we sing about, only the peaks that rim the valley bowl are the Blue Mountains, and the fruit of the land is animal as well as vegetable.
Pendleton is famous for its glorious woolens, which you can read about in Vogue and buy across America. Its other claim to fame is the Pendleton Round-Up, a rodeo and in-gathering of the people who still ride the range for a living.
The Round-Up features competitions that demonstrate the sparkle experience lends to natural ability: you think you can only watch so many guys lasso and hogtie a frightened calf, and then a cowboy comes on the scene who puts that extra little fillip into the way he throws his rope and downs the calf in such a deft way that you wouldn’t have missed the poetry of it.
There are cowgirls, too, and the people who recruit fashion models should stop traveling to Sweden if they want the lean, clean look. The ladies and gentlemen of the ranch are spare and elegant enough for a Ralph Lauren ad, and the buckles on their belts are works of art (a sterling silver beauty with garnets costs $100).
The round-up also symbolizes, in the most basic fashion, the clash between the urban regulators who govern from western Washington and Oregon, and the hardworking souls in the eastern part of the states who wrest a living from the land. People who have not paid the price for the livelihood threaten it. Coming up 1-84 from Salt Lake City, you pass through the thundering barrenness of southern Idaho. No respectable jackrabbit would live there, and on this trip, coming back from a close friend’s birthday celebration, I didn’t spot any. As you come closer to Boise, life starts to appear again, and on the greening edge of western Idaho, there are cattle and potatoes.
Then you come to the marvelous accidents of weather and geography that make Washington and Oregon so interesting. Volcanic and glacial activity have made tall mountains and deep valleys, and around La Grande, Oregon, one such accident has made topsoil as black as bear fur, as rich and verdant as any I saw when I lived in Iowa, our nation’s most fortunate state when it comes to good dirt. But mostly, the people who live east of the Cascade Mountains have to deal with semiarid land that is none too rich.
So the “drysiders” need irrigation water and fertilizers (organic or otherwise) to coax the land to support pasture or wine grapes. This year, water has been in short supply here, as in the Midwest. The focus of the national media has been on areas that can be covered from the Chicago bureau, but the drought has caused hardship in a hard land, coming on the heels of years of regulation. The rewards of hard work—houses on the hill that would suit a Spanish grandee; property that is measured in hectares—are threatened by the natural cycles of rainfall and the unnatural demands of the regulators.
Bureaucrats who work for the same governor who campaigns on a platform of good jobs and good wages rob the people of their labor. A ranch is labor-intensive, even at its most efficient. A machine cannot free a calf stuck in a fence, nor break the ice from the surface of the water supply in the dead of winter. A sheep lost on a ridge of lava rock must be retrieved on horseback or on foot. This is a special job for an individual who is patient, tough, and deft.
The livestock have to go to market, more cheaply if the market is close at hand. The environmental regulators have already driven the meat-packing industry out of Washington State (fortunately, some of it landed in Idaho), and over the past few years have begun to fret over the proximity of cattle to lakes and streams. It seems they regard manure as a threat to the purity of the water supply, saying it may kill the occasional salmon.
These regulations are mostly written to protect coastal streams, but are in effect statewide. So an older rancher, squinting into the clouded looking glass for the future, might decide he’s had enough, and let his cowhands look for another job.
Across the Columbia from Pendleton, in Richland, Washington, the clever environmentalists have robbed the state of brains as well as money. They have managed, with the governor of Washington’s able assistance, to irk the federal government until it has shut down the N-Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. All the high-salaried engineers who have made Richland such a bright spot in the state’s economy and intellectual life will take their salaries and their intelligent children to South Carolina. Their experimental projects and the industrial spinoffs from those projects will leave with them. In a few years, some backwater town in South Carolina will be shinier and wealthier and have a dazzling youth symphony because these engineers have settled there.
My ancestors and their traveling companions, who came to the West on the Oregon Trail in the 1840’s, would not have dreamed of this when they came down Dead Man’s Pass into the smooth bowl that is Pendleton. They knew that when their journey had ended, still another would begin: to wrest a living off the land they had come to. To read their diaries is to marvel at human endurance and to scar the soul.
The people who came to this place were truly the people of the edge. Their ancestors had jumped off the shores of Europe to reach America, with a second jump into the Northwest Territories (as the Midwest was then called), and these children of pioneers took one more treacherous leap, a long one, across mountain and desert, under a waterless sky, to reach fertile land. They would find it hard to imagine that such long strides were taken at so great a cost, only to have those who came after driven from the soil, not by nature but by ignorant rule.
Modern ranch hands coming down the Dead Man’s Pass travel the 6 percent grade in fourwheel drive trucks, then rumble by yellow flowering sagebrush and flowing wheat to reach the rodeo. Even with a paved road and conveniences, you still sense, as in much of the West, that your presence is tenuous.
The cowboys and cowgirls at the Pendleton Round-Up must be edgy from more than adrenalin when they slip the noose around the neck of the calf: perhaps they know how it feels. Catherine Rudolph has worked as a consultant on Republican campaigns up to the presidential level. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and is now writing a novel.