River House, a memoir of the high desert

Three Sisters mountains

Three Sisters


Before we head to our family reunion in Cannon Beach, Oregon, we’ve been exploring the high desert east of the Cascades. Of course, I had to find a book indigenous to this place, so I settled on Sarahlee Lawrence’s memoir, River House.

Sarahlee is a kind of modern-day superwoman: an expert river runner who navigated the most dangerous rivers in South America and Africa by the time she was 21, a rancher who built from scratch her own log cabin with the help of her father, and a talented young writer who gives us an honest, unromantic vision of what it is like to live off the land here.

After her almost unbelievably dangerous river adventures, Sarahlee decided to return to the ranch where she grew up with her parents and grandparents, to reconnect to the land and build her own log cabin.

River House chronicles the building of the cabin, Sarahlee’s struggle to reconcile her love of river running with the land-locked life of the ranch, and her fraught relationship with her father, a former surfer (riding wild water is in their blood) who has ranched for thirty years and is worn out by the land and the unrelenting physical labor.

If you want to steep yourself in the physical terrain and culture of central Oregon’s high desert, if you want a vicarious taste of backbreaking labor as told by a young woman with a strong spiritual connection to the land, River House is the book for you.

If your aim is to build a luxury McMansion with all the creature comforts and a picture window view of Three Sisters, this memoir will probably make you uncomfortable.

I found River House to be a great read. As we drove around the hot, dry land and hiked in the stunning forests along the ice-cold Metolius River and around the secluded Suttle Lake, I was very conscious of being a tourist, a stranger in this unusual place.

There is a vast divide between those of us who live a sedentary life behind computer screens and plugged into social media and those who work the land every single day of the year.


River House, Sarahlee Lawrence

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris

A Country Year, Sue Hubbell

Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir

Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes

Chapel in the Pines

Sunday morning, Chapel in the Pines, Camp Sherman


Quilting is a fine art and craft here.

Fire Danger

A day after we saw this sign, it was 99 degrees and the fire precaution was upgraded to Extreme.

Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa pine

2 responses

  1. Nice review, Valorie. This memoir looks quite fascinating. I loved that comparison you made between sedentary city people and those who work the land. Sarahlee and her father are quite fascinating. I also loved all the pictures that you posted. ‘Three Sisters’ looks stunning.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful read, I love how you read it in recognition of visiting the area, it adds so much more to the experience I am sure, having that voice so recently with you before going there yourself.

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