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

Train Dreams

Just steps from our front door, I can see the jagged peaks of Mount Index in amazing detail, lit up by the last rays of sun.

The evening we arrived the mountaintop was hidden in fog.

It’s spring and we’re in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. To me, this is strange, wild, intimidating country. Rivers and creeks are raging because snow is melting in the mountains. We’ve passed by several streams of snowmelt tumbling down walls of rock alongside the highway.

Our vacation cabin is perched on the banks of the Skykomish River. It was raining our first night here, and the rain, together with the rushing river, created quite a din.

My husband built a fire in the wood burning stove, which took the chill out of the air and made everything cozier. After a while, though, we noticed a dull thunder swelling to a roar that soon overpowered the sounds of downpour and river flow outside our picture window. My first, nervous thought was “flash flood,” but when a high-pitched whine of metal on metal joined the mix we realized it was a train.

Train in Skykomish

We are in train country. The legend of the Great Northern Railroad is very much alive here, though nowadays the trains that run are mostly on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. Twice now, while having lunch at the Cascadia Hotel Cafe in Skykomish, we’ve watched trains pass through, heading east from the port of Seattle with container cars from China, Germany, and Scandinavia.

Several times a day and into the night we hear the trains.

In a kind of parallel journey to my vacation, I’m reading Train Dreams, a novel by Denis Johnson about a logger and laborer who worked for the Pacific Northwest train companies of the early twentieth century.

The Pacific Northwest is a surreal and dangerous character in Train Dreams, as much a character as Johnson’s protagonist, Robert Grainier.

Photos of loggers

I thought about the life and times of Grainier when we hiked the Iron Goat Trail, along the now abandoned Great Northern Railway bed. On plaques along the way, old photographs depicted loggers like Grainier taking down giant cedar and fir trees.

Grainier grew “hungry to be around….massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.”

Yet Grainier also saw the great mountains and forests defeat the ambitious plans of mere humans. The land defeated him, too, in a very personal way, but he learned acceptance and, finally, a kind of reverence for the terrible beauty of the land he lived in.

The Iron Goat was the last spur of the Great Northern Railway, crossing the Cascades at the treacherous Stevens Pass. (I found Stevens Pass stunning the first time we drove through, going east at sunny noon, but on the late afternoon return trip, when it was foggy, overcast, and raining, I could hardly stand the vertigo.)  Disaster Viewpoint on the Iron Goat Trail marks the spot where, in 1910, an avalanche swept two snowbound passenger trains into the Tye River below, killing nearly 100 people.

Snowshed, hiking path

To alleviate the dangers of avalanches, the railroad companies eventually built snowsheds, huge retaining walls to protect trains from tumbling snow. My husband and I walked alongside an old snowshed on our hike.

We knew our hike would be cut short because a sign at the trail head indicated an avalanche had made the trail impassable a half mile in.

Sure enough, just a few feet from where the snowshed ended, we could go no further, thanks to a wall of hard-packed, dirt-encrusted snow.


Snowmelt avalanceh

Loggers photo: D. Kinsey Collection, Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bellingham, WA.
Quote from Train Dreams, Denis Johnson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.

Listen to a trailer of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the audiobook published by Macmillan:

Mount Index
Mount Index