ALONG FOOTHILL ROAD
Story and photos by Chris Baxter
In the summer of 1851, after months of traversing what must have seemed an interminable landscape of dust, rock and bleakness, pioneer Lucia Loraine Williams descended a treacherous canyon and was instantly enamored with what she found waiting for her at the bottom. Simply yet elegantly she said, "... it resembled an enchanted valley."
That treacherous canyon is now known as Ladd Canyon, and that enchanted valley was the Grande Ronde.
After emerging into this valley Lucia and her family, like thousands of other pioneers before and after them, veered their oxen and wagons northward following the base of the valley's western foothills for several miles, before climbing back out of the valley at what is now La Grande as they continued their journey west.
Those few miles of pioneer trail along the western edge of the valley are now roughly defined by Foothill Road. It was the glimpses of this valley that those few miles afforded Lucia that jelled her initial impressions of this place and led her to settle upon the word "enchanted'' when writing in her journal later.
If you've ever walked along this quiet, sparsely traveled road on a sunny spring afternoon watching the vibrant red patches of red-shouldered blackbirds appear and disappear into fields of lush, vibrant green grasses streaked and daubed here and there with the deep purples and blues of camas and lupine, and then noting in the distance a few fairytale-ish, snow-dusted mountains you'll know exactly what Lucia meant.
Surely more than one of those pioneers, after traversing these few miles of such beguiling scenery, asked a traveling companion, "Now tell me again, why are we going further?"
Sometimes during quiet moments along this road, with only a little imagination, one might hear the heavy wheezing of oxen, the creaking of wagons as they jarringly, laboriously pass nearby. And it wouldn't take too much more imagination to hear the echoes of tired children asking that timeless question, "Are we there yet?" although with a bit more gravity than today's.
Yes, for better and for worse, much has changed in this valley in a century and a half.
But those of us who have leisurely ambled along a stretch of this old Oregon Trail on a warm, summer evening know something that hasn't changed in the past century and a half. As we have taken in the heavenly fragrance of freshly cut hay fields, paused to listen to the tranquil chirp of crickets and the clear, cascading notes of a meadowlark's call, while across the valley, the rise of Cove is magically, lightly sprinkled with a gold glitter of reflected setting suns, we are well aware of one thing that has remained the same since Lucia's day: our definition of "enchanted."