Visitors from the past

October 05, 2007 11:00 pm

Wherever you're from, you know what home means. Doesn't matter if it's Baker City or Baraboo, Wis. Everybody's heart lives somewhere — somewhere they'll never really leave.

And every once in a while, when you're walking along minding your own business, you trip over a root that reminds you of a simple truth: No matter where you go, no matter what you do, you're always from that place.

For me, that place is Hugo — a dot on the map at the base of Mount Sexton in Josephine County. And I stumbled over one of those roots a few days ago.

See, back before the Internet or Michael Vick and his dogs or the Patriot Act, I was a little kid in patched jeans, lace-up leather boots and striped T-shirts wandering happily in the woods of southern Oregon.

Hugo wasn't a town. It was just sort of a railroad crossing — it had a church, a school and the wooden-floored Hugo Hitching Post, which sold stale bubble gum and dusty cans of pork and beans.

Just about everybody was a logger or a millworker.

In the fall, dads who hunted deer brought venison to Hugo Elementary School's cook, Gertie, so she could store it in the pantry and serve it to us kids through the winter. Once in a while, somebody would donate half a beef.

There weren't as many lawyers then, and it never would've occurred to anybody around Hugo to call the government and have somebody come out and check to make sure we were getting safe food. We had Gertie — she washed everything before she cooked it, and she knew all about all the ranges and ovens and grills in the little lunchroom under the old gym.

It was a pretty safe place to be a first-grader.

Nowadays, the school is long closed and the mill work is lone gone. Hugo has become the kind of woodsy place that calls to rich refugees who show up with the wherewithal to buy the perfect escape, then ruin it by turning it into exactly what they just left.

I've still got family out there, so I hear secondhand who's died, gotten divorced or bought a new truck.

But I never figure I'm much a part of it anymore. It's shaped me, but now there's ... well, the Internet, Michael Vick and his dogs, and the Patriot Act to think about.

Toward quitting time one day last week, though, two people came in to the paper and sat down by the front desk, waiting patiently to see me.

From the newsroom, I could see an earnest-looking couple talking quietly — silver-haired guy about 70 in a ballcap, and a woman with a prim cardigan sweater. I didn't recognize them at first. I figured they were probably in to explain a hand-scrawled news release about an upcoming club meeting or a fundraiser for some church group. Something routine.

But when the man stood, I realized it was Allen and Faye, old friends of our family — Faye was my baby sitter when I was 5, and Allen used to drive all the kids crazy with this baffling magic trick where he rubbed a penny into his arm then pulled it out of his ear. We'd been through graduations, weddings, funerals, car troubles and Christmas programs together as far back as I could remember.

And now they were here. Hugo was here.

It was all as real as the rent coming due on a Thursday, and as we talked 25 years melted away and I felt young and full of promise again. Home and the past were as warm as the hug Faye gave me when she saw me.

Allen shook my hand and grinned under the bill of his Hugo Hitching Post cap. "You look more like your old man every year," he told me. "Nothing wrong with that."

Faye — as always — rolled her eyes at Allen's jokes. Said she'd visited my sister the other day.

Allen told me his neighbor still has my father's old tractor — a 1948 Farmall Cub that Dad used to rebuild and repaint just to keep himself busy.

Faye said she thought Baker's buildings were pretty, that the town was bigger than she'd pictured it.

We stood in the office and embraced the memories, smiled at the moment.

Walking down First Street later, still smiling to myself, it occurred to me that you really can't measure the past in years or miles, and home isn't necessarily an address.

Time, as it turns out, isn't any more linear than the road from here to Hugo. And it doesn't go anywhere anyway.


John Taylor is editor of the Baker City Herald.