May 16, 2002 11:00 pm

by Mark Highberger

for The Observer

n the other end of the phone line, the voice sounds stiff, almost icy. "But I didn't enter a contest," says the woman, whose name is Martha.

I clear my throat and repeat the pitch: "You've been randomly selected as a reader of The Observer to accompany an obscure writer along an Oregon backcountry road." I wait, listen to a dim electronic buzz and think about the advantages of selling shoes for a living.

"What's the point?" Martha finally says.

"Public relations," I tell her. "A chance for a reader to travel beyond the tourist brochures and the interstate highways." I also want to tell her it's about seeing country with your eyes wide open, but that seems too difficult to explain, too abstract to understand. So instead I say, "It'll make a good story."

Another pause. "Do I have to?"

Desperate, I pull out my secret weapon and begin singing "Oregon, My Oregon," the official state song:

"La-a-nd of the Em-pire Buil-ders, La-a-nd of the Gol-den West; Con-quered and held by free men, fa-a-ir-est and the best —"

"I'll go!" Martha says, gasping. "Stop singing — I'll go." She catches her breath. "Can Sam come?"

"Sure. Bring your dog."

"Sam's my husband."

"Then bring him, too."

And so a few days later, Martha and Sam, the lucky winners from La Grande, find themselves sitting in a red Chevy Blazer at a road junction eight miles east of Joseph. Here one end of U.S. Forest Service Road 39—better known on maps as the Wallowa Mountain Loop and by locals as the Loop Road—begins carving a circular path along the mountains and canyons and streams of the Imnaha River country.

The plan is to drive approximately 90 miles of that route in three segments: 30 paved miles east and south along the Loop Road to the Imnaha River, 30 graveled miles north along the Imnaha River Road (Forest Service Road 3955) to the town of Imnaha, and the final 30 paved miles southwest along the Little Sheep Creek Highway and back to Joseph. And I can tell from Martha's bright eyes and Sam's wide smile that both are eager for the adventure. So I turn the Blazer south and head out toward the snowy peaks of Wing Ridge.

"Can we go home now?" Martha says.

"B—But you have such bright eyes and wide smiles."

"Actually," Sam says, "Martha's crying and I'm grimacing."

"Oh." Recognizing the symptoms of Reluctant Traveler's Blues, I hurriedly hand Martha a notebook. "Somebody has to take notes," I tell her, thinking it might take her mind off her misery. "This place deserves a story."

"Do I have to?"

I take a deep breath. "La-a-nd of the Em-pire Buil-ders, La-a-nd of—"

"I'll do it!" Martha stares down at the notebook, then at me. "But I don't know how."

"Look out the window and describe what you see."

"Terraced ridges," she says, gazing at the slopes of the Wallowa Mountains. "Tiered slopes, a carpet of green."

"Good. Jot that down."

As she writes, we follow Sheep Creek uphill, winding past creekside aspen groves and distant snow fields, and soon Martha's eyes begin to dry and Sam's grimace begins to fade. "It's rugged," Martha says, first watching and then writing. "Inviting yet dramatic."

Even more drama waits up ahead, for in the last long stretches before tipping over the 6,000-foot top of Salt Creek Summit, we enter the still-charred land of the 1989 Canal Fire, which burned 23,000 acres, almost 36 square miles, of forest.

"Devastating," Martha says, writing and seeming to enjoy it. "A timber-maze of burnt trunks and dead limbs." But then she finds new life growing among old scars. "White yarrow and purple lupine blooming," she says. "The smells of green grass and pine needles."

Across mountain streams and timbered slopes we go, until we reach the end of the first 30 mile segment at the Imnaha River, whose headwaters begin at the summit of Eagle Cap mountain in the nearby wilderness. But as we approach the junction that will turn us downstream, a road sign tells us that Hells Canyon Overlook lies ahead. "We've never seen Hells Canyon," Sam says. So we stay on the pavement and head uphill, driving for nine more miles to the overlook, the last three involving a steep climb to a parking lot.

"This is a global parking lot," Martha says, pointing out that we have the only Oregon license plates here. The other cars hail from South Carolina and Montana, New York and Illinois. This is also the only parking lot where you can follow asphalt to the canyon's edge.

Out on the mile-high rim of the deepest gorge on the continent, the depth and distance of Hells Canyon unfolds in layers of basalt and firs, in sun-smeared greens and reds, the mountains stretching into a distant blue haze where clouds ride the rims.

"It's both lovely and ominous," Martha says, opening her notebook. "Makes me feel like the earth has fallen away right in front of me."

"Beautiful," Sam says, peering through binoculars. "I can't believe the ruggedness of i t— almost straight up and down."

"Look — rocks that hang like a pearl necklace." Martha points toward the gray rocks that drape from the canyon's crests and seem to dangle in layers down the slopes. Then she writes her description in the notebook.

It seems she may have the makings of an obscure writer, for she's still writing when we backtrack to the river and turn onto the gravel of the Imnaha River Road. Following the stream on its journey toward the Snake River, we soon pass the fish weir, where salmon arrive after surviving a swim that takes them past eight dams and nine fish ladders.

Farther up the road is the Pallette Ranch, which a 1942 issue of the Saturday Evening Post called "Hollywood's #1 Hideout." It was here, local legend says, that actor Eugene Pallette — remember Friar Tuck in Robin Hood? — built a 3,500 acre ranch designed as a fortress against invasion. With its stores of food and arsenal of guns, its gas pumps and power station, its warehouses and cannery, the Pallette Ranch stood ready either to defend itself against the onslaught of communism or to entertain Clark Gable and Errol Flynn at dinner. Today, however, the ranch mostly rents rooms to hunters.

Yet even the salmon and the fortress pale beside the road's main attraction — the canyon itself. And as Martha bends over her notebook, she begins describing the river flowing deep between its ragged banks, the farmland spreading across irrigated fields that hold golden rolls of hay, and the orchards shining bright green in the sunlight. She notes the pockets of trees dotting the slopes and shading the draws, and she compares the steeply slanted basalt rims to an Egyptian pyramid, its rocks as brown as chunks of chocolate.

She looks up. "I'd love to stay here," she says. "It keeps all your senses alive and working." Then she goes back to writing until the canyon widens like the mouth of a funnel that opens at the town of Imnaha.

"If you're going to keep writing that way," I tell her, "then it's time for your initiation into the world of obscure writers."

She looks up. "Do I have to?"

I take a deep breath. "La-a-nd of the Em-pire—"

"Let's go!" Martha says.

And so inside the Imnaha Store & Tavern, both Sam and Martha pass the three-part initiation: eating deep-fried chicken gizzards dunked in hot sauce, drinking ice-cold beer poured from stainless steel pitchers, and folding tacks inside dollars then tossing them at the ceiling until the bills stick to the tiles. "My kind of place," Sam says.

From here all that's left is the heading back, climbing out of the canyon and winding along Little Sheep Creek, watching cows graze in roadside pastures and deer browse across stair-stepped hillsides, the sun lowering and the evening coming and the canyon falling into shadows. Through it all, Martha watches and writes.

"What are you writing now?" I ask her.

"What I learned on this trip," she says, turning toward the window. "That you have to look at this country with your eyes wide open."

(Disclaimer: Martha and Sam are fictitious names, invented to protect their privacy; any resemblance between them and anyone you know is purely coincidental. In addition, The Observer played no part in this road trip scheme.)