The old Nesbitt place: Finding a home at the end of the road

March 27, 2013 09:17 am

I spent a lot of time this month on Wallowa County ranches in the mud and the muck, under threatening skies with a few sun-filled breaks providing good photo ops.

Being invited into a home, corrals or pastures is a real treat. Sometimes I get a cup of coffee or a pop, a little conversation, and then a walk through fields documenting part of someone’s work day raising food off the land.

Everyone I visited for our special agriculture addition had familial ties to the ground — some for many generations. A young rancher told me no matter where she traveled for pleasure, school or work, she knew where home was. She said not everyone she’d met had that sense of home and she felt lucky.

When I left my family home to go to college, I went 3,000 miles away determinedly. I wanted Eastern Oregon in my rearview mirror, so to speak. Getting to know my college mates who came from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, I realized the ties I thought I’d severed were made of Teflon.

One of the gentlemen I recently interviewed had lived several places in the Pacific Northwest, Washington, D.C., and Denver before returning to the county where he was born. Luckily, he spent his summers on his grandparents’ ranch, so he’s always considered Wallowa County home.

Another interviewee moved onto her family’s place as a young adult, armed with a animal science degree and a heart full of desire to manage the land settled by her great-grandparents in 1884. 

Another woman grew up in Wallowa County, but left for 35 years before returning to bring her family’s ranch back to life, replacing cattle with goats at the foot of Mount Joseph.

The closest longstanding tie to land is my mother’s hometown — a village where she was related to half the population. When I visited my grandmother, I would invariably be introduced to “Cousin So and So.” Even people I wasn’t related to were old enough friends of my family’s they could be referred to as Aunt X or Uncle Y.

No direct relatives are there any longer and my mother’s house is gone, her mother’s house is gone and the family “manor” is no longer. Mostly what remains is the village’s name, now a bedroom community 30 miles from Baltimore. Cornfields are replaced by maze-like housing developments and a 7-Eleven convenience store sits where the family mercantile did.

That first year away from home I lived in a dorm during the school year and at a U.S. Forest Service guard station over the summer. I began to move around so much my mother called me “peripatetic,” a fancy word for “journeys hither and thither” — or a nomad? 

I replied, “Home is where I hang my hat.”

For almost five years, Wallowa County’s been home, mostly in a Lostine farmhouse with a million-dollar view. The dogs loll in the driveway or run through the neighboring pastures. I’ve caught glimpses of them wiggling under the fence or veering off the road for a dip in a ditch on a hot day.

Clearly, they have claimed the lane and the surrounding fields as their own.

A couple years ago I was invited to a ranch for a Mongolian barbecue, complete with Mongolians and Wallowa County ranchers. The matriarch of the family sat down next to me. As I devoured the incredible lamb barbecue she asked me who my people were. I stammered, I have no people, it’s just me. 

“What’s your name?” she asked. She said she hadn’t heard of it. Gently I said, there aren’t any others of my family here. I’m the only one, well, and the dogs of course.

I tell people the family name of the folks who lived here several tenants ago to try and give my homestead some reference, but I’m thinking of forcing that change, hanging out a shingle and declaring, “You know, up the lane at the old Nesbitt place. That’s my home.”