My father would have made a better Old Testament prophet than a barber. He often wandered the mountains of eastern Oregon with a gnarled walking stick, erecting crosses and altars to mark sites to which he would like to return. He had no heart for traditional camping. We eschewed sanctioned camping spots for those discovered by my father during his wanderings. If he were Abraham and I were Isaac, I knew enough Bible to be wary if he gathered wood for anything other than a campfire.
When it came to camp cooking my father was a bit of an eccentric. He would scour the alleys and thrift shops of our town for items that he would drag to the woods and hide in order to make camp … a large cast iron skillet … a wire magazine rack that could be used to grill steaks … a beat-up coffee pot to heat water for Folger’s Instant Coffee.
Our camping trips were never about food, but I have memories of food from camping. To this day I love canned cream corn that is slightly burnt. I remember the magazine rack steaks that we bought from a butcher we knew by name or baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil that we sometimes forgot in the campfire. On a number of occasions, we simply ate cold Van de Kamps Pork and Beans directly from the can with a roasted wiener. The only camping dessert I ever knew with my father was marshmallows. We would have contests to see who could master a perfectly browned marshmallow, but more often we simply turned them into small torches and let them burst into flames and burn.
And in the end, we would sit around the campfire until the jokes and stories ended, and we sat in holy silence until someone complained of smoke in their eyes, and the benediction “… smoke follows beauty” was said.
The mountains of eastern Oregon where we camped had unusual names … Rooster Peak, Rip Van Winkle, Pumpkin Ridge. Mt. Emily was just outside our back door. Legend has it that the mountain was named for the dead baby of Sacagawea, buried on that mountain. One of the distinctive features of the mountain is the rim rock that forms a square cap.
Due to a rare bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, by the time I was thirteen I’d had thirteen broken legs. At age fourteen I was using a new lightweight wheelchair to replace the antiquated wicker-back wheelchair of the County Health Department. The new wheelchair was capable of popping wheelies in the hallways of my junior high school.
One June Saturday, my father decided to take me and my friends camping. Mt. Emily was not a common camping destination; that surprised me. Loading a group of young teenage boys into our station wagon with our gear and my wheelchair was a challenge, unloading less of one.
My wheelchair sat in the midst of sleeping bags and pillows. I watched as the camp was pitched that late afternoon. I could not wheel myself easily on the soft, uneven terrain and was shuffled from friend to friend for mobility.
My father gathered his unruly flock together to announce that we would be going on a hike. I knew that “we” meant “they”, it was something to which I was accustomed. They would go on a hike and I would stay by the fire and tend camp.
“David is going with us this time.” My father was not the type to make cruel jokes.
He walked to the station wagon and retrieved a long rope. He had one of the boys push my chair as we went to the base of the mountain. The remainder of what occurred had the air of a church service. He threaded the rope through the arms of my wheelchair and laid it up the slope of the mountain. He positioned the boys along the rope and then stood at the back of the chair.
It is important to know that my father does not choose trails. The route he had chosen was literally straight up the side of a rather steep mountain, and the boys he had chosen were not known for their strength or coordination. But as they picked up that rope they were transformed. They became muscular Egyptian men pulling a barge on the Nile.
The only sounds I recall were the heavy breathing of my friends and the breaking of twigs as my chair rolled over the fragile branches. My father steadied it at the rear. The wheelchair would totter and occasionally become stuck, and the boys would pull harder. We were a combination of the friends who lowered the paralytic through the roof to see Jesus, and pioneers from the east hauling a china cupboard across the Oregon Trail. We proceeded up the mountain. No trail, just the guidance of my father.
We reached a level place at the top. My father gathered the rope and handed it to one of the boys. He could now push my chair and there did seem to be a trail of sorts. Had he prepared the way in advance? The parade proceeded in silence.
“The rim rock is this way.” We took a slight turn and went down and through a clearing of trees. The rimrock provided a ledge from which to view the valley below. The trip had been timed in such a way that the sun was setting. I could see the river that was near our house. I could see our small town. I could see the farmlands and the mountains beyond the farmlands. It was golden.
My father had discovered this viewpoint in his wanderings on the mountain. “I wanted you to see this.”
That night we roasted hot dogs on whittled sticks and made marshmallow torches on coat hangers. We sat in silence, eventually. The light grey smoke drifted into my father’s eyes and I said the benediction, “Smoke follows beauty.”
By Dave Jenkins