My Malheur Summer

Plaza Hotel - Burns, Oregon
Plaza Hotel – Burns, Oregon

The sun was just rising when I kick-started my motorcycle. An army-surplus backpack, recently purchased from Andy and Bax Military Surplus, was strapped to the back of the bike. My duffle bag had departed on a Trailways bus the day before. Lombard Street took me east, away from the city.

My Honda sport bike, great for the streets of Portland, was underpowered for ascending Mt Hood. My blanket-lined Levi’s jacket was no match for the mountain, either. As I gained elevation, the air temperature dropped.

As Highway 26 came down the dry side of the mountain, the forest became sparser and the air warmer. The High Desert opened up before me, still a couple thousand feet above sea level. Lava from numerous volcanoes had formed the basalt base of the plateau. The ebb and flow of ice over two million years created the Harney Basin. Its last retreat formed Harney and Malheur Lakes.

Past the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, I glided my bike down the long grade into the town of Madras. In a nearby park I ate a snack purchased from a local grocery. I shed my jacket and absorbed the warmth from the central-Oregon sun. My destination, Burns, was still three hours and a 2,000-foot rise in altitude away.

* * *

Months before, I had taken a civil-service exam. I hadn’t given it much thought until a phone call came, offering me a summer job with the U.S. Forest Service in Burns, Oregon. Soon I was in the Malheur National Forest, working on a survey crew .

Burns was incorporated in 1889, named after the poet Robert Burns. With 3,500 residents, it was the largest town in Harney County. Lumber, cattle, sheep and agriculture – largely alfalfa hay – formed the basis of the economy. Cattle outnumbered people by a factor of ten. It had one traffic light.

Just out of high school and bulletproof, riding a motorbike three hundred miles to a summer job in an isolated eastern Oregon town did not daunt me. Where to sleep? The priest at Holy Family Parish in Burns directed me to a Basque-run boarding house. The Plaza Hotel on Adams Street was a two-story frame structure, operated by a husband-wife team. The husband handled general maintenance in addition to his full-time job at the Edward Hines Lumber Company. His wife ran the household, preparing and serving the meals. The sleeping rooms were upstairs. Mine was furnished with a bed, dresser and a nightstand. Shared bathroom facilities were down the hall. The AM radio on the nightstand pulled in the “Red Steer Rocket Request Line” from Boise. Teenaged customers could make their song requests at the Red Steer Rocket drive-in restaurant.

Board at the Plaza Hotel included breakfast and dinner. We ate the evening meal at a common table in an alcove adjoining the kitchen. Lamb had never been part of my diet. Now it was the main course most evenings. All the boarders were male. They spoke Euskara, the Basque native language, interspersed with English. Stories of weekend adventures Winnemucca often enlivened Monday dinner conversation. Three-and-half hours south in Nevada, Winnemucca offered gambling and women-for-hire.

* * *

Our crew was surveying a road for an upcoming timber sale. The road was to be built the following year and the timber harvested the year after that. Our road would carry heavy trucks bringing in logging equipment and hauling out logs. We made several passes over the road-to-be. A supervisor had flagged the approximate route by tying plastic streamers to tree branches. Using a level – a small telescope mounted on a tripod – and a measuring rod, we sighted the elevations and recorded them in a book. Having no surveying experience, my job was usually to hold the rod. When the shrubbery and tree branches obscured the sight line, we had to clear a path. Our tool was a Swede axe, a razor-sharp, seven-inch blade fastened to a U-shaped frame attached to a wooden handle. We hacked away with our “axes.” Inevitably, a tree limb would snap back into my face. My response was attempting to destroy everything in my path. This caused the cycle to repeat itself.

The office staff used our numbers to calculate a more precise route. We went back with a more sophisticated transit-level and marked the centerline of the road with stakes. Our third and last time over the route, we did slope staking, marking the edges of the road, and recording if the road’s shoulders needed to be excavated or filled. I learned that dirt lies at 45 degrees.

* * *

Breakfast at the Plaza Hotel, unlike the family-style dinner, was prepared individually as boarders straggled in. On my way to meet the crew at the Forest Service warehouse, I would buy a sack lunch at the nearby Palace Café. From the warehouse we drove a half-hour, or more, depending on where we had stopped the previous day. Then we carried our equipment to that day’s starting point.

High Desert summers are hot and dry. The forest exuded the aroma of heat and evergreen needles and sap. Juniper, fir and the impressive ponderosa pine grow amongst sagebrush and grass. We wore hard hats and long sleeves for protection. I learned to keep my shirt tucked in after the day I stumbled into a bees nest. I don’t know how many times they stung me, but many were on my belly and chest. I spent the next half hour lying in a nearby stream, hoping the cold water would prevent swelling and deaden the pain. It didn’t help the itching. We were also taught to step on, not over, a fallen tree, and to look at the ground so as not to surprise a rattlesnake minding its business on the other side.

Summer is fire season. A couple times a radio call interrupted our workday and sent us to a ranger station to stand by in case we were needed fighting a forest fire. I was left behind at the station the first time because of my boots. The boots I had brought from home were heavy leather, but open-top pull-ons. Lace-up boots were required to prevent burning embers getting inside them. The rest of the crew went to dig fire lines; I had to beg a ride back to Burns. That Saturday I went into Ereno’s, the local men’s store, to purchase new boots. My crew chief, from a well-known Burns family, assured me that if I explained my situation and said who had sent me, the store’s owner would extend credit. He did. I paid them off over the next few weeks.

My next chance came a couple weeks later when our crew was again called to stand-by. We spent several hours at a station manned by a devout Mormon who did his best to convert his captive audience. After a few hours, we were called back to the warehouse. The fire was brought under control without our help.

* * *

The Plaza Hotel’s front porch had two entries: one into the main house, and to its right, stairs to the sleeping rooms. After a day’s work, I would check the table in the main room where mail for the boarders was laid, hoping for a letter from the girlfriend back in Portland. One day, I found the room filled with people, all very quiet and solemn. The owner, the husband, had been killed in an accident at the Hines Lumber mill. There was no dinner for the boarders that evening.

* * *

The Basque population began migrating to eastern Oregon in the 1880s. They traveled from southern Idaho and northern Nevada. Others came from California after the gold rush. Many spent much of the year isolated in the surrounding hills, tending sheep, only occasionally coming into town. Those who could, attended the annual Basque picnic, held near the end of summer in Triangle Park. The festivities included barbecue, singing, dancing and games for children and grownups. I felt proud to be accepted by this community when I was invited.

At the end of the summer – and the end of the job – I sold my motorcycle and hitchhiked home. Two weeks later, I was living in a dorm at Gonzaga University and subject to a curfew. I bristled at the supervision. In Burns, I had become accustomed to coming and going on my own, with no one checking, or caring, how late I stayed out.

Today, fewer than 3,000 people live in Burns. The Edward Hines Lumber Company shut down in the 1990s. The Plaza Hotel is gone, the building razed years ago. Much of the Basque population has relocated to Boise and Portland. The area is still isolated, perhaps more so than the summer I was there. The stark and rugged beauty that is Eastern Oregon has not changed.

One thought on “My Malheur Summer”

  1. Have you been to Burns somewhat recently? It’s been decades for me. I used to love a trip to John Day Painted Hills, but haven’t been there for ages, either. I will, however, spend this August in Portland. Main reason is my 50th class reunion, also love to see my siblings and the few friends that I’ve kept in touch with since leaving Portland in 1983.

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