The old man walks every day, averaging five or more miles, every season, except when the weather is really bad. He doesn’t walk in the rain.
A little dog – a mini-Aussie – is his steadfast companion. She stays at his heels. If the old man doesn’t hear a car approaching from behind, the dog circles the old man excitedly until he stops to see what the fuss is about. If he stops to talk to a neighbor driving by – a regular occurrence – the dog barks, urging him to keep moving. The old man didn’t want the dog, even though he loves them and has had others in his life. When his previous dogs died, a couple of small mutts, he swore he’d never get another. It was too hard to lose them, he said; broke his heart. Then a granddaughter asked him to take the mini-Aussie. The old man was reluctant and initially kept his heart hard. But dogs have a way of softening and then mending hearts. The pair now watch out for each other, depend on each other. Covering miles, they’ve bonded.
The old man will turn eighty soon. He was born at home, on July 15, 1940, on land his grandfather homesteaded, then passed on to the old man’s father, who passed it on to the old man who will pass it on to his son who, like the old man, has spent his entire life on this same patch of ground.
His eyes aren’t as sharp as they used to be; the old man wears the large-lensed, metal-framed glasses favored by men of his vintage. Yet his vision is keen: he sees the big and small details of his part of the world – the national forest nearby, the valley full of cattle ranches, the Little Salmon river and all the creeks that run out of the forest down through the valley into the Main Salmon. He notices the changes from season to season as well as from decade to decade.
He fondly recalls a childhood full of freedom to roam. The old man attended first and second grades in a one-room country schoolhouse down the hill from his own home, riding his horse part way, then walking the rest across a neighbor’s land. By the time he entered third grade, the country schools were consolidated and he spent the rest of his school years in town, graduating from high school in 1958. The old man remembers hanging out with ten to twelve other country kids during those years, fishing, riding horses, exploring. Things were simpler.
Logging supported families back then. From the time the old man turned eighteen, he worked in the woods, first as a hooker, then driving logging trucks for various local companies or cutting logs in the forest. He also worked on the family land – 350 acres – raising hay, tending a few cows. His mother did taxidermy in a shed behind the house.
While getting some pie and a coke with a friend one evening in 1963, the old man met a girl. A few months later they married, the old man explaining, “We had to, but we made it work, though everyone said it wouldn’t. We didn’t get married to get a divorce.” The couple moved in with the old man’s parents, eventually building their own house right next to the old homestead house, the same house the old man still resides in today. They had children, built a life. The old man kept working in the logging industry.
In 1992, the old man was diagnosed with prostate cancer which ended his time in the woods. After working as a crew boss for a few years, the old man went back to driving a logging truck. On Friday the 13th, February 2004, while driving near John Day, the old man was hit by a lumber truck that lost control on a patch of black ice, spinning and slamming backward into the old man’s truck. He spent eleven days in a hospital, both femurs and his right ankle broken and a dislocated big toe. Lots of hardware was used to put his legs back together. He nearly lost his left leg and was told they were able to save it only because that knee had been replaced years earlier and the artificial knee gave them something to drive some of the thirteen pins through. You can see that accident in the old man’s gait as he wanders on his daily walks; he favors his right leg.
Disabled, the old man’s days of working in the logging industry were done.
Logging remains a close companion of the old man, a part of his life, his friendships, his history. The old man helped create a festival celebrating all things logging, with cross-cut sawing competitions, an axe throw. He even won some of those competitions back in the day.
The old man was born with a very rare defect: osteogenesis imperfecta. Defective genes impact how the body makes collagen, leading to weakened and often brittle bones. In mild cases, one suffers several fractures over a lifetime; in severe cases, it can cause hundreds of fractures, often without any obvious cause. In the old man’s case, the bones of his inner ear were affected and he needed hearing aids by age twenty-three. Over time, his hearing worsened, hearing aids helping only so much. In 2007 he learned he was eligible for a cochlear implant. The procedure was successful and his hearing in that ear improved instantly. The old man remembers the emotional wonder of one moment being practically deaf to suddenly hearing everyday things once again, like the sound of eating crackers. In 2010 he had a cochlear implant on the other side. He lost one while mowing the lawn. Never did find it. The old man now insures the devices; they’re expensive to replace.
Most of the family’s land was sold, then sold again to a developer who sold ten-to-twenty-acre parcels to newcomers for fancy houses. The old man’s home landscape changed drastically.
Few of us remain in one place for an entire lifetime anymore. Imagine doing so: things change around you, and not always for the better. More people, more traffic, more noise, more opinions about how to do things. The old man has spent nearly eight decades observing these changes, helpless to stop them, trying to accommodate them. After a life spent near the woods, recreating among and making a living off the trees, the old man gets especially worked up when the topic is the forest and its management. He vents. In writing to the local weekly paper. Yet when it comes to forest management the old man resists change because, like a parent raising a child, he loves this particular forest fiercely and feels he knows best how to nurture it, that the old practices were good.
The old man’s venting riles, amuses, annoys or mystifies, depending on the reader, yet he persists because it’s a safe release for the pent-up frustration, accumulated over a lifetime of staying in one place as the world changed around him at an ever-increasing pace.
Some changes the old man readily adopts. When asked the square footage of a family cabin on the river he picks up his smart phone and punches numbers on the calculator. He tracks his daily walking mileage with a Fitbit, commenting how accurate it is because he knows intimately the distances of the roads he walks, having trod them his entire life. The toughest change though, the one he was powerless against, was the loss of his wife of 48 years to leukemia in 2014.
So the old man keeps going. He walks several miles every day, his faithful canine companion at his heels, relishing life, sharing jokes and local gossip with his neighbors. He remains upbeat and positive, unbowed by the challenges, hardships, and losses of a long life. He doesn’t let a little hitch in his git-along slow him down; no rocking chair for him. He’s a fount of knowledge about local history and happily shares what he knows. And as I can attest – for the old man has been my neighbor for 14 years now – he enjoys a robust discussion, a good old-fashioned exchange of ideas, and happily agrees to disagree when you and he fall on opposite sides of an issue.
The old man and I do disagree about many things. We fall on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Yet we’ve developed a friendship built on mutual respect and a shared love of dogs. We help each other, as good neighbors should, and have been there for each other in times of loss – loved ones and beloved dogs – as good friends should. What forged our bond is our common belief that getting out in nature every day, moving as best we can, our canine companions alongside, is the best antidote for all the challenges life throws at us.
Cover photo: The old man helping me with my horribly overgrown yard in 2013.