Git Western!

Helen DavisBurns, Oregon© jan albers | all rights reserved

© jan albers | all rights reserved

Helen Davis
Burns, Oregon

“Either of you named Jan?” A short, sturdy woman bounded out of the Harney County Historical Society building and headed to a station wagon parked in the small lot in front.

I got out of the car and acknowledged I was indeed Jan. “Good. I’m Helen,” she said. “Git your stuff and come with me. Take everything you need – we’re getting lunch and heading for the BLM.”

Helen Davis commandeered us with her energy and strength over the next 10 hours. Neatly dressed in a white blouse, a bow tie under her pleasant but determined face, wearing a lavender polyester pantsuit, she looked like a high school counselor and spoke like a woman of the West.

“Your letter came to the Historical Center. They tossed it to me and wondered if I’d like to follow it up. It intrigued me. I even looked to see where Highway 20 ends – found it in an old book, ending at the Naval Yards in Boston.”

She drove with purpose, outlining the places we would see that day: the Bureau of Land Management to meet Mark Armstrong; the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, to talk with Gary Ivey; the lava beds; the round barn erected by Peter French, once the area’s most successful rancher (until he was shot dead); the P Ranch and the Diamond Hotel.

But her first stop was the supermarket, where she went in for our lunches. Scanning my notes on Route 20, I could find none of the places she mentioned. Were they on the highway? Maybe she knew something I didn’t.

After returning to the car with our lunches, we headed to the BLM. Mark Armstrong was waiting for us. After talking to us about the Steens Mountain area and showing us his photos, he turned to Helen. “When are you going to Riddle Mountain?” he asked.

“As soon as I take these folks on a tour” – she nodded at us – “and go to the funeral tomorrow. Glenn’s already there.”

She turned to me. “Me and the boys always called it the old Riddle place, but Mark says it should be called Riddle Mountain Ranch, so I says call it whatever you want. It makes no difference to me.” She and her husband, Glenn, ran the ranch, with its 600 head of cattle, with help from five workmen.

“You should visit the Wild Horse Corrals,” Mark said. “They’re just a couple miles west of here on 20. We bring horses off the range, inspect them and train them in pens. The Kiger Mustang is from this area, mostly in the Steens. It’s one of the most pure head of Spanish Mustangs existing today, and appears to be a pure breed. Anyway, after we bring them in and give them a health inspection, we keep them in holding pens. They make it easier to work and hold the animals.”

“Git Western!” interrupted Helen, who’d been listening demurely during Mark’s explanation. “They’re called corrals out here, not pens.”

“Helen, these are pens, not corrals; there’s a difference,” he said.

“Git Western,” she repeated. “Pens are Eastern. We only have corrals in the West.”

Mark shrugged. Clearly he wasn’t going to win this – or maybe any – round with Helen.

After saying goodbye to Mark, we headed toward the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, south of Burns, through the Malheur Lake area that flooded, Helen informed us, in the spring of 1983. The flooding wiped out ranches and washed the road away. No one realized it was flooding at first. It continued into 1984, and the good water from one side of the highway mixed with the alkaline water on the other side, making it all unusable for irrigation. They called it Carp Highway, since the carp could swim across the road. Some ranchers moved. Others lost everything. One traded land with the wildlife refuge, which is the largest wetland refuge west of the Mississippi River.

Helen gave a running account of the history and the flooding as we headed further from Route 20, over gravel roads. A bird swooped in front of the car.

“TV,” she announced. “That’s what we call turkey vultures around here – TVs. We also have LBJs – little brown jays.

“Now, let me get my rotations going,” she said, pausing for a moment to think. “We’ve seen pelicans, white-faced ibis, grebes, double-crested cormorants, egrets, Trumpeter Swans.” Helen knew not only the history of the road but was also a sharp ornithologist.

By now the clock was pushing 2 p.m. I wondered when we were scheduled to eat that lunch stashed in the back.

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. In 1908 the area was set aside by President Teddy Roosevelt as the Lake Malheur Bird Reservation. Its 187,000-plus acres of wildlife habitat is located on the Pacific Flyway.

“You all ready to eat?” Helen asked. I had anticipated a picnic at some scenic vista. Instead, she brought out the lunches and spread them out on the reception counter inside the front office of the refuge, pulling out soft drinks, turkey sandwiches, apples and cookies. Gary Ivey joined us.

“Any chance of sitting down, out of the way?” I asked. Any visitors to the refuge would have to work around our lunch.

“We can just eat right here,” said Helen, picking up a sandwich.

Gary Ivey, lean and young, looked at me seriously through his glasses, and gave polite attention to questions I hadn’t been prepared to ask. He had a vast knowledge of all the area birds, but his pet project involved the Trumpeter Swans. They had been declared endangered in the 1940s. By the 1980s, some of the estimated 80 remaining swans inhabited the refuge. He had seen 19 pairs in the past, and about 20 so far this year. He led us through the excellent museum that was part of the refuge, then Helen hustled us onward, after insisting we stop first at the restroom.

“Out here you never know when you’ll get another chance,” she said. She was right about that – we didn’t see another bathroom until we reached our motel at 10:00 that night.

Once again we were on back roads, first to view the Pete French Round Barn. Built sometime in the late 1870s or early 1880s and used for training horses in the winter, it was almost destroyed in the flood but rescued by the state when local schoolchildren wrote letters to the legislature. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. We then bounced along another gravel road, and then some dirt ones, to reach Diamond, a town of comprising several houses, a one-room school, and a hotel, now being refurbished. Across the road were the remains of the Little Theater, which had been almost fully destroyed by fire. It was once the site of many good times for Helen and her friends. Route 20 was receding into memory.

Onward we drove, through Paradise Valley, past an area called “Coon Town,” past rock formations and the snow-capped Steens. We came upon Helen’s son, working on a stretch of gravel road. “Maybe he can give us some information about Highway 20,” I suggested hopefully.

“Nah, he’s working on these back roads.” We pulled alongside Rick, tanned and handsome, driving a Harney County truck.

Helen introduced us. “This lady is doing a book about Highway 20.”

“Mom, you’re a long way off the highway,” Rick pointed out.

“Aw, there’s nothing on 20 that’s interesting. I’m showing them what else we have around here.” With a twinge of curiosity, I thought about what Mark had said about the Wild Horse Range. That was on 20, outside of Burns – but far off Helen’s itinerary.

We took off again. The sun was beginning its descent when we stopped to explore the lava beds. Helen wasn’t going to neglect anything from the tour she’d set up for us. The P Ranch was to be our last destination. At this point I had no idea where we were; the gravel road and open land offered no clues.

Helen explained how she and Glenn worked the Riddle Ranch for the BLM. She described rounding up the cattle in the fall, what she cooked for the crew, how she helped the buckaroos with the rounded-up dogies, and how they moved them in long-neck trailers. How a rodero would be built with goosenecks and trailers, making a corner fence. How the buckaroos would rope the cattle and round them into the goosenecks. My notes, written in the dark, in a station wagon bouncing over gravel and dirt, were a blur.

“I recall moving cattle the day Reagan was shot,” she mused.

She related the story of Pete French and the history of the early years of settlement in these parts. And she described the character of the people today.

“…You know when something happens, like the flood and such, people pull together, but other times they sure can scrap. You know how that goes. This group, the Wild-Whatevers for the environment, are comin’ in now and want to take over and get rid of some of the ranches. So now you got the ranchers banding together to fight this situation.”

Information continued to pour from Helen like beer from a barrel on the long return to town. We passed a sign telling us Burns – on that long-forgotten Route 20 – was 66 miles ahead. Helen finally delivered us back to the Historical Society, which had long since closed for the day. There was no need for a museum visit – Helen was a living museum of knowledge. I stiffly got out of the station wagon and bid her farewell. She showed no sign of fatigue despite her generous tour and long-distance driving. She would be making the drive to work the Riddle Ranch the next day.

Helen was a remarkable woman. She knew exactly what she wanted to show us and didn’t budge from her schedule. I felt that, if necessary, she could have rounded up all the Kiger Mustangs from the Steens on her own. And she’d convert the pens to corrals to boot. She could leave any Eastern woman – or man – in her dust.

Helen loved her land and everything about it. She devoted her energy to preserving it and promoting it. She knew its history and habitat, its flora, fauna and folks.

As for Highway 20? I’d have to learn about that on my own. According to Helen, there wasn’t anything worth seeing on “my” road.


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