The Freeze

Buckwheat Bob Harrison

It was mid-November when The Freeze came to southern Oregon, as it did to the whole northern Pacific Coast. I had spent most of two winters in the Northwest, so I thought I was an expert on climatic conditions in that part of the world, and I was sure that it didn’t usually get very cold there. Wet and miserable, yes. Co-o-o-o-l-d, no. According to the locals, the coldest it had been in years was about twelve degrees above zero.

Mara’s kids were off visiting somewhere, and our house was really cold. It was a huge one-room with a loft. There were cracks and holes in the walls, and it had a totally dysfunctional stove. When you stoked it enough to do any good the roof would catch fire and I’d have to scoot up the ladder with buckets of water, if I could find any water. Ice doesn’t do much good. Mara and I got so cold that we retreated to the Little Funky Egg Company. There was an easy and a hard way to get to the Funky Egg, across the river from Canaan, from where we lived.

The shortest and most direct way, a distance of about two miles was to walk to the river with your packs, guitars, and what all. If you could find enough rocks to jump to easily, you were across and on your way. If not, you would have to take off your boots, roll up your pant legs, and struggle, through the icy water and sharp rocks, carrying all your gear, to the other side.

If you couldn’t cross the river you had to walk south about one and a half miles in the opposite direction from the Funky Egg then cross the river at the green bridge and walk all the way to town, several miles. The Funky Egg was full of crashers when we arrived, and we began thinking that it would be nice to get away from people for a while. Part of the reason that the Egg was so packed, was that four or five folks from down the Illinois River had been staying for a couple of days, and the rest of the place was filled with everyone in town who had run out of firewood or companionship. The threat of cabin fever was real; let’s go to the Egg and party on, dude.

The folks from down river were ready to go back home to the Carrot Claim, a beautiful meadow on Soldier Creek. My girlfriend Mara and I decided to hitch a ride with them, to visit friends who lived on the top of Horse Mountain, a half-mile above the Claim. This would be an adventure because this is rugged mountain, deep canyon country.

The reason we decided to make this journey was that Mara was especially close to her Aquarius sister, Rebecca, who was living with a notorious outlaw named Donnie. The desire to visit her, combined with the social pressures of hanging out waiting for the end of the current cold spell, probably shoved us over the edge. So Mara decided she wanted to visit Rebecca. It was the middle of winter, snow on the ground, and we were going twenty-six miles down the River Road, a dirt and mostly single-lane track along the steep Illinois River canyon wall. We didn’t know how we were going to get back home, but it seems that we trusted our karma a lot back in those days. We knew we might have to make the return on foot, when it came time to go back home and pick up the kids.

The decision to make this trip seems especially strange to me now. It was snowing, cold as hell, we were hippies in redneck country, and we didn’t have any money. We had the slightly dubious prospect of getting down river by riding in the back of an open pickup with a bunch of deep-woods maniacs, being driven by a major lunatic by the name of Big (and big he was, indeed), at night, in a snow storm. Why were we doing this? To go visit some more really crazy lunatics. Cabin fever must have been a terrible thing that winter.

We loaded our packs, containing among other things, three gigantic Buckwheat Bob’s buckwheat pancakes for emergency supplies, sleeping bags, and my guitar, into Big’s pickup. Then we wedged ourselves in among three other people and all the freight that could be stowed into the back of the truck. Part of their trip to town had been to get supplies. We started our fifty-mile sojourn. As we started down the road it started snowing for real. Big drove until the snow got so deep that we were losing traction. After we almost slid off the road into the canyon, he stopped and put chains on. I felt slightly reassured, seeing that we actually had chains. Then I saw Big tighten the chains with a length of binder twine, and my newfound confidence evaporated. However, there’s not much you can say to a longhaired, six-foot, two hundred and forty pound mountain man except, “Right on.” Also, I was not into piling off and walking thirty miles back home. So we took off.

Now, the road down the river is one lane of dirt and rock. And mud and snow. But at least it gets a lot of vehicular use, and has a pretty solid bed. However, when you get near Briggs Creek, about twenty miles down the road, and make the 270-degree turn onto Old Glory Road, you start up a steep grade of soft mud. Not many people use this road, especially in the winter. At this point the anxiety began. It was still four miles to Soldier Creek and you couldn’t forget the binder twine holding the chains on. Big gunned the engine and slewed around onto Old Glory Road, with those wheels whining. It took us almost five minutes to pull up that 300-yard grade.

I certainly was not looking forward to having to abandon the dubious shelter of an open pickup bed and try to push the truck the rest of the way up the hill, knee-deep in mud. But we finally made it to the top. After that it was a fairly easy drive to Soldier Creek and the Claim, whereupon the pickup gasped its last breath (drive shaft or something), and there she may be to this day, for all I know. This abrupt arrival signaled the end of the good part of the trip, though of course we didn’t know it at the time. We got there feeling just a little bit colder than an iceberg after dark in a snowstorm, but in one piece. The news that greeted us was that there was no one at the Claim. Everyone must have gotten tired of the weather and/or run out of firewood, and decided to ride it out in town or visit people who had firewood. I guess it is time to explain how folks lived (or managed to survive) in the bush back then.

Before I moved to the mountains, when my thoughts turned to fantasies of living in the woods, I thought that once you got out there you were there. I soon learned that there were actually various levels of “out there.” First off, there were the people who moved to a small town, rented a motel room on the highway, got welfare, probably dealt a little marijuana now and then, and partied and had a good time. This would seem like the bush to someone who was from, say, Culver City, California.

The next level would be people renting farms and having extended families, communal situations, a bit away from town. Although the communal groups worked very hard, both at keeping the physical trip together and avoiding killing each other during the long wet winter, their community social activity was recognizable as somehow related to Western civilization as we know it. The next level involved mostly squatters who lived near the communal groups and either camped or built shanties out of whatever they could scrounge or steal. They pretty much lived a life of non-comfort, but expended a minimum of sustained physical labor for profit.

The last group included people who, for one reason or another, wanted to live way out in the boonies, where they might have to walk a number of miles to the closest store and then back home, carrying a lot of weight on their backs, in sometimes very hot and sometimes very cold weather. Some of them had vehicles, which made things a little easier, but many of them did not.

These bush hippies were a mongrel horde: some were escaped city hippies, some city street punks who somehow strayed into the woods; the latter were mostly invited by the escaped city hippies who were trying to straighten them out and show them the good life. Some were paranoid survivalist types, some fugitives from justice as we know it. Some were old-time miners. This was a strange but generally fun group of people. On occasion they could be dangerous. The folks we were visiting fit well into the latter category of types.

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