Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Couple of Lefts

A few weeks ago the local Audubon group advertised a Saturday trip to a place called Steele Canyon, which is north of Clarkston, Utah. I thought I'd go. But they always leave at 7:30 in the morning from a place 15 miles south of where I live. Clarkston is 5 miles north. So I slept late and I thought I'd try to catch up with the group in Clarkston, which is a little town of less than 700 people. There's only one road into it. And there aren't any paved roads going north out of town. So I figured Steele Canyon would be easy to find. I was wrong.

I headed into Clarkston at about 9 AM. There wasn't much activity there on a Saturday morning. I had to drive a couple of side streets to before I found a man tilling his garden. I stopped and asked if he knew where Steele Canyon was. "Yeah. Sure. Out the dirt road, a couple of lefts. You'll see some cedar trees." So I headed out the dirt road north of town.

It was some of the emptiest land I've ever seen. No farms or ranches or houses. Few signs of life. I saw one trailer parked in a thick grove of trees, a planted field here and there, some "No Trespassing - Private Land" signs. But I kept driving, raising a cloud of dust as I went.

I saw some beautiful land and flowers (sunflowers and flax - I think - growing wild below) and stacked clouds, a redtail hawk, lots of meadowlarks.

(click on pictures to enlarge them)

I tried taking a couple of lefts, like the man in town suggested. But I seemed to be getting further from the mountains. I didn't think I'd be likely to find a canyon in the middle of a prairie. So I turned around and headed in another direction. It did cross my mind that if my car broke down I'd really be out of luck. I checked to see if I still had cell phone service. I was glad I had a good supply of water in the car.

I'm sure I drove 10 or 15 miles on those dirt roads. I never passed anyone driving in the opposite direction, although a man and his wife, both with binoculars hanging around their necks, pulled up behind me and asked if I knew where Steele Canyon was. I guess I wasn't the only one who wanted to sleep a little longer that morning.

I eventually saw a marker up ahead by the side of the dirt road. It was an old piece of metal cut in the shape of the state of Idaho. It was painted red, white, and blue, and had a couple of bullet holes in it and a big spot of flaky rust. I hadn't planned on driving to Idaho that day!

On closer inspection, I saw that someone had scratched "Check Your Gas" into the bottom of the sign. No simple "Welcome to Idaho" messsage. Well, that's all it took. The time was right to give up on Steele Canyon and turn back toward home.

On the way back I saw a man and stopped to talk to him. He had a silver star for a belt buckle, and said his name was Lynn. I asked if he knew where Steele Canyon was. He looked confused for a minute and then said "Well, if you've been all the way up to Idaho and back, you've been through Steele Canyon. Yep." And he nodded a couple of times.

He said he was spraying for "noxious weeds" and showed me his recently planted safflower and wheat fields. He wasn't sure what people used safflower for -- bird food maybe. But he was sure we'd have a good crop of choke cherries for pancake syrup this year. I believed that, judging by the bush he was standing next to, which was at least 25 feet wide, and was heavy blossoms and humming with bees.

Speaking of wrong turns, stopping short, (and maybe choking on cherries too)... NCR, the company I used to work for, recently announced that they are moving their headquarters from Dayton Ohio to Georgia. My first reaction to this news was relief (maybe tinged with a little elation) that I won't have to experience the trauma, the sense of powerlessness, and the group loss of that transition. My second thought was concern for the people I've know over 14 years of working there. My next thought was fear for the future of Dayton. NCR put Dayton on the map 125 years ago by building a cash register company. It evolved. It shed its reputation as a caring company a long time ago. But the men who invested in Dayton, rescued people in the 1913 flood, built bell towers and parks and mansions, also built NCR. The company history and Dayton's history are intertwined. My last thought was indignation at NCR's callousness toward its workers and the city.

Dayton recently lost Mead Corporation, a large paper company and a good corporate citizen, historically. The big General Motors truck plant shut down at the end of last year. My memory is drifting to the Carillon bell tower by the river in Dayton that still plays a concert once a month without any kind of audience. I suppose Colonel Deeds, the old NCR executive who built the bell tower, left a bequeath for the Sunday afternoon bell concerts in the park. Because summertime park-going listeners disappeared with the invention of air conditioning, I suppose. The NCR world headquarters building across the street from the bell tower, the one that has 8 or 10 international flags flying out front now, will stand empty in a year.

Will Dayton turn into a ghost town? I hope not. Cuz there's a really cool mandolin orchestra there and an old canoe club on the river that's still operating after 100 years or so, some great bike trails, a cute little 12-block area called St. Anne's Hill that's full of REAL neighbors, a famous banjo guy from the 1970's who can REALLY play, and lots of other caring people who have grown up there, raised children, built schools and stadiums and businesses and families, and call it "home."

I'm sure NCR's move is calculated to cut costs and employees. So now General Motors and Chrysler Corp have both filed for bankruptcy. And we're all wondering if they can be saved, if they're even worth saving. I see a road jammed with cars in this little valley (definitely not Los Angeles), and I wonder how it happened. Time marches on. We have to pay attention and continue to change as the world changes. There were lots ans lots of Blacksmiths in America back in the 1860's. How many are there today?

Have the "rust belt" towns been driving down the same outdated industrial revolution road, knowing that it probably leads nowhere, but hoping that they might have some good luck and stumble onto something? I suppose it's too late. But maybe the sign I saw can offer them a word of advice, too: