The magnificent barns that dot this gorgeous, fertile valley hide a darker side of history.
The first peoples to populate this region were the Nez Perce, who lived with the abundance of what the land and the rivers and the mountains provided. During the 1840s, as white families began to settle in the area, the Nez Perce traded peacefully with them. In 1873 the US Government partitioned the valley, granting half the land to the Nez Perce, the other half to white settlers. This concept of land ownership was foreign to the native peoples who had always felt themselves to be a part of the universe, linked forever to the wind, the water, the earth, and the wildlife. True to form, two years after partitioning, the government broke the treaty and banned Nez Perce from the entire valley, an event that lead to the Nez Perce war. That is a story in and of itself. Suffice it to say that much of the country between the Wallowa Mountains and the Montana Bitterroots is steeped in Nez Perce history and blood. To learn more about this stain on American history, I recommend starting with I Will Fight No More Forever by Merrill D. Beal.
A side note: The Wallowa Lake Tramway of which I spoke in a previous post breaches the top of Mt. Howard, which obscenely commemorates General O.O. Howard who chased Joseph and his band out of their homeland in an epic journey of desperation which ended with slaughter by troops under the command of Colonel John Gibbon in a surprise attack at the Big Hole in Montana. Original sin?
I’m not sure what happened here. This post started off as a fluffy little photo essay but it took an unexpected turn. During my visit to the Wallowas I struggled with the incongruities: Mt. Howard looming over Joseph— a village which has clearly grown into a tourist mecca that draws mostly Caucasian “guests” who wallow in the luxury of glamping, mega-motorhome touring, or resort reclining. Maybe they learn something of the tarnished history of the place, maybe they don’t. It bothers me.
It must have been 1975 or 76. I was newly married. Transported to a new state—of America and of mind. My husband and I were eager to learn the lay of the land. Our first excursion was a round-trip scenic drive that brought us to Joseph, Oregon.
Despite arriving during a typical rainstorm which continued for most of the time we were there, I was bewitched by the area. Since that trip, Joseph Oregon, Wallowa Lake, and this region of Oregon that wraps around the Eagle Cap Wilderness has been on my “to revisit” list. A couple of years ago I tried, but the road I intended to take was closed for maintenance. I tried again recently and was just as enchanted as that time nearly 50 years ago. Oregon’s backcountry roads are a marvel—many are paved, and even those that aren’t, are well graded.
Early in the morning I boarded the Wallowa Lake Tramway which whisked me to the top of Mt. Howard. A thunderstorm had rumbled through the night before and was still flirting across the landscape. But the tram company wasn’t concerned. “The lightening is over the valley not over the mountains,” the ticket agent assured me. Those surrounding clouds made for a stellar sky and I encountered only a few stray drops.
Interestingly, the gondola is Swiss-made and in 1970, when it was built, it was the steepest vertical lift for a four-passenger gondola in North America. It is powered by a 150 hp electric motor with gas engine auxiliary drive. A single 19,300-foot-long, continuous-loop cable delivers passengers to the breezy top of the mountain at 8,150 feet in less than 15 minutes.
Upon disembarking from the tram, I headed for the short Royal Purple Overlook. Royal is a good word for it. I kept pirouetting, breathing Wow! Just wow!