Many of my favorite memories involve a place called “Horse Butte’: a 1200′ hill just east of the Santiam river that flows through Lebanon, Oregon, where I grew up. You won’t find Horse Butte on any map: you’ll find a place referred to as “Ridgeway Butte“, (Blue font is an active link) named after a fellow who operated a ferry boat across the river back in the 19th century.
Fortunately, there was a bridge over the Santiam River by the time I was a kid, a half century or so ago. It was gateway to a world of unbounded mystery, romance and adventure, less than a mile from my house. The hill was visible from nearly any place in my hometown with a view to the east, and along with the somewhat taller Peterson’s Butte, formed a reliable guide as to navigation and orientation, although hardly a problem in a town where all the streets ran North/South or East/West. (I still do this now, and have always lived near at least some visible mountainous landmark(s): the first time I ever drove anywhere in the Midwest, I repeatedly got disoriented.) Driving towards Lebanon on Highway 34 you could see it for miles forming the foreground for the Cascades Mountain Range looming up behind it.
I never knew the actual name of Horse Butte was Ridgeway Butte until adulthood, as everybody I knew called it Horse Butte. My step dad told me it was because the meadow where the cross was looked like the shape of a horse from the middle of town.
Further adding to the mystical allure, for me at least, was the fact that every Christmas season a cross would be illuminated about 2/3 of the way up the hill. In my neighborhood, it was common knowledge to those familiar with kid-lore that every time you went up on Horse Butte. It was never discussed exactly what misfortune might befall someone imprudent enough to ignore this axiom, but I figured it was probably on a “need to know” basis. (In the 90’s the cross was replaced with a new one, that from the vantage point of the town, looked more like a big plus sign than a cross. At least it was a positive message.)
One of the few “father/son” memories I have with my genetic father was a hike up the mountain (that’s what I thought of it as) when I was around 7 or so. It must have been in the spring-early summer, as about halfway up the hill we got caught in a sudden downpour and sought refuge under a large deciduous tree of some sort.
I remember the smell of the rain and the sound of the drops hitting leaves, and I remember sitting down on the ground savoring the delicious feeling of being warm and dry while I ate a peanut butter sandwich and drank water from my Army surplus canteen. Ahh, the joys of “roughing” it.
What really sticks with me are the countless times I hiked up that hill, either with one other kid, or on an expedition with several of us. Until I was about 10, trips up the hill needed to include a somewhat older kid to make sure we didn’t do anything dangerous or get lost. We didn’t really follow a trail, there was a gravel road that led all the way to the old unused quarry at the top of the hill. The road was blocked off by a locked gate at the base, and I never saw a car or a truck using the road. You would see deer, owls, buzzards and other critters on a regular basis, although, as kids, we didn’t think of that as anything special. Supposedly there are eagles and cougars up there, but I never saw any of those.
We did get to use a trail when we went to touch the cross, as it was probably a couple hundred yards off the gravel road. The first time I made the pilgrimage I was all excited to actually see the cross up close, which I’d imagined countless times would be a wonderful, awe inspiring sort of thing on the order of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, culminating with the attainment of enlightenment at the moment I actually laid one of my mitts on it. Like many experiences before and since, this failed to live up to my high expectations when I actually got to do it. The cross itself, while suitably impressive in size, looked more like a crude sheet metal business sign to me and I was amazed to see that it was illuminated by regular light bulbs that just screwed into the front of it. It just didn’t have the majesty I was expecting. Sigh.
One thing that didn’t disappoint was the view, especially from the top. Click on the photo for a larger view.
At 850 feet above the valley floor, you could see much of the town from up there and I was delighted that, although I couldn’t locate my house, I could see things I recognized: churches, schools, water towers, factories and roads. This gave the experience an otherworldly sensation of being outside “civilization” and being in some sort of wilderness.
The spontaneous and unstructured aspect of these little excursions also added to the appeal and the feeling of freedom and “being on your own” are things that still resonate with me. The lack of adult supervision here was key. Being free to fantasize that an old cistern was a German bunker for a moment, that we were experiencing life like pioneers, or had something in common with Sir Edmund Hillary when we got to the very top were things a more mature presence would stifle.
Doing research (mainly looking for suitable photos) on this I discovered that there are now regular organized hikes up both Ridgeway and Peterson’s Butte. I find this a little like the adult takeover of Halloween.
In 2008 a plan to subdivide most of Ridgeway Butte into 285 lots and build view homes up there was announced. From what I can tell, things seem to have ground to a halt. Nothing pops up when you go the the Ridgeway Butte website, and I found some evidence that they’re having trouble with environmental stuff. Google earth doesn’t show much development other than some trees having been logged off. I’ve heard there have been concerns with soil stability. The downturn in the Economy may also have something to do with it.
One day when I was in the sixth grade, several (at least two or three)of my classmates from Santiam School were hiking up to the top of the butte on a Sunday afternoon when we encountered some kids from another school, Cascades. They were at the edge of the old quarry and were using a pipe as a lever to roll rocks the size of an old 19″ portable TV down the hillside and off into the forest about 30 yards away. They motioned us over to join them and indicated that all of us might be able to dislodge this really large rock and send it down the hill. I remember being worried that one of us might get crushed but an examination seemed to reveal little danger of this and it looked like something that would be fun to all of us.
It took us maybe 10 minutes to dislodge and send the boulder, which was about the size of a kitchen stove, thundering down the east side of the mountain. It rumbled off into the forest (small evergreen trees, with up to six inch trunks) and quickly disappeared from sight, but continued to provide sonic evidence of it’s path of destruction for quite some time. We continued on with smaller rocks, but lost interest as this seemed anticlimactic after the big one.
The next morning at school, we were discussing our adventures with our fellow students while we waited for the teacher to come and open the door. The size of the big rock had grown to the size of a car by then with suitably larger sized trees as victims. We were somewhat surprised when the teacher, Harold Grove, opened the door from the inside as we hadn’t realized he was in the classroom, but we quickly went inside and got ready for class to start.
The first thing he says is: “Did you hear that the police are looking for the people that crushed a house up on Horse Butte with boulders? They almost killed a couple of people. They’re going to be in big trouble.” I remember my focus narrowing down to the top of my desk and my throat going dry as I contemplated the rest of my life behind bars. I fully expected the police to come into the classroom at any moment and my heart was pounding. I then noticed Mr. Grove was smiling and realized he was kidding. He then gave us a brief “seriously, that was really dumb” lecture on how foolish, destructive and dangerous our actions were and we were lucky we didn’t kill someone. I think he made his point.