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Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

Cove & Union

My brother is in the next tree picking cherries. We are picking as fast as we can in an effort to out-race a storm brewing in the mountains behind us. Thunder rolls and lightning cracks through the blackness rumbling and roiling on the mountaintop, spilling down its sides toward us. Brother Robin, and my sister-in-law, Donna, are on aluminum ladders picking, but I do not want to get on an aluminum ladder with an approaching thunderstorm, even for cherries. I am driven enough though to be under the trees. Besides, my broken shoulder is recently healed so I stick to the ground, reaching as high as I can which doubles as physical therapy. The cherries are so sweet and perfect that I have to "test" nearly every branch, plucking and eating for quality control. Donna does this too, but we find that my brother does not. He calls it discipline.

When the rains finally come, splashing onto the higher branches, we run for the road and the garage/weighing station where the father, perhaps in his eighties, weighs our buckets and tells us to write down what it is we owe. 40 cents a pound. We've done good work accumulating 30 pounds in our maybe twenty minutes. But then, all three of us were pretty good strawberry pickers as kids, Donna being the all-time Clackamas County champion.

We are in Cove, Oregon, some twenty miles east of La Grande. We think we will find that perfect place to eat and see a couple of places - a drive-in burger place and a steakhouse both newly renovated. This deters us, even if it is a ridiculous assumption: if it's newly remodeled, it probably means new owners, and it can't be that good. We drive nine miles to Union, skirting the storm, driving in sunshine, black clouds and rain spattering behind us, the fields remarkably green from thunderstorms the past few days. Donna and I make my brother drive up and down all the streets of Union (this takes under twenty minutes) as we look for mansions built when the railroad was king transporting timber, sheep, wheat and agriculture. There are still Queen Anne homes and stately gardens intermingled with what look like former garden plots and orchards divided up in the 1950s and 60s just about the time vintage "trailers" became "motor homes." Long before the term "manufactured home" was invented.

Still looking for that perfect place to eat, we try The Union Hotel. It’s a grand brick manse with wide stone stairs leading to a spacious wood veranda, buckled in spots from rot and neglect. The lobby still has the original desk and floors, staircase, upgraded with cheap carpeting and furnishings that look sadly diminutive and out of place. The neon restaurant sign says “open” so we go to the double doors of the dining room encouraged by the sound of live guitar music. We pause before taking a table. Nearly blocking the entrance is a hodgepodge of makeshift steam tables with servings of brownish overcooked vegetables and meats in brown sauces. We decide to head to our favorite Mexican place, el Erradero in Baker City.

But wait! There’s a rodeo in town. We can’t leave town without at least looking in. We peer through holes in the fence, our faces pressed against it like kids spying on a circus. The loud speaker plays "Big Rock Candy Mountain" while local horsemen and women and kids ride around the ring like a free-for-all at a skating rink. Donna says the music is a CD from the movie “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou" but I can’t believe it. The music seems so real, authentic, hometown-like. The Rodeo Queen mounts her steed carrying Old Glory and her princesses gather on theirs, all in spangled shirts, white boots, flying hair and cowboy hats unmolested by well-intentioned political correctness which in cities have intervened to declare no Queen, nor Princesses, but Ambassadors and insist there be a King as well so as to be fair. Here, we’re pretty certain the rodeo king will be known by the end of the competitions anyway – one of the fine young men straddling and sitting on the fences over the chutes.

"You are my Sunshine" begins over the loud speaker and Robin mentions the CD again. They must be right.

I find it amazing that in this small town in eastern Oregon that the Rodeo uses a Hollywood soundtrack. What a mix. What a place. What a country.

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