It has become summer time, and my family and I have been living at our mountain home for many weeks. Lily White is an old gold mining camp established in the early 1860’s, and it was named after the wife of the camp boss. At its peak, the population neared about 1000, including Chinese labor. According to legend, rather than pay their wages, the mine owners buried over 100 Chinamen in a mineshaft. Now the mine is nearly invisible and hard to find, buried under the ground and in the hills, hidden from eyes. The camp has been replaced with several Forest Service cabins including three bunkhouses, a shower house, and the kitchen/dining hall.
My dad is a professor at a university, and we get to live in the mountains because of his job. During the summer months, he is the director of a summer school at Lily White; the old, abandoned gold mine has been turned into a Forest Service Field Station. My dad is open and friendly despite his imposing height and dark features. His snapping, nearly-black eyes exhibit signs of a life filled with humor. Strong and steady, he is the foundation of our family, holding us all together and keeping us safe and cared for. He has a dry sense of humor and tells corny jokes and puns, but his laugh is what I love most about him. It starts as a chortle and winds up into an out of control cackle, much like the taunting, screaming laugh of hyenas, which immediately causes everyone in his company to dissolve into uncontrollable fits of laughter.
My mom rules the kitchens and meals while my dad and two other professors organize and supervise the classes. As short as my dad is tall, she is the epitome of big things coming in small packages. My mom is the disciplinarian, ensuring my sister and I follow the rules and raising us to be good people. Her stern nature is deceiving, and her iron fist is clothed in a web of fluffy cotton, teaching us with love and reason rather than punishment and condemnation. I envy her beautiful, long brown hair falling down her back in perfect waves of spunk silk, and I long to wake up one morning with my unruly curls replaced with hair like hers. She has the telltale electric-blue eyes of my grandfather’s Irish heritage.
My sister, Erika, is two years younger than me, and we have nearly free rein to run wild – as long as we can hear our mom’s call, a loud, piercing “hoo-hoo”.
Imagining we are great adventurers the like of Magellan or Columbus, we are preparing to embark on our own adventure. We have our provisions – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a thermos of lemonade – and we have our equipment. I have a special spyglass hanging from my satchel. It was made for me by a magic Indian named Richard, and he used his enchanted roll of towels to create it. My spyglass is partnered with my trusty shovel and treasure boxes with their soft plastic sides and lids. Erika has many of the same tools as me, but she also has a net for capturing beautiful butterflies and a special jar to put them in to preserve them.
We talk about our plan and the route we want to take as I scan through my satchel one more time. Erika is squatted down next to me, both of us barefoot, skinny as a rail with knobby knees. She’s as tall as I am, but she is all arms and legs without much of a body to go with them. She reminds me of an awkward spider. She is so tan she is mistaken for one of the kids of the cherry pickers when we go to town. She looks at me with her big brown eyes, pools of liquid chocolate, waiting for me to be ready to go. Her white-blonde hair moves in all directions on her head, it probably hasn’t seen a brush since the last time we were in town. The strings of her cut-off shorts flutter in the breeze, and I can see the bones of her spine in the open back of her halter-top.
I cut the strings on my cut-offs because I don’t like feeling them tickling me like a bunch of centipedes walking on my skin. My tummy and back are bare between my shorts and my too-small tank top. Scabs cover my knees from falling, and they will probably be replaced with new ones before they’re completely gone. My hair is as curly as Erika’s is straight, and in just as much disarray as hers. Sitting Indian-Style, the dehydrated, calloused state of the bottoms of my bare feet is obvious. I have the same electric-blue eyes as Mom, like turquoise pools of light, and we also share the same button nose, though mine has been kissed with freckles from the sun. My smile reveals a deep dimple in my right cheek that distracts from the awkwardness of a mouth filled with large gaps lamenting the loss of their baby teeth, crowded with teeth too large and at various stages of eruption.
Erika and I wander our way along the dusty dirty road, kicking up clouds of dust as we go. I like to stop and pick flowers to put in my plant press. Erika flitters and dances along randomly, much like the butterflies she chases, and eventually she catches one and puts it in her jar. At the end of the road is a meadow teeming with life. Grasshoppers jump and leap from ground to plant and back again avoiding our trampling feet. Butterflies – Cabbage, Swallowtail, Painted Ladies, and Fritillaries – float gracefully from flower to flower painting the air with their elegant, eye-catching colors. The meadow is full of my favorite flowers, Mariposa Lilies, also called Butterfly Lilies. The lilies bloom when Spring says goodbye and Summer arrives signaling the start of the hot weather. The first blooms of the year are always hard to spot, but once they are in full bloom, the meadow comes alive with the delicate white and purple petals fluttering in the breeze.
On the wooded road on the other side of the meadow, we walk enjoying the cool shade of the pines. Not far from the meadow is a fresh spring, bubbling up out of the ground with pure, refreshing ice-cold water where we stop to take a break and have a drink. Lustrous green moss covers the ground around the spring, a hidden oasis beseeching travelers to sample it’s crystal clear liquid. Erika and I have just a short distance to travel along the road until we reach our destination.
Egg Nob is a large treeless hill a short distance away from Lily White. Its sloping, scabbed ground is covered with tell-tale signs of summer in Eastern Oregon. Balsam arisa are blooming in great yellow bunches like little bouquets of sunshine greeting visitors with beaming faces, their long sage leaves like protective wrappers keeping the blooms from harm. The uneven, rocky ground is the ideal environment for the wild onions to grow and flourish. The long, thin green stalks shoot from the ground to support the overly large heads of the lavender, globular blooms. Disguised amongst the rocks are the delicate, smooth impressions created by the killdeer for their nests cleverly camouflaging the brown and white speckled eggs. Bunches of bright red Indian Paint Brush dot the landscape with flowers like licks of fire reaching for the sky, and the pleasant, spicy smell of yarrow fills the air.
It is here we have decided to spend the day, digging wild onions, searching for killdeer nests, picking flowers, and chasing butterflies. We take our time climbing to the top of Egg Nob where we can see for miles, and our wild playground stretches out before us, our own personal Wonderland.