Sanelli
Sanelli

Several years ago, for all the once-in-a-lifetime reasons we travel, I decided that each fall my husband and I would bicycle through countryside we’ve never seen.

I am an avid bicycler, but not a lover of long car trips, and because we both love to lose ourselves in long stretches of undeveloped land to forget about what may or may not happen in our careers, and we also love wine-tasting, the Willamette Valley in Oregon seemed like a good fit for us.

We began our trip in McMinneville, planning to ride south to Silverton, then north to Hood River. We loved the landscape right away, which is good because we had to ride 30 to 40 miles a day.

We were about 50 miles outside of Silverton when we saw a handmade sign for farm-fresh eggs. Now, I can eat nearly a dozen eggs a day when I’m long-distance riding, and because there had been no other farmhouse in the last five miles, it’s not like I wanted to tell myself that there would be more eggs right around the corner.

The farmer scooped our eggs right from under cackling chickens! His English wasn’t great, and my Spanish is worse, so I decided that instead of asking him if he’d hard-boil them for an extra fee, I’d ask the first woman I saw down the road. I imagined her working outside in her garden. “Please-oh-please,” I’d say.

About a mile away, there she was, maybe 80 years old, sitting in a white plastic chair by her mailbox, happy “as a clam” to boil my eggs. Her husband shook my husband’s hand, and off the two of them walked to sit in the garden, while she and I walked to the kitchen. I think they were just happy to have someone, other than each other, to talk to.

The eggs boiled. She talked. Oh, how she talked. Her whole life story. But I was glad to listen, remembering how lonely life is when there isn’t anyone to talk to, and no one to listen.

When the eggs were done, she offered me a tour of the farm and I said sure, because the house, the garden, the chickens, it all looked so peaceful and bucolic and self-sufficient; everything our Belltown life wasn’t. And they were such sweet, whole-hearted, generous, unsuspecting people. That’s the way I saw them.

Until we got to the barn.

Now, just because someone assumes you’d enjoy seeing her husband’s “hobby” in the loft, doesn’t mean you have to scramble up the ladder to take a peek. I have no clear memory of climbing, just of what slowly came in to view once I had.

“Oh,” I said. “Whoa.”

I backed down the rungs carefully.

She was smiling, and I wasn’t surprised, because even with my back to her I felt like I could see her smiling. And she nodded, too, as if she was saying to me, “You are one of us, right?”

I have seen that self-satisfied smile on people before. The way they laugh, pat each other on the back, shake each other’s hands, you would think they were members of a bowling league, instead of Congress.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm, she said, “Would you like to see the orchard?”  

This is tricky, I thought; bolting will not be easy.

“No thanks,” I said, and then I mumbled something else like, “we have to meet our friends.”

In the back of my mind now, whenever I think of that rural stretch of Oregon, there is this to recall: swastikas in every size imaginable; one so large in the middle of a huge red drape, trailing as if out of a Nazi government window in 1933. There were pictures of Obama, too; one with an arrow through his head, one with a bullet, and one with a monkey’s mouth and ears. And there were 14/88 stickers everywhere. If you have to look up what those numbers mean, I did too. Just be sure you are sitting down.

Larry said he could tell something was wrong by the look in my eyes. I’m sure you will not be surprised to learn how fast we rode away.

“Something awful happened,” I said, soon as the farmhouse was out of view.

“Awful? What kind of awful?”

And today I think seeing that racist propaganda was not the worst thing that could have happened on our ride. I’ve found my eyes are more open now to people who may seem like ordinary, neighborly, live-and-let-live people on the outside but (help) are something completely different inside.

I mean, it’s one thing to hear about places that attract whole populations of haters, like wintering birds; it’s quite another to meet members of its flock.

If I had a picture of what my face must have looked like when I reached the top rung of the ladder, I’d put it on the fridge, the way I put up a picture of us riding the Columbia River Bike Trail.

I had such an empty feeling. It took about 20 miles of cycling away from Ma and Pa Hater to feel safe and sure and free again.

Mary Lou Sanelli’s column, Falling Awake, has been a part of this publication since 2009. Her latest book is “A Woman Writing.” More at marylousanelli.com.