John Darling: Pioneers and motorcycles

An undated photo of John Darling with the slopes of Grizzly Peak in the background.
July 18, 2022

‘We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time”’

By John Darling

Getting mail has shifted into a lovely experience in recent years. Among the bills and junk, at least once a week, here’s a padded envelope with a book from, site of 10,000 used book dealers. If you can’t find it there, it can’t be found.

John Darling in 1999

Riding up to Earth Teach Art Camp, Hannah flips through the latest arrival, a hardback of Robert Pirsig’s 1974 classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” “This title is a metaphor, right Dad?” Right. It’s really about life. The author uses a bike to symbolize man’s lonely journey westward, as he enjoins the search for values in a culture of anomie — and seeks answers to his own journey into madness.

She begins reading to me. This has never happened. It’s always been me reading to her. But she’s headed for Wilderness Charter School at Ashland High School this fall — and this is the kind of book they read. The ones that question why we’re really here and what alternatives to the standard-issue life — college, career, marriage, mortgage, kids, retirement — are possible.

We stop at the Mountain Avenue light. The thunderheads seethe and pile up over the Siskiyous. Time slows. I look over at this 16-year-old young woman, so on a run of questioning all the answers, reeling off the lines from the book: “…plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere … Secondary roads are preferred, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on ‘good’ rather than ‘time.’”

She looks up. We laugh. Oh, this guy is telling the truth. It’s one of those real books someone writes from the heart. She has a stack of them by her bed. Makes me want a motorcycle, the quintessential American vehicle — going fast alone to nowhere, maybe to find some lost chamber of the soul. We come to the Dead Indian Road sign. I tell her the story of how this big committee held hearings, seeking to pacify irate residents, finally inserting “Memorial” in the road name — a quintessential committee gesture, doing nothing but confusing the meaning. She shakes her head. Why not just Indian Road? Or rename Highway 66 to Dead Pioneer Road, making things equal. No one can handle those two words together — dead and Indian. They will always offend natives and remind the invader that 300 million of us are here because we did that.

For the Independence Day issue of the paper, I do a story on three pioneers, Helman, Hargadine and Wagner, whose names are all over the south valley. Researching, I learn they’re nice guys who westered with their families and took advantage of their government’s Donation Land Claim Act, which handed them each 360 acres of land for the taking. Where did the government get the land? They just took it, by making Indians dead.

As Helman built his mills around Ashland’s Plaza (essentially creating Ashland), the locals fought for the homes they held for 12,000 years. The settlers occasionally had to hole up at a fort built on Wagner Creek. Within five years from the first claim here, the Shastas and Takelmas were gone, decimated by our diseases or removed to remote reservations — concentration camps, really — all this before anthropologists could even do them the honor of recording their language and folkways.

We do know they lived interdependently in long lodges, not independently, as we love to congratulate ourselves for doing in our half-million dollar boxes. We know they seasonally shifted around the valley, following food sources — berries, salmon, deer. But, 60 years after the fact, a 1909 Ashland Tidings story I’m reading lauds the pioneers for bravery against the “savage” natives and animals, meaning wolves and grizzly bears — all quickly wiped out.

I finish the story, shaken, frankly. And Hannah reads on, “On this trip, I think we should notice it, explore it a little, to see if in that strange separation of what man is from what man does we may have some clues to what the hell has gone wrong in this twentieth century. That itself is a poisonous twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it.”

Hannah closes the book, holding it between her fingers, feeling the universe magically compressed within its smooth covers. They will assign her some other book to read for the summer, one she can’t get into. “I’m reading this one,” she says, declaring her independence from the program designed to teach her independence. I smile, secretly gleeful at her departing from the script. She’s conceiving the next mode of westering and she’s making good time — with the emphasis on good.

John Darling lived in Ashland from 1971 until he died at age 77 in January 2021. A US Marine Corps journalist, he went on to write for the Oregonian, Mail Tribune, Daily Tidings, and United Press International, among others, along with stints as a news anchor at KOBI, executive assistant to the Oregon Senate President and press secretary of campaigns for Oregon governor and U.S. Senate. is, with permission, publishing monthly excerpts from his collection “The Divine Addiction: Essays Out of Oregon.”

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at
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