Hidden House, Hidden Story

June 28, 2009

not-jackson-sundown-houseRarely is anything as it appears. How’s that for an overused truism? But it’s one I keep learning again and again. Take the case of this abandoned house. During a seven-day research trip last week, it was first on a long list of places and people to see on the Nez Perce Reservation near Lewiston, Idaho.

Two years ago, my daughter Erin gave me a sepia-toned and more poignant version taken by a professional photographer. The gift was tied to a book that I was writing with Ann Terry Hill. The book, Pendleton Round-Up at 100: Oregon’s Legendary Rodeo, includes stories about legendary Nez Perce cowboy Jackson Sundown. A caption below the photograph, which is displayed in my office bookcase, identifies the house as Sundown’s cabin. I had emailed the photographer for directions in 2007.

I finally made it there on June 20, beginning research for a much bigger story. The house, leaning south amid a hillside of flowering peas, is on Highway 95 in Culdesac. I took a dozen photos inside and out, and videotaped everything, complete with a hushed narration meant to lend solemnity to the moment. I rubbed my hand over wood weathered black. I peered at nails protruding from a wall, wondering whether Sundown used them to hang his clothes. I wanted to feel his presence eighty-six years after his death.

Later while talking to some of Sundown’s relatives about the house, I realized something was amiss. The lonely place beneath a dying tree wasn’t Sundown’s. The photographer had been given bad information.

I drove south on 95 again, but not as far, and turned on Mission Creek Road at the Jacques Spur Junction Cafe, an out-of-the-way place made famous by the unsolved murder of Rufus the friendly wild turkey. Scanning a creek-fed stand of trees bordering a wheat field, I couldn’t spot the house where I was told it would be. So I parked and walked slowly along the road, peering again into the trees. Still no luck.

sundown-hidden-houseAs I headed to my car, convinced I was in the wrong place again, something brown amid the greenery caught my eye. I tromped across the field with cameras slung over my shoulders. Into the underbrush I plunged. To make any headway I had to push aside slender and delicate white-flowering plants taller than me, plants I later learned are musquash root, more formally known as poison hemlock, whose juice put an end to Socrates.

In the dusk-like shade of walnut trees and the tallest cherry tree I’ve seen, the crumbling remains of the house came into view. Much of the second story has collapsed, and the rest is coming apart board by board. But it was intact enough to imagine Sundown living there with his second wife, Cecilia Wapsheli, who owned the house and ranch before she met the legendary horseman and whose descendant still owns the property.

For awhile I sat at the edge of the creek behind the house and listened to water flowing over rocks. In my mind an untold story began to write itself.