Pam Severson was a few years younger than Skip, restless in North Dakota and then Ashland and Eugene during the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s. A fast 1976 trip to the Wallowas in her VW bug to visit high school friends, and a backpack trip to the Snake River introduced her to that big country—and to Skip.
Pam’s written a memoir about their four years together in Snake River Country. It’s called Temperance Creek, after a sheep ranch they worked on, and it is wonderful—honest, bold, and chock-full of memory triggers for those of us who spent any part of our 20s and 30s in those years. Who didn’t know someone home—or not—from Vietnam? Listen to the music? Think you were or wanted to be called a “hippie”? Get a letter from a friend urging investment in a commune in British Columbia? Search for a soul-mate as free and easy, or radical and committed, as were we?
It’s all here: the Dakota Norwegian heartland, Vietnam, Eugene, hippies, dude ranch, back-to-the land; and some of the most gorgeous and challenging country in North America. And, for good measure, throwbacks and reflections on other times, when sheep ranching was big, when herders were local misfits and societal escapees—and Spanish Basques. A time when environmental concerns, the wilderness movement, and a more urban, technical workforce were making livestock a tough business. Agriculture, like the rest of the economy and the country, was changing. And we—the baby boomers and Vietnam vets, college protestors and followers of the Grateful Dead, were trying to make sense of it all.
I came to the Wallowas in 1971 on a one-year contract with the Oregon State University Extension Service. In 1976, along with wife Judy, I opened the Bookloft, and, eventually, Judy’s Kitchen. For 45 years I’ve watched people come and go, read the country’s books, listened to stories from “old-timers,” and tried to grasp what it was like 100 years before my time, when Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce Indians wintered along the Snake, Grande Ronde, and Imnaha rivers and roamed the headwaters and the Wallowa Valley in summers.
Pam arrived the year the bookstore opened. I remember her running in and out with small children, using the phone on trips to town, I remember listening to her sing—she and Kathy Josephy and June Colony did some entertaining at the first Fishtrap—and have square danced and swapped stories with her and Skip around beers and potlucks ever since. This book’s kind of like that—strong stories of love and loss, dogs, sheep, horses, mules, friends and bosses, sheepherders and dudes. I told Pam it’s the best since Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight storied me past English imperialism and through the civil war in Zimbabwe. And this one is home turf, and for the last couple of years I’ve got to watch her sell the book to Counterpoint and live through the editing. It’s been a joy.
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Pam will be at Eliot Bay Books with David Laskin on Monday, June 27 at 7:00 p.m. And at Powell’s in Portland on July 19. Go say hi!