The old man walks every day, averaging five or more miles, every season, except when the weather is really bad. He doesn’t walk in the rain. A little dog – a mini-Aussie – is his steadfast companion. She stays at his heels. If the old man doesn’t hear a car approaching from behind, the dog circles the old man excitedly until he stops to see what the fuss is about. If he stops to talk to a neighbor driving by – a regular occurrence – the dog barks, urging him to keep moving. The old man didn’t want the dog, even though he loves them and has had others in his life. When his previous dogs died, a couple of small mutts, he swore he’d never get another. It was too hard to lose them, he said; broke his heart. Then a granddaughter asked him to take the mini-Aussie. The old man was reluctant and initially kept his heart hard. But dogs have a way of melting and then mending hearts. The pair now watch out for each other, depend on each other. Covering miles, they’ve bonded.
The old man is two years shy of his 80th birthday. He was born at home, on July 15, 1940, on land his grandfather homesteaded, then passed on to the old man’s father, who passed it on to the old man who will pass it on to his son who, like the old man, has spent his entire life on this same patch of ground.
His eyes aren’t as sharp as they used to be; the old man wears the large-lensed, metal-framed glasses favored by men of his vintage. Yet his vision is keen: he sees the big and small details of his part of the world – the Payette National Forest, Meadows Valley, the Little Salmon River and all the creeks that run out of the forest down through the valley into the river. He knows them well. He notices the changes from season to season as well as from decade to decade. He’s a naturalist, paying close attention to the flora and fauna of the land he covers on foot every day, grew up exploring.
He fondly recalls a childhood full of freedom to roam. The old man attended first and second grades in a one-room country schoolhouse down the hill from his own home, riding his horse part way, then walking the rest across a neighbor’s land. Most of the other kids there shared his surname – his brother and some cousins – or that of one or two other pioneer families. By the time he entered third grade, the country schools were consolidated and he spent the rest of his school years in town, graduating from high school in 1958. The old man remembers hanging out with ten to twelve other country kids during those years, fishing, riding horses, exploring, shooting squirrels. Things were simpler.
Logging supported families back then. From the time the old man turned eighteen, he worked in the woods, first as a hooker, then driving logging trucks for various local companies or cutting logs in the forest. He also worked on the family land – 350 acres – raising hay, tending a few cows. His mother did taxidermy in a shed behind the house.
While getting some pie and a coke with a friend one evening in 1963, the old man met a girl. A few months later they married, the old man saying, “We had to, but we made it work, though everyone said it wouldn’t. We didn’t get married to get a divorce.” The couple moved in with the old man’s parents, eventually building their own house right next to the old homestead house, the same house the old man still resides in today. They had children, built a life. The old man kept working in the logging industry.
In 1992, the old man was diagnosed with prostate cancer which ended his time in the woods. After working as a crew boss for a few years, the old man went back to driving a logging truck. On Friday the 13th, February 2004, while driving near John Day, the old man was hit by a lumber truck that lost control on a patch of black ice, spinning and slamming backward into the old man’s truck. He spent eleven days in a hospital in Bend with both femurs and his right ankle broken and a dislocated big toe. Lots of hardware was used to put his legs back together. He nearly lost his left leg and was told they were able to save it only because that knee had been replaced a couple decades earlier and the artificial knee gave them something to drive some of the thirteen pins through. The old man spent a total of five weeks in hospital, followed by weeks of physical therapy. On disability, the old man’s days of working in the logging industry were done. You can see that accident in the old man’s gait as he wanders on his daily walks; he favors his right leg. If you ask, he’ll show you the x-rays of all the pins and plates in his legs.
In 1978 the extended family built a cabin on the Salmon River, a getaway. One either flies into the adjacent private backcountry airstrip, drives to within three miles and hikes in, or arrives by boat. There are only three cabins on the river bar, one for a caretaker, the other owned by a well-known family with long ties to local logging. It has been a haven and respite for the old man and his family, a place they spent several weekends every summer, enjoying the forest and river. The old man’s brother died there when, shortly after taking off in his airplane with two friends, the engine died and they crashed. That didn’t spook the old man; he flew into the cabin a few days later. But when his wife died from leukemia in 2012 – after 49 years of marriage – the old man lost some interest in visiting the cabin.
Logging always remained a close companion of the old man, always a part of his life, his friendships, his history. The old man helped create a festival celebrating all things logging, with cross-cut sawing competitions, an axe throw. He even won some of those competitions back in the day. Most of the family’s land was sold, then sold again to a developer who sold five-to-twenty-acre parcels to newcomers for fancy houses. The old man’s home landscape changed drastically.
The old man was born with a very rare defect: osteogenesis imperfecta. Defective genes impact how the body makes collagen, leading to weakened and often brittle bones. In mild cases, one suffers several fractures over a lifetime; in severe cases, it can cause hundreds of fractures, often without any obvious cause. In the old man’s case, the bones of his inner ear were affected and he needed hearing aids by age twenty-three. Over time, his hearing worsened, hearing aids helping only so much. In 2007 he learned he was eligible for a cochlear implant. The procedure was successful and his hearing in that ear improved instantly. The old man remembers the emotional wonder of one moment being practically deaf to suddenly hearing everyday things once again, like the sound of eating crackers. In 2010 he had a cochlear implant on the other side. The old man insures the devices; they’re expensive to replace. He lost one while mowing the lawn. Never did find it.
Few of us remain in one place for an entire lifetime anymore. Imagine doing so: things change around you, and not always for the better. More people, more traffic, more noise, more opinions about how to do things. The old man has spent nearly eight decades observing these changes, helpless to stop them, trying to accommodate them. After a life spent near the woods, recreating among and making a living off the trees, the old man gets especially worked up when the topic is the forest and its management. He vents. In writing. The old man’s venting riles, amuses, annoys or mystifies, depending on the audience, yet he persists because it’s a safe release for the pent-up frustration that has accumulated over a lifetime of staying in one place as the world changed around him at an ever-increasing pace.
Some changes the old man readily adopts. When asked the square footage of the cabin on the Salmon River, he picks up his smart phone to access the calculator. He tracks his daily walking mileage with a Fitbit, commenting how accurate it is because he knows intimately the distances of the roads he walks, having trod them his entire life. Yet when it comes to the forest – his backyard, his livelihood, his place of respite – the old man resists change because, like a parent raising a child, he loves this particular forest fiercely and feels he knows best how to nurture it, that the old practices were good.
Shouldn’t we all feel passionate about the things we love, that sustain us, and speak out about them?
So Leonard Wallace keeps walking several miles every day, his faithful companion Daisy at his heels, relishing life, sharing local gossip with his neighbors. He remains upbeat and positive with a joke ready to tell, unbowed by the challenges, hardships, and losses of a long life. He doesn’t let a little hitch in his git-along slow him down; no rocking chair for him. He’s a fount of knowledge about local history and happily shares what he knows. And as I can attest – for Leonard has been my neighbor for 13 years now – he enjoys a robust discussion, a good ol’ fashioned exchange of ideas, and happily agrees to disagree when you and he fall on opposite sides of an issue.
[Cover photo: Leonard Wallace and Daisy on a daily walk in Meadows Valley, February 2018. All photos by McCall Digest/Rebecca Wallick.]