The Imnaha Store and Tavern, in the remote northeastern corner of Oregon, is halfway to Hell’s Canyon from the top of the Zumwalt Prairie, where Big Sheep Creek meets the Imnaha River at the base of Hat Point road. It’s as it sounds, a western landscape that ticks all the boxes. The car chases the shadows of three black birds along the sunbaked walls of the valley gorge. It’s July and 105 degrees. In the winding thirty-mile drive from the nearest town, I brake for butterflies and a single cow, and at some point I lose cell service.
There are fewer than 200 post office boxes in zip code 94872, and just eighteen people live in town year round. A few years ago there was just one boy at the Imnaha elementary school; now there are five students. Imnaha is so remote that the sight of a delivery truck, bringing chips and soda into the store, is a surreal incursion. The store feels like the last stop on the grid, and the next twenty-two miles of gravel road to the top of the canyon will take an hour and a half to pass when the winter snow has completely melted.
Many small towns and their general stores in this spare part of the country simply ceased to be after the mills closed or the trains stopped coming; but when there is a road where there are so few roads, some survive. The Imnaha store is still on the way somewhere; it’s a hard way, but once you’re on it, that’s it.
In the small town where I grew up, on the other side of the country, the Coke machine outside our general store was the only place that took money after dark. The store had a name but was always called after the person who ran it. In the seventies it was Dick’s, then Ted’s, then Jack’s. When Jack had a heart attack and died in the store, his girlfriend Linda took over, but it stayed Jack’s for a long time. Our rural county was dotted with small towns and each town had a store like Jack’s. With wood floors and atomic fireballs in jars. Since I moved out west, and now that I live in a city full of specific places, I have to travel further to find a general store, but it is always worth it. It always feels like seeing a familiar face in a crowd. When urban life feels too weightless, a general store brings me back down. I feel my feet on the ground.
The Imnaha Store and Tavern, built at a crossroads, in 1904, is a hitching post for ranchers bringing cattle down from the prairie. Open nine to nine every day, it’s the only place around to get a drink, a meal, play a game of pool, and pick up staples for home, camping, fishing or hunting. There is a sign in the front window of the store with two pistols drawn end to end that reads, “We don’t call 911.” For life threatening emergencies, a defibrillator is posted on the wall just inside.
On workdays that start early to beat the heat, the sun doesn’t have to get very high before it’s time for a beer. Wooden swivel chairs, a step high, line the bar and Sallie Tanzey is behind it, wearing jean shorts and the turquoise tank top version of the store’s souvenir tee shirt—which features a cartoon version of her on the front.
Sallie has owned the store with her husband Dave for the past 35 years; their photo, from an old newspaper clipping, hangs below a wooden sign, “This is Blitz Country!” She is prepping sandwiches for lunch, and refilling coffee for the breakfast club. She gives directions dozens of times a day and answers the same questions from tourists: “How old is this place?” “How long does it take to get to Hat Point?”
The interior of the store feels big enough to clear for dancing. The Western Family brand dominates: paper products, pet food, motor oil, and condiments sized to last a season fill the shelves that line the perimeter. Booths with coat and hat hooks form an aisle and a large steel drum wood stove, painted creosote black, is at the heart—its stovepipe piercing the ceiling. A pendant lamp hangs over the pool table. Taxidermy from decades of hunting trips stare down from the walls, many of “the horns” inherited from the store’s previous owners. On the back wall, a collection of license plates from abandoned cars in the canyon, or from places that seem impossibly far away, like Virginia, where I am from. I want to ask it, “How did we get here, Virginia?” The lunch menu, on a pushpin marquis advertises Frog Legs (from Spokane) and deals. Oysters and a four piece chicken plate runs $9.50. My Henry’s Root Beer comes with a chilled mug of fat, square ice cubes.
In the corner covered in cobwebs and behind the beef jerky, a trophy for the town’s annual Tug Of War Champions, a battle of the sexes, is displayed. When Sallie stands at the bar in front of “RACKS,” a calendar of women holding skulls and antlers and posing in their underwear, she doesn’t seem diminished by the juxtaposition. The calendar girls are background chatter.
On the morning I am there, a small TV perched on top of a refrigerator is tuned to Little House on the Prairie, by chance, while Sallie peels pieces of deli meat onto white bread and swaps news with the non-fictional prairie dwellers on barstools. All the drama of Walnut Grove in counterpoint.
In the corner by a wall of locally made fishing lures is a mini-fridge for night crawlers.
There are four beers on tap. Pabst Blue Ribbon, Coors Light, Bud Lite and one local offering: Terminal Gravity IPA, brewed in Enterprise, but Sallie might talk you out of paying more for fancy beer. And both kinds of cigarettes for sale: Camel and Marlboro. A boy slaps some money on the counter by the register for a Mountain Dew, yells to Sallie who is in the back, and dashes out the door.
In the past hundred years, the store and its two apartments have hosted a barbershop, a milliner, a vet and a doctor’s office. “Whatever’s needed at the time,” Sallie says. Every day at the store is different and some days are remarkable even by wild-west standards. On the back wall is a rattlesnake’s skin that someone in town trapped with a front-end loader. It looks wider than my arm from elbow to wrist. Today, it’s usual small town business.
Sallie’s mother, who has lived near the Imnaha River her whole life, rushes in, dressed for a luncheon in Enterprise, holding the broken back of her earring, “I have a calamity!” Another neighbor stops by to tell Sallie that he’s picked all the apricots from her tree. “Above the motel there are those wild apricots, don’t know if you’ll be wanting any more or not…”
As I walk around noting the bumper stickers—“I started out with nothing and I’ve got most of it left!”—gifted to the store by its patrons and posted without filter, I find a pile of real estate listings, for local properties, including the store, a mixed retail/residential property. Sallie says they are tired. Dave has been fighting cancer and they hope to retire and spend more time together. When the Tanzeys tried to sell the store in 2008, the new owners didn’t work out, and they had to buy it back. They love the store, but it’s time, and their kids don’t live in town.
I wondered, holding the realtor’s papers in my hand, if the store could be mine.
The isolation and beauty of Hell’s Canyon, and even, perhaps, its indifference to me, is seductive. But if I moved to Imnaha, would anyone ever come see me again? Probably not. Could I live half the year in Hell’s Canyon, and shoot forth in spring, like Persephone? I’m not sure the split life is for me. And wouldn’t it be wrong to move to this town, and take over the beating heart of it? I would always be that woman from California. Or maybe it’s a job no one wants and people are just waiting for someone like me to come along, fall head over heels. I could make it my life’s work to win over a hostile clientele…
Easy to turn this into a philosophical problem when it would probably come down to a simpler one, which is my great fear of snakes.
There is no official start date to rattlesnake season in Hells Canyon.
Sallie says it depends on the weather. “You find them on the road, in the river, in the garden, on your porch. Your house, if you leave your doors open. You try not to leave the doors open.” This year the first snake came in on April 11th. Sallie learned to skin a snake when she was four or five.
The store used to host a Bear and Rattlesnake Feed during the town’s Canyon Day, and served up a BBQ of the season’s kills, but the event became too popular, drew over a thousand visitors and overwhelmed the town. Dave and Sallie stopped hosting it about ten years ago, but people still bring their snakes in for the count. Sallie keeps a tally on butcher’s paper taped to a large chest freezer by the door, where you find your ice cream. Prizes are awarded for longest, shortest and most killed. The health department doesn’t allow Sallie to keep snake kills in the store anymore, but she turns their skins into belts and barrettes on the counter of the bar. Skins are rolled up in a small basket by the cash register, available for purchase and priced per length, anywhere from 25 to 95 dollars.
According to the Wallowa County Chieftan, this year, for the very first time, a rattlesnake was found inside the store. This unlucky snake was lurking behind one of the refrigerators and was dispatched with a pool cue.
So a fear of snakes is a deal breaker, if you are considering moving here.
In my regular, urban, sneaker-soled life, it is hard to find people who are as tuned-in to seasonal changes and for whom issues of animal husbandry and environmental stewardship are so complex, as the residents of Wallowa County. Every day in San Francisco I see at least one dog wearing something ridiculous. It is easy to see how a city person like myself might fail to appreciate the challenges of living in a wilderness area when deciding how hard to fall on a ballot measure that affects lives and livelihoods in this landscape, where a child’s first pet might be a scorpion from the woodpile.
The folks in Imnaha are not fans of the “Canadian” Wolf.
This issue is the latest to stoke tempers along the rural/urban divide. Ranchers don’t want to lose cattle, or be told how and when they can protect their land, and environmentalists want to see the wolves recover, and restore balance to an ecosystem that currently has few natural predators. Wolves, not respecting boundaries of nations or states, might object to being called “Canadian,” but the name appeals to anyone on the look out for things that don’t appear to be from “here.” It seems that every bit of wolf-hating ephemera produced east of the Cascades makes it onto the walls of the Imnaha Store and Tavern or is for sale, including hand-painted wooden signs that read “ Canadian Wolf, It’s What’s for Dinner.” And “Oregon Wolf Management: Shoot and Release!” After a while of taking these messages in, it is hard for a person with wolf sympathies not to feel a little endangered herself.
On this hot morning I watch a lot of tourists come in to cool off, quickly buy something, and get back on the road. Eventually I am out of excuses for staying any longer, but it is hard to leave, knowing that it might be years before I return and that this might be the last time I see Sallie at the store. I have a longing for a life that I could never live here and a sense of nostalgia for this place that cannot last forever.
I don’t confess any of this, to Sallie, however, as I finish my root beer and pay my tab. I tell her I hope she can retire soon, and that whoever buys the store won’t change a thing. And then I say goodbye, like everyone else.
I step outside into the heat of the summer’s day. The temperature, which I read on an outdoor thermometer advertising Orange Crush, has gone up six degrees since I’ve been inside. This place is Mars hot. I kick gravel out of my Jesus sandals. The boy from earlier, with the Mountain Dew, is shirtless and perched on the guardrail of the bridge over the Imnaha River, ready to jump. When I turn to leave, I hear the splash.
Kristin Scheel was raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and now lives in the Bayview of San Francisco with her three children, Wyatt, Elinor and Wren.She earned an MFA from Mills College in 2015. She writes about the city with one eye focused outside the city limits. The urban rural divide is one of her favorite lines.