The Dee Highway Gang

Me and the youngest gangster, our grandson Sam.

I stepped outside at 5 am. Dreams still wobbled in my sub-conscious. The bunkhouse was cozy, but no one slept well. Two babies and a three year old had needs that demanded attention during the night. We expected as much and, really, no one had come on this escapade to sleep.

It was June 22nd, 36 hours after the summer solstice. A dome of clear sky hung above my head, bruised on its edges by the climbing sun. Before me, lay hundreds of miles of National Forest and rural Oregon. Behind me, the craggy top of Mt. Hood loomed.

We were a mile above Timberline Lodge, at the base of the Palmer Glacier. Perched there at an elevation of 7,500 feet, is the Silcox Hut. Last fall, one of our Dee Highway Gang had bid on and won a night’s stay at these iconic lodgings.

Members of the gang playing in the snow.

Now, several of us stood on the rocky slope below the entrance, waiting for sunrise. The others identified features in the distance: Trillium Lake, Mt. Jefferson, and the Three Sisters. A brisk wind rushed down from the mountain peak. I sought shelter in the crook of the hut’s stone wall. Far away, to the north, lay the Hood River Valley.

Our home is located in town, just a couple of miles from the mighty Columbia River. To the south, on a clear day, Mt. Hood, in all its majesty commands the horizon.

A sno-cat full of gangsters.

My wife and I, along with another lady friend, arrived in Oregon in the spring of ’78’. While scouting out the area, we stayed on a friend’s land in the upper valley. Their property was located just off the Dee Highway, route 281, which runs north to south from the Columbia to the Mt. Hood National Forest.

We were young, romantic, and intrepid. We followed strict vegetarian diets, ground our own flour to bake bread, and envisioned communal living. We found a house to rent on the Dee Highway at the bottom of a steep grade. Log trucks descended that hill loaded with trees. Their “jake brakes” popped and their diesel engines growled as they negotiated the steep curve below our home.

Three generations of gangsters: Father Ronnie, Son Muir, Grandson KJ.

Dee Flats, where we eventually bought property, was a short distance away as the crow flies. But, in order to access the plateau, you had to wander down 281 and turn west at the Dee Mill. Dee Highway, Dee Flats, the Dee Mill … these were the landmarks of our adopted home. The middle name of our first born son is, not surprisingly, Dee.

In the beginning, there were seven adults and two children. Over time, we evolved out of our communal living idealism and became four separate families. The gang has grown from that original number with the addition of children, friends, and grandchildren. These days, we have trouble finding a house large enough to host our annual Thanksgiving reunion.

Gangsters all …

For 39 years we have celebrated life’s milestones together: births, birthdays, baseball games, soccer matches, ski races, graduations, marriages, career changes, house purchases, hundreds of “pot” lucks, holidays, even cross country vacations. Along the way, we also witnessed together the perilous launch of children into adulthood, their injuries, illnesses, and the passing of our own parents.

Our work lives grew from seasonal employment with the Forest Service and ski areas into more substantial occupations: nursing, the postal service, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. With time, we wove our way into the complex fabric of the Hood River community.

The Silcox Hut with Mt. Hood in the background.

Six of the seven founding gang members, (one broke her wrist a week prior to our trip) ventured to the Silcox Hut to enjoy the summer solstice at altitude. Nine other gangsters by birth, marriage, or Thanksgiving, as well as two very welcome outsiders, joined us to share in this once in a lifetime event. We were pampered by the stay-in host. He served an excellent dinner and breakfast amidst the unique accommodations. And, of course, there were the views …

My immediate family, minus our first born, Noah Dee Smith

The gang is now scattered about the Hood River Valley. Only one family remains on the Dee Highway. Weeks pass when we do not see one another. Of our eight children, six remain in the county, along with four grandchildren. Two children have gone exploring, though they make frequent trips back to their roots. One family threatens to leave for more rural environs. The changing community cramps their style. As for the rest of us, we will likely continue our adventure right here in the valley.

Tagged: cancer, Columbia River Gorge, Hood River, Hood River Valley, nature, Silcox Hut, The Dee Highway, Timberline Lodge, writing