The Dee Highway Gang

Me and the youngest gangster, our grandson Sam.

Five am: I stepped outside. Dreams wobbled in my sub-conscious. The bunkhouse was cozy, but no one slept well. Two babies and a three year old saw to that. We expected as much and, really, no one had come on this escapade to sleep.

It’s June 22nd and thirty six hours after the summer solstice. An opaque dome of sky, bruised on its rim by the climbing sun, hung above my head. Before me, lay hundreds of miles of National Forest and rural Oregon. At my back,ย 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 bid on and won a night’s use of this iconic lodging.

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. It slithered under the collar of my fleece. I sought shelter in the crook of the hut’s stone wall. I gazed to the north where, far away, 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, 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” exploded in staccato bursts and the transmissions of their diesels 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 the perilous launch of children into adulthood, everyone’s injuries, illnesses, as well as 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. A stay-in host pampered us. He served healthy dinner and breakfast meals 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.

16 thoughts on “The Dee Highway Gang

  1. Wow, John. I love this story and all the connections you make to your earliest days with friends along the Dee Highway and now in Hood River. I’ve been to Silcox. Years ago, we hiked up there with our dog (it was summer) and watched Nordstrom do a photo shoot for an advertising layout. Someone invited us into Silcox Hut, where we marveled at the view and visited with whomever was overseeing the photo shoot. Keep on writing. I enjoy your stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this story too! And I know it well having lived it. I am happy and proud to be a Dee Hwy Gang member. Love you John. What a fun night that was, one to always remember and cherish. So so happy we moved to Oregon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, tight knit is the correct phrase. Of the original seven gang members, two of the women assisted with the home births of our children. And, one of the men acted as the minister at our son’s marriage.


  4. John, beautiful story, beautiful pictures. I could almost feel the chill and breathe the crisp cold air. Making my way through one more Texas summer, with temps in the upper nineties, I envy you.
    Long live the Gangsters!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brother John!

    A lovely remembrance, with a joyful eye to the future.

    I was just speaking of you to my sister, who lives in Washington state how I wished I had just one extra day to tarry in Portland, on my ’13 West Coast Swing.

    Since then, my brother has moved to Portland, and as he’s somewhat loathe to come East, I’d lay pretty good odds at a Portland visit in the not-distant future.

    I have a vivid sense of the views that await me, there, thanks to your wonderful writing and judicious photos. Cannot wait.

    And bravo, as always, for another great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Blaiser. When you visit your brother, you should take the scenic route around the mountain. It goes right through the Hood River Valley and back down the Columbia Gorge. Spectacular! ๐Ÿ˜Ž


  6. Seems you have lived the philosophy that grew out of the ’60s and kept your connections. Only makes me regret more those I’ve lost on my own highways. You’ve got an incredible “family” – what an absolute joy to read about them and their history. – J.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi John, beautiful post. Love your family story and beautiful descriptions of the Pacific NW. Hope you are doing well. I’m on Darza #14, Pom, Dex, and doing ok. Enjoy your beautiful family! Julie

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Dave, I hope all is going well. This is such a fantastic read, and the feeling of the morning โ€œbruised on its edges by the climbing sunโ€ฆโ€ put me right in the middle of the beauty Oregon. Hood never ceases to amaze whether it’s from a hundred miles away or viewing from Timberline. And I can only imagine how it must have felt experiencing the summer stole at the Silcox Hut. It seems a perfect moment summing up the past with you and your gang, as well as a celebration for what lies ahead as well. Iโ€™ve added a new goal, to visit the Sicox Hut at some point in the future, and adventure to be experienced. Wish you a great remaining summer!

    Liked by 1 person

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