“Whiskey’s for drinkin’. Water’s for fightin.” Not the first time I’ve used this proverb, but it summarizes nicely how important water is to the American West and that’s where this story takes place. It involves a riding lawn mower, a foreign exchange student, lots of water and no whiskey.
Seeing as how my wife and I were already in our 30’s when we moved to Oregon our first property purchase was no starter-home. It was a fixer-upper, but included one reasonably sized house, two cottages, a shop, a riding shed, a big barn and forty acres of land on which stood twenty-acres of alfalfa. At closing we received the property deed and a document that stated our water rights on the Arrowhead Pipeline that came off the Alder Slope Ditch. That ditch channeled snowmelt off the Scotch Creek drainage of the Wallowa Mountains. Those rights dated back to 1898 and as most rights do, came with certain responsibilities. Among those was a fee to pay the ditch manager, but primarily I was made to understand that it was my duty to keep the water flowing to the downstream neighbors who made their living from their farms and were not wannabe hobby-ranchers (like me).
Now the Arrowhead Pipeline ran straight thru the side yard before exiting our acreage where it leveled out to the real ranches. There was a valve that controlled the water entering the pipeline from the ditch, about a half-mile up the hill on Century Lane and another valve that could turn off the entire pipeline that was semi-buried in a culvert at the edge of our property. At intervals in our yard were exposed risers where smaller pipes would come off to irrigate our lawn.
OK, that’s the setting. Enter Heike, a 17-year old German exchange student who would be staying with us for the up-coming fall semester. I thought the best way to integrate her into our family would be to give her some chores so that she might receive the character-building experience of living in the rural West. And what could be more fun than cutting grass with a riding lawn mower? I sure loved it when I was a kid! And so it was that I carefully explained how to safely drive the mower, how to use the kill switch and what obstacles needed to be avoided - the primary obstacle being a 4-inch high, 6-inch diameter riser in the southeast corner of the lawn.
Heike was quite intelligent and responsible beyond her years. Everything was going fine and an hour later most of the grass was cut - except for the southeast corner. It was then that I heard the scream of a teenage female. It was one of those moments that lasted just a second but was experienced in slow mo. The whirling blade was just finishing off the top of the riser. Heike was jumping off as the back end of the riding mower was being lifted into the air by a 6-inch diameter column of water that grew 30-feet after the machine had passed.
My buddy Rick ran to stop the still running mower, my wife to comfort the screaming, but unhurt Heike. The cavalry having arrived at that end of the yard, I sprinted for the valve at the opposite edge. It didn’t budge - frozen tight with unuse. I remembered at the ditch, so I flew up Alder Slope in my truck, then cranked closed the pipeline’s mouth where it sucked in water from the ditch.
On my return the situation was calmer, except for the 30-foot geyser that continued to spout for a couple hours as Arrowhead slowly evacuated its contents on to my yard. This was of course in dry August when the ranchers were irrigating 24-hours a day. Now I needed to find someone who could repair the situation and get the now-less-than-amused real ranchers back online. It was of course a weekend.
I can’t remember much how the rest of the story played out. Heike didn’t think the event was as hilarious as we did. We didn't get a picture of the geyser. It was at least a day before the irrigation was doing its chik-chik-chik-chik-chik thing on the neighbors' fields. The frozen valve was also repaired and one of the workmen forgot his coffee mug on our fence post by the side of the road. I left it there for a week, but he never returned. It’s still one of my favorite mugs. It was as I sipped chai from it recently that I was prompted to write this story.