By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: In Eastern Oregon, danger came with the territory

No one in my hometown of Monument had white-coat syndrome. The reason being: we didn’t go to doctors except when it was vitally important. And the reason for that was Monument had no doctors.

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Our nearest doctor was in John Day — a 55-mile drive through the foothills of the Blue Mountains, through the mini-town of Hamilton, founded by a rancher who named the town for himself, and whose ranch became a site for settlers to show the speed of their fastest horses.

If you drive this way, watch for the tourist attraction: Sunken Mountain. Pull off the road, read about it and take a picture. That’s really what it is: a little mountain that decided to give up and just sink away.

After Hamilton, you’ll soon come to Long Creek, named for the nearby stream, one of the longest in the John Day drainage area.

On the road again, you’ll next come to Mount Vernon, a town with a fanciful story. An early settler, David W. Jenkins, had a prize black stallion named Mount Vernon, for which the town was named. The horse was kept in a specially built stone stable to protect it from thieves. During the Indian War of 1878, the neighbors all crowded into the little fortress shared with the horse.

That stone fortress was still standing a hundred years later, and if you are nearby, look for it about a mile and a half east of Mount Vernon just north of U.S. 26. On down the road, John Day is where your doctor in his white coat awaits — and the onset of what could be your white-coat syndrome.

My dictionary refers to it as white-coat hypertension and defines it as a temporary elevation of a patient’s blood pressure upon seeing the doctor’s white coat, usually due to the patient’s anxiety.

Despite Monument’s lack of doctors, we had reasons for anxiety associated with numerous possible happenings that might result in seeking medical help.

Ours was a land of rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, ticks and scorpions, all of which could be responsible for making one’s blood pressure rise.

The scorpion, we knew, was a venomous creature with a toxin that resembled diphtheria and could be fatal to children. These scorpions lived in dark places during the day and at night hunted large insects and spiders. Although it could grab its prey with its pincers, its damage was inflicted with a poisonous spine in its tail.

We knew of no one in our area who had been “attacked” by a scorpion, but we knew its potential, and when we picked up an old board and saw a scorpion with its tail extended, we probably would have had symptoms of anxiety.

We also had black widow spiders and, as with scorpions, we knew of no one who had been bitten by those dangerous spiders that might cause death. We appreciated the female black widow deigning to take the trouble to ensure we knew who she was and that she was a spider with which to be reckoned.

There were other spiders that were shiny, black and sizeable, but that female black widow flaunted a bright red hour-glass figure on her abdomen as if advising us she was dangerous and might inflict a dangerous bite that could cause death.

There was something else that could elicit that white-coat ailment. When we moved to Monument, I was about 8 years old and I was intrigued by the quill-covered porcupines I had never seen. I assuredly did not want to get near one because I thought they could throw their quills. I was afraid of them. How far could they send those barbed objects? I did not want to find out.

My stepfather, Lynn, finally convinced me they could only “embed” on contact.

One day when we were at the apple orchard, a porcupine was up in a tree stealing our apples. Lynn held an old board against it and then showed the board to me. There in that old wood were several quills. I was relieved and delighted. I could take them to school for show and tell, and no longer had to be afraid of porcupines. They were about 2 or 3 inches long, beautifully tooled, a needle with a barb on one end.

I thought I would really impress the kids at school with my porcupine quills, but Lynn suggested we could find something else for show and tell because every kid in Monument had grown up with porcupines and probably had a collection of them to show his “city” friends who didn’t know about such things.

We had many wild animals, including bear, that only occasionally came into our area, and mostly lived in the high mountains. And we had a few cougars that traveled through our part of Grant County from time to time, but never bothered a human, although they had a fondness for our lambs. We had many coyotes that also appreciated our lambs.

They advised us of their presence, especially at night, with their howls. I liked that sound. We had a friend who had a dog that, when he heard a coyote howl, yipped back in return as if talking to the coyote. And who knows? Perhaps they did understand each other.

And we had numerous smaller creatures who had a fondness for mother’s chickens. She was quite upset when they got in the chicken house at night and ate her laying hens, thus eliminating her “egg money.”

The chicken house was away from our ranch house, but even in the middle of the night, if mother heard a disturbance over there, she was instantly out of bed and hurrying over to the chickens. It never occurred to her she might meet an unfriendly animal in the dark. And luckily, she never did.

One lesson I remembered from my high school health class served me well later on. In the textbook was a drawing of an outhouse on a little hill. Directly in line, a short distance below it, was the spring that supplied the family water supply. The book explained the dangers of the water supply becoming polluted, and making the family ill.

When I saw that, I was immediately happy to realize our ranch wasn’t at risk.

Not long after, my good friend Reta asked me to spend the night with her. I particularly liked going to Reta’s because her mother fixed wonderful breakfasts of sourdough pancakes with chokecherry syrup. But while there, during that visit, it occurred to me their family outhouse was located on a little hill directly above the spring that supplied the family with water.

I worried for a long time after that visit that I was going to get typhoid fever, but when Reta again asked me to come to visit her overnight, I didn’t give that another thought. I wasn’t going to miss that wonderful pancake breakfast.

An additional worry for my mother was whether the John Day River was safe for swimming or whether in its late summer sluggishness, and anything but clear, the water might be polluted. Often in late summer, our mothers made us stop swimming in it. We kids stayed out of it — at least until a good rain had freshened it — and in late summer that didn’t seem likely.

We kids loved that John Day swimming hole and spent most of our summer in the river, but our mothers were much relieved that none of us developed any serious illness from doing so.

Ours was also rattlesnake country, but we learned to live with them and they played fair with us. If we chanced to get close to a rattler and were not aware of its presence, it obligingly alerted us.

The sound of a rattler is unusual. If you have never heard a rattler and chance to hear it, you instinctively and immediately know what it is.

The number of rattles a rattler had always was of interest to us, just like the number of points on the horns of a buck deer. We always counted the number of rattles on any dead snake. If I remember correctly, I believe that 21 was a pretty high number.

When a dead snake had more than that, it made news in the neighborhood. A high number could prompt numerous calls on our party telephone line.

One woman in Monument made jewelry from rattlesnake bones. The bones were tiny, delicate, and intricately shaped and her jewelry was quite interesting. She cooked the snake bodies until the bones were easily separated from the carcass, clean and white. She had great fun offering rattlesnake meat to any visitors during this process. She assured them it was quite delectable and that it tasted just like chicken, but not many were inclined to give it a try, and I was one of those.

Considering the number of rattlesnakes in our area, it was surprising more people were not victims. We knew of only one woman bitten by a rattler, and she survived. One of our work horses died of a rattlesnake bite, but none of our dogs was ever bitten. But just encountering a rattler at close quarters was almost enough to bring on white-coat syndrome.

And come spring there was a great influx of ticks. They were a brownish color and about the size of a little fingernail and flat as a sheet of paper. They lived off the blood of humans, snakes and other living creatures. Once they got on your body, you didn’t brush them off. You literally pried them off. It was like trying to peel off a postage stamp inadvertently attached to the wrong envelope.

During tick season, every time we took a hike, mother subjected us to a comprehensive body search. When she found one, she headed for the kitchen cook stove in which there was almost always a fire. She dropped the tick on that hot surface and it made a little “poof,” and that was the demise of one tick.

If the tick was not discovered for a day or two after it had buried its head in its victim, care was exercised to not leave the head embedded when the tick was removed. If that happened, a nasty sore could result. If a tick was not discovered early, its body would swell to about the size of a cranberry — a purplish red cranberry.

Tick bites could cause Rocky Mountain Fever, known also as spotted fever — not a good disease to have.

I don’t think a doctor would agree, but it seems to me that all of the happenings in Eastern Oregon that could have resulted in white-coat syndrome would have provided us with immunity to such.

And although we weren’t wearing masks, with regard to rattlers and black widows and scorpions, we indeed were very careful about our distancing.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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