The Crooked Story of the Crooked River Bridge

On the way home from our travels in Central Oregon, we were driving up highway 97, admiring the views of the many snow-capped dormant volcanoes visible in the distance. The area we were in was relatively flat, and had been for some time, but then, about 9 miles north of Redmond, Oregon, the scenery changed in a startling way. This deep, deep canyon opened up, just like that. This merited further investigation.

Fortunately, the Peter Skene Ogden State Scenic Viewpoint is right by the highway, on the south rim of the canyon. And from there, you can also walk out on the Crooked River Bridge, which is 295 feet above the canyon floor. It’s a beautiful area. I was really glad we stopped. Check out this video about it.

Despite the beautiful surroundings, I got this odd vibe from the place from the very start. Perhaps it had something to do with this weird little sign in the parking lot.

Crooked Sign

I mean, yes, it’s a deep, deep canyon, and one should be careful. But this sign seems to indicate that a) dogs are more valuable than children, b) there isn’t a waist-high wall protecting you from the drop off, when in fact there is one, and c) an awful lot of Oregonians must be “helping” their valuable dogs over that wall to plunge to their deaths.

And then, to add to the strange atmosphere, there seemed to be more cars in the parking lot than people in the park. Where had all these folks gone? I shuddered to think.

But we did encounter two people. Along the path that leads to the cliff, there were a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses, armed with their ubiquitous pamphlets. This struck me as a rather odd place to stand if your goal is to increase your flock. We probably were the first people they had encountered in hours, and they could tell just by looking at us that they would be wasting their time even trying to talk to us, so they didn’t.

I don’t know. Maybe a lot of people go there who are in despair. It kind of bugged me to think that this duo was attempting to proselytize to people who are vulnerable. But I suppose any help is better than none. Perhaps their intentions were good. (I do tend to forget that, when crossing paths with people who are trying to convert me, because I would never presume to do that to someone else. I believe everyone should choose their own spiritual path.)

Anyway, then we approached the cliff. I was almost afraid to look down. I half expected to see a bunch of dogs along with the owners of the parked cars, all in a grisly, twisted heap. But no. Nothing but the beautiful river below.

After enjoying this view, we then walked out onto the Crooked River Bridge. This two lane bridge used to be highway 97’s bridge across the canyon, but traffic has since increased, and Oregon’s Department of Transportation began constructing the current highway bridge in 1990. I could imagine Model A Fords puttering across this old one, and it made me smile.

After we left, I still couldn’t shake the eerie feeling about the place, though. And then I started doing research for this post, and here’s what I discovered.

According to this article, in 1961, Jeannance Freeman and Gertrude Jackson decided that Jackson’s children were interfering with their love affair. So they took the children to this park. Jackson left the vehicle, and came back to discover that Freeman had stripped her son of all of his clothing and then beat him unconscious with a tire iron. Jackson then took off her daughter’s shirt. The couple then threw both children, still alive, off the bridge. (Fair warning about that article, though. There’s a rather disgusting image of what one assumes is the son, now inexplicably clothed, dead on the floor of the canyon.)

Jackson later turned state’s evidence and was sentenced to life in prison, while Freeman was sentenced to death. She was the first woman ever sentenced to death in Oregon. The sentence was later commuted to life. Jackson only served time for seven years, and Freeman was released on parole after 20 years, but violated that parole by threatening a new lover with a knife because she refused to go to the store to buy cigarettes. She died in prison in 2003.

So, yeah, that’s the crooked story of the Crooked River Bridge. Needless to say, none of that information was put on a cheerful little information placard in the park. It’s a place well worth visiting, but don’t be surprised if it feels a little bit off to you, for a variety of reasons.

Crooked River and its Bridge

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Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Believe me, I know how excruciating it can be to sit through other people’s vacation photos. You’re happy for them, yes, and a little envious. But beyond that… you’ll never get that hour back.

But guess what. Nanny nanny poo poo. This is my blog! I know I’ve already written about Arches National Park and the cool rock art I encountered, but oh, I’m not done yet.

Comparing Canyonlands to Arches is like comparing apples to oranges. Utah is funny that way. 30 miles down the road, the terrain completely changes. Heading into Canyonlands, it begins to look a lot more like the Grand Canyon. The rocks turn from red to tan and chocolate brown, and you see hazy blue mountains in the distance. You are treated to dramatic river valleys and insane switchback roads. You still see some arches, but you encounter more buttes. You are blown away by the distance to the horizon, and by the influence the flow of water has on the landscape over time.

Sadly, for much of this park you need a four-wheel drive, or extreme hiking chops, neither of which I possess. But what we did see was stunning. Beyond stunning.

According to the National Parks Service website, Native Americans first visited the area over 10,000 years ago. And then came a long line of European explorers, culminating in the official expedition by John Wesley Powell down the Green and Colorado Rivers. Miners and Ranchers did a great job of tearing the place up for a while there. Then Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964, just a few months before I was born. If you ever get a chance to check this area out, I highly recommend it.

What follows are some of the pictures we took during our visit. I wish cameras did it justice!

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A Real Cliffhanger

Back in 2005, I took a trip out west with my boyfriend at the time to Canyon De Chelly because I had a fascination with all things Anasazi. The canyon is now a national monument, but people have been living there for almost 5,000 years. Currently about 40 Navajo families are in residence. As with most of the rest of Arizona, the landscape is stunning.

Wide Canyon VIew

To go into the canyon itself you need to take a tour or get a permit. We opted to go horseback riding with a Navajo guide. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone manages to live there, because it is, in essence, a big bowl of sand. If not for the horses, we’d have been slogging along in calf high sand the vast majority of the time, with only the occasional grove of olive trees for shade, and no water to speak of.

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Our guide took us to see some beautiful petroglyphs, and then, further along, some ancient cliff dwellings high above the canyon floor. I asked him if he had ever climbed up there, and he said, “No, because it would affect our bodies.”

I thought that was a curious response, and it had me reflecting upon the great cultural divide between me and this man, who had not spoken much at all up to this point. He began to interest me more than the landscape we were travelling through. I’d ask him questions. He’d pause, as if considering the best way to dole out his words in the most economical fashion. Then he’d respond.

“Have you always lived in this area?” Pause. “Yes. Always.”

Hours later, after his occasional brief response to my inquiries, for some reason the dam seemed to break. When I asked him if he’d ever been outside of this area he paused for a long time. Then he told me the following story.

“One time these people came here and booked a 3 day tour. The lady liked one of our horses so much that she offered to buy it, but she wanted us to deliver it to her home near Boston. So we did. We drove the whole way without stopping. Through many lands. Then we saw Boston.”

“Did you get to see the ocean?”

“Yes.”

“What did you think?”

“It was very big.”

I will always have a mental image of this man gazing out at the Atlantic as if he had just arrived from another planet. “Then we came home.”

At the end of the tour we said our good byes and I realized that this man had a much greater impact on me than I had on him. To him, I’m sure, I was like a brief wind. I wasn’t the first. I wouldn’t be the last. But to me, he was like a stone monument. He would always be there in my mind.

That night we camped, and the next day we drove along the rim of the canyon, stopping at each of the overlooks to take in the stunning views. At the last overlook, the eerie western silence was broken by a strange sound. I couldn’t identify it, and the first time I heard it, I thought it must have been my imagination. Then there it was again.

“Did you hear that?”

“No. What?”

“That!”

I got down on my hands and knees, and stuck my head over the side of the cliff, and sure enough, on a ledge about 3 feet below us was a skinny little puppy. He was shivering and crying.

“Oh, shit. We can’t just leave it.”

“Barb, it’s a 1,000 foot drop.”

“I know. But if I drive away and leave that dog, I’ll never be able to live with myself.”

And before he could say anything, I lowered myself down to the ledge, which, thank God, supported my weight. Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down…I grabbed the puppy, handed it to my boyfriend, climbed back up and walked as far away from the rim as I could get so as not to have the panic attack that I could feel trying to overtake me.

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Alrighty then. Next. Feed the puppy. And man, he was hungry. He ate half our picnic lunch. I would have loved to keep him, but Florida was a long way away. So we took him to the ranger station, and they told us they’d bring him to a no kill shelter at the nearest town. We had one request.

“Tell them his name is Cliff.”