- Nancy Townsley
- Forest Grove News-Times - Features
Musician and jewelry artist Rob Roy aims to pen a novel about the gold rush town of Granite, Ore., which remains close to his heart
nspiration often comes late at night, long after everyone else at Haven House has gone to sleep.
Rob Roy, one of the newer residents at the adult foster care home in Forest Gale Heights, grabs a notepad and pen and starts to write. Like smoke from a Native American campfire, stories migrate from his mind to the paper in black funnels and thin, white wisps.
A full moon shown down upon the weed-laden cemetery of Granite, Oregon. Many of its underground inhabitants had no say in where they would be planted, when they would be planted or the deathly circumstances around why they would be planted . . .
The former choral director, harpsichord builder and insurance salesman is a couple thousand words into his magnum opus, a full-length novel about the gold rush days in Granite, Ore., Roy's childhood haunt.
'I'm just barely beginning,' Roy admitted. 'But it's extremely exciting.'
His working title is 'The Ghosts of Granite.' Based on historical fact, the book contains fictitious characters that come alive in Roy's imagination.
'It starts in the Granite Cemetery, surrounded by a pole fence and a full moon shining above,' drawls Roy, who grew up in Pendleton and came to western Washington County - first to Newberg and then to Forest Grove - two years ago to be near his children and grandchildren.
Roy's father, Ted, took him on camping trips to Granite a couple times a year while he was growing up. It was a formative time for Roy, who forged a strong connection to the town that drew hundreds of prospectors after gold was discovered in 1862.
'Nowadays there are 20 people who live there,' said Roy, sitting amid stacks of old musical manuscripts, plastic bins brimming with craft beads and a half-dozen Pendleton Woolen Mills blankets.
He grimaces, suddenly remembering that his computer is currently on the fritz.
'It's taking way too long to fix,' Roy said with a shrug. 'I might have to break down and get a laptop.'
At 70, Roy has been a lot of places in his life. He's spent time teaching music to kids from the Umatilla Confederated Tribes reservation in eastern Oregon and directed choirs in Scotland.
He led the Action for Handicapped program for adults in Pendleton and sold insurance for New York Life.
The father of four grown children, Roy has also endured eight spinal surgeries and an open-heart surgery. He's under treatment for emphysema, requiring as many as four liters of oxygen.
Until recently, he didn't walk for seven years and used an electric scooter to get around.
Last July he landed in the hospital for a collapsed lung and experienced what he believes was a spiritual epiphany.
'I was pretty drugged up - you could say I was in la-la land,' Roy said, leaning forward for emphasis. 'I was looking up at the ceiling and I saw the silhouettes of Native Americans hovering over me.
'They were friends of mine who have died, and they stared at me. It really got my attention.'
What shook him more than anything else, however, was the filmy presence of his father in the room that night.
'My dad came walking through,' Roy recalled. 'He's been gone for 25 years. We'd always been the best of friends.'
Ted Roy looked at his son, Rob said, and 'he nodded at me,' as if to beckon.
'I don't use these words, but I said, 'goddamn you, I'm not gonna go',' Roy insisted. Then and there, he made a vow to start living again: physically, emotionally and spiritually.
The ghosts of Granite - and their stories - would be his guides.
The Granite Cemetery carried not a nighttime invitation, except for the ghosts that soothed and taunted their dirt-covered residents. It is said that they delight in dancing on the grave of Jack Powers, frozen to death on Greenhorn Mountain . . .
Using a needle and thread, Roy spends entire afternoons in his room at Haven House joining turquoise stones with silver beads, creating dozens of bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
Lately he's been attracted to a particular kind of medallion - a small, beaded cylinder cradling the end of a whitened deer horn. Roy uses it to anchor a necklace that might have graced the neck of Chief Joseph himself.
'It's something I like to do, and it keeps me busy,' he said simply. 'I build all kinds of stuff.'
There's a remote-controlled ship in one corner, a replica of an early Massachusetts fishing boat called the Sequoia. Roy took it out on Henry Hagg Lake last summer, and it 'performed real well,' he said.
Several stained-glass pieces, including a hanging lamp and a cuckoo clock, were made by Roy's hands.
Then there's 'Limber Jack,' a jointed wooden doll Roy brought to the Forest Grove Farmers Market in recent weeks, where he volunteered to run an art table for children.
'It's been a joyous experience,' said Roy, thumbing through an album containing pictures of children's beaming faces.
On Oct. 11, the market's final day, they made clay bowls and figurines together.
'I've always worked with kids, starting in the choir room at Pendleton High School in 1960,' Roy said. 'They keep me young.
'I certainly don't feel 70. I look at other people my age and I say, 'those are old folks.''
Roy's own children, grownups ranging in age from 36 to 50, encouraged him to come west when his health started to fail. Son Wendell, a computer engineer, accompanied Roy on a return trip to Granite in late September.
'It was a wonderful time,' Roy said, his eyes lighting up. 'I saw some old friends and continued my research on the Chinese population there. But there's still so much to do.'
Roy aims to do a meticulous job documenting the tales that came out of Granite. Characters' names might be made up, but the stories are real, he insists.
There's the one about beloved sheriff Edward 'Bud' Morrow, who was shot to death by a woman who lived across the street because her husband lost to Morrow in an election that decided who'd keep the law in town.
Morrow apparently had practiced a bit of diplomacy once when a gang of bikers roared into town.
'He didn't know what to make of them, so he welcomed them and indicated he hoped they'd be peaceable,' Roy said. 'The story goes that before the bikers walked away, Morrow pulled a coin out of his pocket, tossed it into the air and shot a hole right through the middle of it with his .45.
'Later, he told a friend that he always kept a coin in his pocket with a hole shot through the middle, for just such an occasion.'
Today's residents of Granite are 'mountain people,' Roy noted. 'Their English is their own, and they still solve serious problems with their guns.'
He figures he owes the town a debt of gratitude for its role in his development, but there's another reason he's writing his novel.
'I think eastern Oregon has gotten the short end of the historical stick when it comes to the written word,' Roy said. 'I want to try and change that.'
The area's significance in the settling of the West continues to nag at Roy, compelling him to sit at the keyboard and write.
In 1864, he said, Auburn, Ore., just 20 miles from Granite, boasted a population of 6,000 - the second largest community in the state next to Oregon City.
'Gold was the commodity for which that area was settled,' insisted Roy.
Two years later, when the mines dried up, Auburn did too. 'Population zero,' deadpanned Roy. 'That's an amazing story.'
Granite, a dry and desolate place except for the 'golden mountains' on its perimeter, was populated only by Native Americans before the first cry of 'gold!,' Roy said.
'That changed everything. It became a white culture, and very rapidly. The Indians were forced to adapt.'
Roy feels a kind of cultural kinship with Oregon's Native Americans, having attended numerous Indian funerals and pow-wows while living and working in Pendleton.
'I haven't been to a sweat lodge, but I'd like to go,' he said. The cleansing ceremony, he believes, would provide him with 'a religious, spiritual experience' he yearns after.
Then one day, folk heard it say, 'there is a Golden Mountain.' Some thought it like their endless search for Ponce de Leon's youthful fountain. But thousands rushed to these mountains from under and over the planet. And it did unfold where rocks yield gold - that special place became Granite . . .
Roy has secured the talents of Newberg resident Nancy Travers, the former head of the Clackamas Community College art department, to illustrate his book.
Travers has done 'a wonderful job' capturing the spirit of the area in her bright, detailed pictures, Roy said.
If his novel is successful, Roy would love to see it hit the silver screen.
'It's got merchants, miners, preachers and teachers,' Roy noted. 'The characters are woods-wise and book-poor, but they're very, very real.'
For Roy, it's a labor of love that has given him a new lease on life. With a medical alert bracelet on one hand and a wrist brace on the other, he's keenly aware of his limitations.
Nowadays, though, they're nearly invisible to him, and only serve to propel him forward.
'I've had my wake-up call, and I'm not going back,' Roy said, his eyes narrowing with determination.
His dual goals - walking with a cane and completing the book - seem within his grasp when Roy remembers his father and the special place they visited together so many years ago.
'Granite holds a real connection for me, first with my dad and then my own kids,' Roy said, popping a pinch of chewing tobacco into his mouth. 'We always went to Granite.'