I didn’t meet Mildred Kanipe until thirty-eight years after her death. I stumbled upon her homestead and grave by accident, along an obscure back road between London and Oakland.
Around here, it’s less than an hour’s drive from London to Oakland. These are not the great cities but their rural Oregon namesakes, mere pinpoints along a map few have cause to follow.
The day I met Mildred, I had no destination there either. I only went for the journey. As much as I’d prefer to leave cars behind, the pandemic has shifted my personal world. With so many places closed, there are few places to go when I need a break from the constancy of home. So I’ve taken to reviving the century-old tradition of Sunday drives, grateful to live in a place where the network of gravel forest roads and thin two-lanes is extensive. Having no destination gives me cause to explore all the roads instead of none. I’ve become dedicated to learning my own territory, and it has expanded my horizons. Pandemic closure has become an opening to discovery of nearby beauty.
Leaving London via Shoestring Road, I don’t see another moving car. The only pedestrian I see is a man walking a goat on a leash. Sometimes the road is paved, sometimes it isn’t. I disappear into the grace of gravel and potholes, through farms and valleys and hills rarely visited by others than the few who live here. They appear almost as visitors from another century, yet are fully of this moment. Driving through reminds me of one of my favorite childhood books, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, in which a child finds a magic tollbooth and electric car in his room, and drives into all sorts of surreal and illuminating adventures. My childhood visions of parallel adventure have come true in a strange way.
I’m almost to Oakland, deep into serenity and solitary motion, when a surprisingly developed sign looms out of the driving rain: “Mildred Kanipe Memorial Park.” It indicates options for hiking, horse riding, picnicking, and history. Intrigued, I pull in.
There are no other cars in the soaked parking lot. I’m greeted instead by two dozen peacocks, whom I soon suspect are descendants of ones Mildred kept here ages ago. I learn that she took on an old family farm, ranched it alone, then donated its 1,100 acres to the county upon her passing. She left instructions that the land, trees and animals be cared for and shared with generations to come. I feel kinship with her immediately. I leave with a promise to return soon, given more time and less rain.
I keep my promise a week later, again meeting no moving cars. This time, the only man on foot waves at me as if I’m a long-lost brother. The peacocks are waiting, surrounded by ancient farm buildings finding new grace in decay. I photograph the ranch map for reference and head out. Sheltered by oaks, grasses, and forests of ferns under firs, I see legacy as much as landscape. I see a vision for what we leave behind, and how.
Mildred’s vision of legacy was not a grand one. It is only one farm. It isn’t the majestic wilderness of the great national parks. Yet it serves countless local souls in their quest to find peace through land connection, right where they are. If there is even one Mildred in each of our small areas, then a lasting legacy is left for many. There are places for others to be found even when they only seek to momentarily get lost. Arrival and leaving are twins.
Others begin to arrive too, as the Sunday sun rises higher. A man is here training a search and rescue dog. A father and son bring mountain bikes, which they’re soon walking through mud up a steep hill. Hoof prints are everywhere, but I see no horses or riders. I do see two cows, whose dull yet focused attention upon me is emotionally opaque. The skeletal winter oaks appear to me to be dancers. Devoid of leaves in winter, their hosted lichens shine. I discover a trunk that has newly fallen, becoming a place to rest and watch that wasn’t here a week ago. I’m probably the first to repurpose it. I notice that all of us in this landscape, whether human or plant or animal, have vastly different relationships to it. In its spaciousness, there is room for that. I appreciate that the trail signs are still minimal. We each have to find our own way.
After hiking, I decide to sit in stillness to think about how Mildred’s modest legacy applies to what my mother has left, and to what I intend to leave next. Numerous picnic tables have been placed near the gracefully decaying buildings, so I choose one in sunlight for lunch.
I quickly learn that peacocks are like dogs, when food is at hand. Suddenly several are staring at me with the pure intensity of the sun. That a peacock would crave a turkey sandwich never occurred to me. Generations of them have passed down institutional knowledge about picnics, however. If I set my sandwich down for even a moment, a beautiful annoying miracle of a bird would steal it without remorse. I’ve met people like that too. I wonder what kinship Mildred felt with these birds, in her own beauty and hunger. They are her legacy too.
It’s difficult to think about legacies while defending my sandwich. It gives me an opportunity to closely study the glow of peacock feathers, though—I look at the birds as intently as they do my sandwich. I don’t have enough hands to eat and photograph at once, so mostly I let photos stay untaken, in favor of focus on other nourishment.
I walk by Mildred’s grave on the way back to my car, and read the plaque’s details of how she asked to be buried, including the exacting position of her feet. I feel a sense of Mildred asking a question: When a stranger walks past your own grave, decades after your passing, what will you have left for them? What do you intend to leave, and what might the real results be?
Few of us have the opportunity to leave something akin to a thousand-acre farm. But we’re all gifted the opportunity to leave a small mark, within the humble realms of our effectiveness. Our legacy might be in words, deeds, emotions, service work, beyond. It may be as random as hungry peacocks. There are no limits to the forms of gifts left for future strangers.
Mildred’s question feels directed to those unknown. She didn’t have children, and neither did I. We can’t leave things to direct descendants who don’t exist. That necessitates leaving them for others beyond bloodline. That’s an opportunity all of us have. To leave a better world for others, it’s necessary to think in those terms. Maybe Mildred asks you too: What will you leave for those you can never know, across a distance of generations? Mildred’s question is an essential one, spoken in the silence beyond her passing. I celebrate both the silence and the question, which may take years to answer—as many years as our lives permit.