The Mystery of Shaniko

There isn't anything you need to know about Shaniko, Oregon.

It's a tiny town, hardly more than a two lane dusty road in the scrub land of eastern Oregon. Even its Wikipedia entry introduces it as the neighbor of Antelope, a slightly larger ghost town which was once taken over by the Orange People of the Rajneesh movement. For travelers through Oregon, Shaniko is little more than a place to get gas on your way to somewhere else. And so it seemed when I visited as a teenager, riding along with a friend's family for a camping trip. We were only there for perhaps 20 minutes, but I think about it all the time.

The first sign we saw introduced the small scattering of buildings ahead, "Shaniko, population 24". The next sign was the speed limit, 25. We chuckled a bit at the thought that, with just one more resident, they could combine the signs. A dust cloud kicked up behind our vehicle as we pulled into town, illustrating the need for the speed limit. The gas station was also the store, the post office, and I would guess the entire center of commerce for Shaniko. 

Inside, a kind lady greeted us with the enthusiasm reserved for tourists, quickly luring us in to a spiel about the town's history. She explained that it was a gold miner's camp turned into a massive farmland after the Civil War, politely skipping over the military effort to remove a Native American presence in the area in between the two. I was too young then to understand, but it tends to be the case in Oregon that the settlements were built on bitter bones.

She told us it was the "Wool capital of the world" at the turn of the 20th century, and how the water tower we'd seen on our way in was actually the town's jail. "There isn't really any crime here, but sometimes we'll put a drunk up there to sleep the night off." 

The big news, she continued without even pausing for breath, was the Heritage Parade only a few weeks away. Everyone in town dresses up in old-fashion miner and farmer outfits, and a handful of musically inclined residents form a marching band to play the town's song. "The parade has to walk down the street and back up to make sure there's time for the whole song to play," she said, perfectly aware of how amusing that must sound but proud of it anyway. To be honest, the love I have for Shaniko Oregon is founded in the joy that charming cashier had for sharing the story.

So when she stopped abruptly mid-sentence, and the smile fell from her face like a cat rolling off a bed, we all immediately knew something serious was about to happen.

A man walked into the store, wearing a dark cowboy hat (which he did not remove), a leather jacket, and boots. Her eyes were locked onto him, with blatant suspicion creeping across her pursed lips. The shop was silent but for the rattling fan she had running behind the counter.

Without a word, the man walked over to the condiment counter, grabbed a small plastic cup, and filled it with two scoops of horseradish. He sealed it with a lid, turned around, and walked out. The lady let out a long breath, which served as a reminder to the rest of us to start breathing again too. She shook her head gently, still watching the man as he got in his truck and drove off.

"That man has been coming in here every day for a week, grabbing a little horseradish, and leaving. Doesn't buy anything. Doesn't say anything. Doesn't even dip anything into it, just eats it off his finger. And not a single person in town has any idea who he is."

Admittedly, taking a free condiment is pretty low on the list of things to be worried about, but the utter mystery in her voice gave this the gravitas of the best suspense novels. Immediately, my mind began to wonder what brings a man to crave horseradish so much, what rumors must run wild at night between the gossiping residents. Would someone strike up the nerve to have a conversation with the strange man, or are they all as suspicious as she was of him? Would she put up a sign requiring a purchase before using the free condiments?

I'm sorry to tell you that I don't have any answers to those questions. We wrapped up our purchase of soda and snacks, thanked the lady for telling us about the town, and left. It was 20 minutes of a Saturday in a summer, somewhere around 2002. An almost inconsequential blip in my timeline. But it sits as an unfinished puzzle in my mind, a glimpse into a strange slice of life, so disconnected from the things I found important at the time. At times, I'll idly daydream a background story for the mysterious horseradish-loving stranger, or imagine the town setting up some kind of makeshift stakeout to find out where he comes from. Other times, I simply wonder how long that mystery gave the town something to talk about.

Sure enough, the fact that I don't know the whole story is what keeps it in my mind. Perhaps the folk of Shaniko enjoyed not knowing more than they'd enjoy finding out. I do.

I don't have any plans to go back to Shaniko, or even to that side of the mountains. But, if some strange future sets me on a lonely stretch of Route 97, I'd happily pull in to spend another 20 minutes there. I'd return to the same little store and hear about whatever was making the news that day. But this time, I think I'll have to try the horseradish for myself.

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