The well-loved local journalist Jim Witty wasn't the kind of guy to go through life with a lot of regrets, but when Jim died at age 50 of a heart attack in his home, he left behind one piece of unfinished business - a yet-to-be-completed compilation of his fine work cataloging his decade of trekking around Central and Eastern Oregon's wide open spaces. As his many local readers recall, he chronicled his deliberate wanderings in his weekly Outings columns for The Bulletin where Jim had worked as a journalist and feature writer up until his unexpected death. The pieces were delivered in Jim's signature laid-back, lyrical style but also filled with his keen observations about the natural world around him and sprinkled with colorful histories.
A modest guy who showed up to work in sunglasses and jeans on most days, Jim was aware that his stories represented something more than just a few scattered sketches. Together they paint a picture of Central Oregon's byways, juniper forests and desert vistas - a day tripper's almanac to the High Desert's quiet retreats.
Jim had for years contemplated the idea of publishing the columns as a collection in book format. According to his widow, Lori, Jim had broached the subject with his managers at the newspaper and even begun collecting notes and photos in his study at home.
When Jim died his family and close friends picked up the project as a way to honor him. With the blessing of The Bulletin, Lori and a small group of friends and family spent months combing through Jim's columns, teasing out the gems. They updated information when possible to make it an accurate guide book for travelers, added photos - most of which were shot by Jim during his travels - and arranged the stories by geographic region for easy reference. The result is the recently published book Meet Me In The Badlands: Exploring Central Oregon With Jim Witty. The project was a labor of love for the book team which included Lori, Jim's mother, his siblings and his close friends, Mark and Linda Quon. It's also been somewhat unexpectedly successful. The book team is preparing for a second run after going through the initial 500 copies, some of which are still available at local bookstores and outdoors shops, like Pine Mountain Sports. Proceeds from the sale benefit the memorial fund set up in Jim's name for Lori and his sons Keven and Danny.
It wasn't an easy process logistically or emotionally. The sting of Jim's sudden death was still raw for his family and friends who dove into the project just a few weeks after his funeral. But they also found comfort in his words.
"It was therapeutic at times and at times it was harder than hell. For me, personally, you're reading through these columns and you couldn't help but hear Jim's voice," said Lori, a self-professed city girl who sometimes accompanied Jim on his excursions.
She recalled how Jim could become totally consumed in his environment, unconcerned with things like distances or bathroom facilities.
"Nature was his second skin. His mouth watered at the thought that he could see a cougar," Lori said.
While the prospect of an encounter with a big cat inspired a totally different reaction in herself, she - like many others - found Jim's enthusiasm infectious. It's a feeling that Jim was able to consistently convey to his companions and to thousands of readers who picked up his column each week - some of whom were well beyond their adventuring years but still living vicariously through Jim's writing. In all, the book contains nearly 100 of Jim's published columns from cycling around Phil's trail to bird hunting with his dog, Howdy, outside Brothers. But most of the destinations are hiking and sight seeing outings that are within a few minutes to an hour's drive from Bend and Redmond. By breaking the columns up by region (Northeast, Southeast, etc.) the book transforms into an easy guide for weekend warriors. The columns each contain general maps and more detailed directions to places like Stein's Pillar in the Ochocos and Crack in Ground at Fort Rock where Jim proposed to Lori in the old homesteader's cabin and later married her in front of two dozen friends and family members.
But the compilation, which includes family photos and additional writings and tributes from friends as well as a tribute/introduction from fellow High Desert scribe Rick Steber is more than just a reference book. It's a glimpse into the soul of an artist and a poet.
"You get a really good look at Central Oregon, but you also get a really good look at Jim," Lori said.
And for those of us who knew Jim, it's a glimpse worth savoring.
Meet Me In The Badlands: Exploring Central Oregon with Jim Witty
$19.95 . Proceeds go to the Jim Witty Memorial Fund.