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Charles Finn: The Route 20 Barn 

The Highway 20 Barn is standing tall and serves as a tribute to the sculpting of the sun, wind and rain.

click to enlarge charles-finn_new-route-20-barn-photo.jpg

A few years ago, driving west on Highway 20, after rising out of Tumalo, a faded red barn stood not far off the side of the road, slouched there like some kind of colossal beast leaning its great and sleeping weight against the endemic sunshine. Like so many of its kind, the paw of gravity rested heavy upon it and it looked as if caught in the very act of falling down, propped up by nothing more substantial than an incorrigible will. Glimpsed even at 55 miles per hour, its humble lines and stately bearing were immediately recognizable - it stood, undefended, profoundly graceful in the center of its field. The barn is still there, but in recent years has been stabilized and now rises straight and true, its vertical board and batten siding severely established and august against the high desert sky. I can't blame the owners for shoring it up, and even applaud them, but to my way of thinking, and once upon a time, the barn and its beauty were more sublime.


The first time I saw the barn I pulled my truck to the side of the road across from it. If there are small pleasures in the world, I thought, by all means take time to enjoy them. Studying the barn through the windshield I admired the gentle lines and organic posture of its walls, and I was reminded of bed sheets drying on a line, their limp forms impregnated by a billowing wind. A tension existed there also, felt in the inevitable collapse, a slow-motion free fall 100 years long. Stationed so close to the road, I felt the barn crossed from the strictly functional aspect of agriculture into the more ethereal hayfield of art. More than any other structure I could think of, it was a performance piece.

Getting out of the truck, I hopped the fence and crossed the dry field; trespassing. The gabled end that faced east was windowless, a sheer wall of wood rising in a perfect bell curve. The barn was (and is) fashioned in the traditional prairie style, a sharp eyebrow pointed as a bird's beak jutting out at the peak. On the day I went to see it, a man-sized door yawned open on the far side and a grainy blackness issued from within. Stepping through, sunlight dappled the earthen floor and a geometry of shapes began to appear. Looking up, I peered through the fretwork of beams to a skeleton of wood exposed like the rib cage of an animal. It was peaceful, quiet, and yet I could imagine the wind siphoning through the rafters and holes - delicate, sweet, haunting chords no guitar or harp could be persuaded to play.

I realize now it was the formalism of the dilapidated structure that was striking. The beauty of the unintentional that brought me there. Like a painting in a museum, I was there just to look, see and feel. That the barn was not entirely man-made is what gave it such appeal. Wind, sun, rain and snow had sculpted it. Time, the chief architect, had tweaked and tugged it from its initial form into something else. Meanwhile, the wind had removed a majority of shingles, while the sun had chosen from its infinite palette a slim variety of browns, bone grays and tans. And unlike so many structures erected today, the barn carried with it the candor and natural equipoise of a wild animal.

As I made my way through the barn, I was reminded how some years before I was seeking shelter from a rainstorm and spent the better part of an hour in a very similar barn. On that day, I was fortunate to have had the company of a horse, Lightfoot by name. We were both wet, our shoulders steaming, and I remember our shadows being thrown on the walls with each flash of lighting. He was good company, that horse, and the barn was equal to the storm. When the tremendous noise on the roof slackened, I bid adieu and made my final dash home.

I used to work taking down old barns and buildings. Untrammeled shadows are a joy to me. A lack of right angles pleases the eye. On the afternoon I stopped to examine the barn, I walked three times around it. I nodded to the invisible. As always, I was reminded that I, too, exist temporarily in the sunshine, that I, too, am buckled and swayed, and that like that barn, one day my bones will be scattered across the desert, bleached and mouse gnawed, the afternoon wind whistling through.

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