Monday, August 25, 2014

The Muse of the Wild in Eastern Oregon (Part One)

Sandhill Cranes

The Muse of Wild Country

In the beginning this was Dan’s Muse. Years ago, in the days before Power Point, Dan and I were invited by Verneice Thompson to attend a lecture and slide show by her husband, Jim Hammond. Only Verneice could have persuaded us to go to a slide show presentation about someone’s trip to see birds in Eastern Oregon. She was a brilliant and vital woman, a social worker, psychotherapist and leader of Tavistock Groups—a mentor to each of us,in different ways. She died way too young, in 1993, leaving a deep imprint.

Verneice Thompo
We went to Jim’s lecture, sometime in the mid 80s, out of respect for Verneice. But Jim made a strong impression on his own. He inspired our journey some 30 years later. I can see him still, a bird man, flapping his great wings in his passion for the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and the birds it protects, especially the sandhill cranes. He had slides of cranes flying, trumpeter swans flying—flocks of large white wings. His stories remained with Dan, inspiring him to go into the wild, unexplored parts of Eastern Oregon, where the Wild West was only yesterday.

One of Dan’s creative expressions is trip planning. Recently he decided the time had come to follow the promptings of Jim Hammond’s ghost. But there was a problem—me. Dan likes adventure on vacation. I like to vacate, contemplate, write. I like good beds, fine food and wine. But there is no charming town near the Malheur Refuge. In fact, there’s no town to speak of for miles. Dan had to persuade me that long hours in the car would be worth it. He has a way of coaxing me out of my comfort zone, getting me to go places I never knew I needed to go.

So it is that we fly to Boise, rent a car and drive 188 miles (3 hours and 40 minutes) to Burns, Oregon— the gas, food, and overnight stopping place on the way to Malheur—which is another 40 miles. Dan has promised a lovely place for lunch on the way out of Boise. The Cottonwood Grille is unexpectedly elegant, and the food delicious. The Maitre D’ asks where we are headed. “Burns,” we say. “That’s in the middle of nowhere.” He wasn’t kidding.

The long drive through strange volcanic mountains tinged with mosses is stark, broken up only by the occasional river valley. We see few other cars. Then suddenly God’s fingers in the form of dark rays reach through the clouds to touch our road and the countryside. Later we realize that the haze from many wildfires intensified the effect. Maybe you have to be in the middle of nowhere to experience such sights.

Burns is now a truck stop, but with a complex history. The main drag offers fast food joints, a Dairy Queen, The Sands RV Park, Eddie’s Truck and Auto Center, John Deere Tractors, Les Schwab Tires, Glory Days Pizza and The Knotty Pine Motel, vintage 1950, which is for sale. So, it seems, is half the town. Though Burns is frequented by firefighters as a rest stop, it is in fact named for the poet Robert Burns, beloved by the town’s founders. I don’t find much poetic about the town until we arrive at the Sage Country Inn, a lovely B & B where we stay in “Kathreen’s Room.” Dan has found us a treasure.

Sage Country Inn, Burns, Oregon

Sage Country Inn front yard and visitor

It’s not “nowhere” when you can sit on the front porch of a fine old mansion, dating from 1907, and watch the evening light fade. You feel you are somewhere quiet and profound. A great blue spruce and ancient poplars dominate the front yard and protect you from the sight and sound of the busy main street with trucks and Safeway. Mike and Corinne, who run this gracious inn, are generous with wonderful breakfasts and stories about the town and it’s environs. Corinne makes soaps and lotions, which she sells in the front parlor. Mike maintains the large property and trims the trees himself. We feel we have arrived in another time.

The Muse of Wild Horses

At breakfast we meet Donna and Ken, who live in Ashland but stop in Burns often on their way to visit a daughter and grandchild in Idaho. Were we planning to see The Steens, they wondered. I have never heard of such a place. Dan knows enough to think it is too far away and the roads are too rough for a rental car. The Steens, they tell us, is an amazing mountain in the middle of the high desert. You can drive to the top, almost a mile above the high desert. You will see great gorges created by glaciers during the last ice-age. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of the wild horses of Kiger Gorge. Wild Horses? My muse is all ears. I was a wild horse girl as a child. The wild horse is my totem, my animal guide into the wilds of poetry. I want to go to The Steens.

North Road to Steens Mountain

It is a very long drive. The high desert swoops down to marshland, back up to desert punctuated by long flat stretches—the road as straight as a ruler until it lifts into shimmer. After 60 miles of Dan driving, me going in and out of a logy trance, we arrive at Frenchglen, a tiny village at the beginning of the gravel mountain road. Frenchglen has an old hotel and Mercantile Store. A big burly guy in a Pendelton shirt, despite 90° weather, stands in front of the store and watches us get out of our car. As Dan pushes his car key button the guy says: “Did you lock that car?” and snorts, contemptuously, “No car’s ever been stolen in Frenchglen!” Turns out he runs the store. He’s been away for 25 years. He’s come back because “If I got to die, I don’t want to die looking at city people.” I say, “You are looking at city people.” “Not when I sit on my bench, smoke my pipe, watch the clouds” he responds. “Then I know it’s worth it.”

Steens Mountain sneaks up on you. You’re driving on a gravel road that makes a slow ascent through juniper and scrub. You don’t realize it’s a mountain because you’re not approaching it through foothills or seeing a peak. At the top it’s fifty miles long. E.R. Jackman, in a beautiful book about the mountain (Steens Mountain in Oregon’s High Desert Country) describes it as a “fault mountain,” a “lonely mountain with no close relatives.” Up and up we drive. When we reach the outlook for Kiger Gorge we gasp at the sight— a wild slalom of green that runs down the gorge and up again. This is where great glaciers flowed through the basalt of Eastern Oregon. On one side of the gorge a rocky steep slope rises to a long rock wall of green.

Kiger Gorge

On the other side we catch a glimpse of the Alvord basin, which is extremely hot and dry. This was all Indian country before the white man came. The Northern Paiutes called themselves “Nomo,” “the People.”

Steens Mountain captures the passing weather. Clouds build up on the western slope, bringing cool rain, mist and winter snows. This keeps the mountain lush and cool. The mountain, standing alone in the middle of this high desert, creates extremes. Somewhere, unseen by us, there is a herd of wild horses…

I found a beautifully written guidebook in the reading room of the Sage Country Inn (Steens Country: An Explorer’s Guide to Oregon’s Steens Mountain Area) by Mark Highberger—appropriate name, given his subject. He writes of the wild horses:
The herd stays strong in this high desert world, where on a wind–scoured hilltop the road now plunges…the bunchgrass waving in the wind…Any moment they could emerge from the slope’s crevices and come galloping along its crests; any second they could step from the shadow of the junipers to lope through the grass. And if they do, even if they remain at a distance, you’ll know them when you see them. How?
 “How do you know the wind is blowing in your face?” says Ron Hardy, the man who found the Kiger Mustangs. “You can’t see it. You just feel it.”
It has been hot all day during our excursion to The Steens. On the way back to Burns we watch a white cloud’s belly grow dark, throwing out flowing fingers, until finally, at Dan’s urging—“We love you, we need you”—the cry of rain starved Californians—we see, hear and smell the delight of falling rain.

[Image of Rain on Desert]

To Be Continued... 

Other News

I’ll be giving a lecture and workshop for Jung Cleveland about eco-psychology on Sept. 19th and 20th. If you’re in the vicinity please consider joining us.