Mountain Prairies

by Bruce Patterson, August 28, 2013

These are the gardens of the Desert, these the unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful, for which the speech of England has no name. — The Prairies, William Cullen Bryant, 1832

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When, in 1767, Daniel Boone and his cohorts crossed through a gap in the Appalachian Mountains and laid eyes on the Cumberland Plateau, they knew the land was different. Here were meadows surrounded by bountiful forests; a checkerboard landscape laced with deep, slow-moving rivers. In England “meadows” were cultivated lands given over to livestock or tenants, but Daniel and his boys weren’t Englishmen and they knew “meadow” didn’t do justice to the wild splendor of these openings. So they took the French word prairie and put their own spin and pronunciation on it. Soon the land they had “discovered” became known as Kentucky, which is a bastardization of the Iroquois word for “meadow-lands:” Kenta-ke. But from then on the settlers flooding in saw the openings as prairies (or coves in the Southern mountains).

When, in 1804, Lewis and Clark crossed the Mississippi and began their journey up the Missouri River (they used boats because they were after the mythical Northwest Passage), for weeks they rowed or towed themselves upstream past prairies. Then the forests thinned and disappeared except the trees shading the waterways or standing alone in the distance. Soon they too disappeared and, surrounded by an undulating sea of grass, they knew the prairies were far behind them and that this here is something new.

“The Great Plains,” Lewis and Clark tagged the region. Of all of the place names they laid down, The Great Plains is about the only one that’s stuck (who’s ever heard of the Clark Fork or the Milk River?). Yet the wildlife in the plains includes dozens of species of the prairies, the prairie dog and prairie falcon, prairie apple (crab) and prairie sunflower just four. The Great Plains are broken down into prairies, too, the long and short grass being the most basic division. There are also distinctive types of prairies, the Looking Glass—rolling glaciated grasslands with their potholes filled with pools of reflective water—being the most famous.

A child of the Southwest, I grew up thinking of plains and prairies as places way back east. Out west our grasslands were coastal hills and mountain foothills, creek bottoms and mountain meadows. Instead of plains we had salt flats, basins and arroyos, mesas and bowls. Nowhere were we ever out of the sight of mountains, and virtually nowhere did grass stand taller than a horse. If, as Willa Cather wrote, in The Great Plains the land is the floor for the sky, out west the sky is the ceiling of the world.

Last week Trish and I loaded our trusty Chevy and made a three day, two night loop through the northeast corner of Oregon. Summers are short up here and we wanted to see the Blue and Wallowa (Wil-le-wah: “Winding River”) Mountains, the Elkhorns and Strawberries before the snows. After crossing east over the Ochoco Divide (4,722ft.) on US Hwy. 26, we dropped down into the deep network of canyons made by Bridge Creek. Bridge Creek flows north into the Mr. John Day River. A seasoned Virginia woodsman, in 1810, at age 40, John Day hired on as a hunter for the Astorian fur trappers camped on the Columbia River. In 1811 he and a partner were attacked, beaten, robbed and striped naked by Indians on the Mau Mau River just upstream from its confluence with the Columbia. Shortly afterward, old John he went crazy and disappeared into the mountains. Some say he’s buried on a hillside way up above the Ochoco Divide, others somewhere in Idaho. Anyway, that’s why the Mau Mau River got re-named the John Day. Nobody remembers the name of his partner or what he thought about it.

The highway continues east up and over Keys Creek Summit (4,382ft.). From there we join Mountain Creek and follow it downstream to its confluence with the John Day in a place called Picture Gorge. Now a gorge is just a giant gulch—basically a crack in the earth—and here the bottom of the crack is wide enough for the winding two-lane, the river and that’s it: NO PARKING AT ANY TIME. The picture you get while easing through is of the nearly vertical remains of millions of years of lava flows, rimrocks piled atop rimrocks receding upward into the sliver of sky.

After Picture Gorge the ground opens into a long and skinny valley and we continue upstream along the westward-flowing John Day. A fair ways past its confluence with its South Fork (California’s Lone Wolf of media fame almost certainly ascended the South Fork on his way to slim pickings in Siskiyou), we came to a town called Mt. Vernon and hooked north on US Hwy. 395. We crossed over Beech Creek Summit (4,704ft.) and then dropped into the Middle Fork of the John Day. We crossed over more mountains and then, just past the North Fork, we turned east and stopped for lunch at The Thicket Bar and Cafe in a town called Ukiah.

Curious about how the town got its name, I asked the waitress, a weathered old gal stout and sprightly. T’was named after a town down there in California somewhere, she told me. Back in the 1860s or ‘70s, some folks who’d settled down there in that town decided they didn’t like it much and set out to return back east. On their way they headed up here to visit kin, took a shine to the country, settled nearby and, for sentiment’s sake, named the spot Ukiah.

We weren’t even a quarter way through our tour and already it was clear to me that the abundant high and low country openings we kept passing through were “prairies” in the Kentuckian sense; openings in the all-encompassing forest; gentle spots in the seriously rugged terrain. The openings were too big to be meadows, too small for plains, usually not valleys but high country flats, wide, gently rolling bottomlands and the crowns of hogbacks. Beginning in 1843 and holding true till California’s Gold Rush got rolling in 1850, virtually all of the wagon trains came west from the Missouri frontier and were heading for Oregon’s Willamette Valley. They wanted to escape the Mississippi River Valley’s endemic diseases and, until then, the nation’s most severe economic depression. Those were the main push factors, anyway. It occurred to me that some of them had dropped out of the wagon train and settled right here because they were reminded of the prairies back home (they had no idea what they were in for).

Because the Oregon Trail (Oregon’s El Camino Real) cuts diagonally through the region, these prairies are among the very first settled west of Independence, Missouri. They’ve been given over to cattle, horses, sheep and mules for so many generations they’ve become known simply as ranches, spreads, graze, and family places: The McDowell Place, The E-Z-E, and so on.

East from Ukiah the highway follows the Camas River up to its source in the Blue Mountains. The divide is called 4 Corners, and once across it we join the headwaters of the Grande Ronde River (pronounced “Grand Rond”) and follow it downstream. The river runs northeast into the Snake, and the Oregon Trail ran northwest past the headwaters of the Powder, across the Ronde, up over a low pass to the Umatilla and then downstream to the Columbia. If you drew an X over the tops of their routes, where the lines meet is the city of La Grande (pronounced La Grand), our first night’s stop.

It’d been nine months since we’d last seen a rural Interstate freeway and—I’m getting sort of forgetful in my old age—I’d forgotten how having one slicing through your town presses you into a mold. Car magnets, “freeways” are. They bring a whole slew of corporate roadside attractions, their gaudy look-at-me freeway signs towering far above the telephone poles (just the signs cost more money to build and erect than a local homestead sells for). Simultaneously you get sub-divisions and sprawl, speculators and strangers, hustle and bustle, 24-hour noise and glaring night lights.

It took us a good long while to find our motel, what with the freeway slicing through town like a wall and given how the engineers had forgotten to include convenient off ramps. Thinking a genuine Interstate city with a name like La Grande had to warrant at least three or four off ramps, we were a couple of miles past town before we realized we’d missed it, and seven miles gone before we could get turned around, go back and try again.

For eight hours we’d been moseying along empty two-lanes, stopping and gawking, or taking little walks, and now, once we were finally checked into our motel, we couldn’t help thinking it was payday and we’d landed right back in Ukiah, California. There was even a Denny’s Restaurant nearby (a rarity up here) and, feeling sentimental and not wanting to get in our car again till dawn, we walked over to Denny’s for supper. Trisha had soup and salad off the Senior Menu and me, having my whole life refused on principle to allow a single string bean to touch my plate, had the regular-sized chicken fried steak with a double-scoop of mashed potatoes.

Next: High-Low Country.

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