Oregon’s Eighth Natural Wonder
by Bruce Patterson, September 28, 2016
Turns out up there near the headwaters of the South Fork of the John Day there actually is a little green government sign marking the former site of the post office that once served the widely dispersed settlement called Izzy (“Eye-Zee’). On our way to Burns, Trish and I stop to admire what looks to be Izee’s sole remaining relic: a swaybacked, broken-ribbed, one-bunk, one-bucket cabin getting ready to give up the ghost and gratefully collapse into a heap. Next door, up atop a little knoll, squats a Manufactured Home behind a bold NO TRESSPASSING sign which, since we’re half past nowhere and aiming for the void, makes me imagine the occupants are retirees from California and do not wish to be disturbed. Like, if somebody crashes on the road and, all broken up and bloody, knocks on their front door, the first and last words they’ll hear will be, “Can’t you read?”
We get back in our car and, upstream a mile or two, we spot the junction of a paved road pointing south announcing itself as the “Izzy-Hines Hwy.” Which, since this is Oregon, quickly changes into The Old Hines Logging Road. While I was tempted to take the shortcut and maybe get to lay eyes on the south fork’s furthest headwaters at Donavan Creek, and maybe even catch sight of rim-riding Snow Mt. or Chaos Butte, we decide to play it safe and keep to the super-two-lane. So we tip our hats to the John Day, gently climb up alongside Antelope Creek (surprisingly open country seeing how we’re a mile-high), cross over the unmarked Divide, join US 395 south and head for our room at the Hines Best Western.
I should mention that the town of Hines dances cheek-to-cheek with the town of Burns in the Great Big Empty. Which strikes me as at least a wee bit peculiar. While Burns holds about 2/3rds of the population, Hines is seven feet higher in elevation. With 4,370 residents combined, they hold about 2/3rds of Harney Co.’s total population. Though for six weeks last winter during the armed occupation by the Malheur National Wildlife Liberation Army or some such, nobody in the bivouacking International Press Corps seemed to notice the anomaly. Even though every night they issued breathless reports about “Day X of the Standoff at Malheur” that sounded like the episodes of an award-winning Mexican Soap Opera, none of those newshounds saw the story under their paws. Anyway, the more I contemplate the enigma of the Lonely Town with Two Names, the more convinced I become that, had I been born and raised up in Hines, I’d be pissed.
Though we stayed two nights at the Hines Best Western, I never did ask anybody about how it feels to have your loyalties “split down the middle” and then thrust up upon the World Stage. (Though it’s been eight months since the last of the occupiers surrendered, the FBI, etc., still have the refuge’s HQ sealed tight as a Crime Scene; they plan on holding on to it till next spring, too, for reasons Tippy-Top Secret, of course.)
I was curious about the townsfolks frame of mind, of course, and around sundown the first night we drove to downtown Burns (Hines doesn’t have one) and, next to an ancient native stone restaurant offering Chinese and American cuisine, eat in or take out, we spotted a Mexican joint. Generally speaking, the further north you get from La Frontera, the scarcer the authentic Cal-Mexican grub. But it was late in the dinner shift on a Tuesday night, this place was packed and, once I heard our black and tan waitress speak—a Chicana probably out of So Cal—my hopes rose and, as I was polishing off my plate, got fullfilled.
Next-door was Burn’s old-timey saloon/restaurant and, wanting to add a shot of Irish whiskey with a Carta Blanca chaser to my dinner’s Carta Blanca, we walked in and bellied up to the bar. (“If I’d’ah wanted to sit at a table, ma’am, Ida gone to the Dairy Queen”).
Now in this here place the bar is long, level and shiny. The light was soft, the wood floor spacious and scuffed. The walls are lined with the heads of big game animals from around the world plus some stuffed specimens of the local fauna. Fronting the back wall, a low stage. An easy bet this place was a wild-assed honky-tonk back during the logging boom and the Cattlemen were still king. Back when the loggers were cowboys, and cowboys were loggers, and still they couldn’t get along much past, say, a half-hour before last call.
Reminded of being a young buck logger in the old Boonville Lodge back during the 1970’s logging boom (I bucked some logs for Fernhoff and Son who helped spark Anderson Valley’s crazed real estate boom by creating Rancho Navarro), and remembering all the passed away, dirt-eating, loud-assed, wise-cracking Okies, Swedes, hillbillies, boomers, greenhorns and our snuffed out ways of seeing things, I felt a touch of blue.
Slowly spinning around in my bar stool, I eyeballed the clientele. Some hazard here, I suspect, at least for a young stranger without a chaperone. Yet, like the rounded up BLM mustangs corralled out west of Hines, these folks seem properly domesticated and, I’d bet, mostly good-natured. You know, unless you rub them wrong (rub a horse’s nose the wrong way and he’s liable to bite you). Then again, it was still relatively early and it was a Tuesday night.
After a sunrise breakfast at the Apple Peddler Restaurant next-door to our motel (think Denny’s without the Interstate), and picking up the makings of a picnic lunch at the Burns Safeway (another damned California carpetbagger), we head south on State Hwy. 205. Burns, which sits on the northern foot of the Harney Basin (about 1,500 square miles), lies at 4,147 feet above sea level. We’re heading to the old ranch HQ now called Frenchglen (4,184ft.) some sixty miles away. At the bottom of the basin the vast remains of the largest freshwater marshes left in the West are, at their lowest, 4,084ft. Still we’d never mistake this place for Kansas. We’re surrounded by mountains, cinder cones and mesas, arroyos, marshes and hayfields, and south of the lakes to the west grows up the rim-rocked Jackass Mountains that’ll be flanking us till we reach Frenchglen and the gateway to the 60-mile-long dirt road loop that’ll take us to the summit of Steens Mountain (9,733ft.) and back.
We stop for coffee at the Frenchglen General Store and I inquire about road conditions. The young lady behind the counter, after gently urging me to buy one of her beautifully cured coyote pelts, informs me the road’s been freshly graded and, while there’s still some patches of serious washboard to contend with, we won’t want to be speeding around up in there anyway. Since all the guidebooks show the loop leaving from Frenchglen and going clockwise, she advises us to head south another ten miles and do the mountain going counter-clockwise. If she’s gotta be driving over washboard, she sagely informs me, she’d rather do it going downhill than up.
So we head south, climb up the dry gulch beside what’s left of the Jackass’s and emerge onto a higher plain, the valley of the north-flowing Blitzen River obvious now that we’re above it. We reach the junction, turn west onto the dirt and, looking north, get our first glimpse of Steens Mt. in profile. A single basaltic lava fault block some 4,500 foot-thick tilted westward under a 50-mile-long, mostly razor-backed ridge, I’ve heard it’s the largest of its kind in North America but I couldn’t swear to it. Still the profile puts some things in perspective. Lay your hand flat on a table and then raise your straight fingertips three or four inches and that’s the angle of the west slope. It’s 20 crow-fly miles from your wrist joint to the tips of your fingernails, and we’re just a tiny nit crawling up from the bottom.
Before we left Anderson Valley, my old friend Brad Wiley had advised us to be sure to get up atop Steens Mt. the first chance we get. I assured him we would and now we’re finally gonna. The road is only open during August and September, and our first summer here we were too busy sniffing around the hinterlands of our own locality. The second and third summers those parts of the Great Basin were filled with wildfire smoke blowing in from Idaho, Nevada and California. But this year the skies were clear—night skies so black the Milky Way looks like a glittering baby’s rattle—and we went for it.
While I gave up on ever mastering the subject of Geology about the time I gave up trying to memorize all of Europe’s breeds of sheep, I’ve always been fascinated by the subject. I was born with the discovery of Continental Drift and the subsequent overthrow of the geology I’d get taught in school, for one thing. Also most of my native landscapes were naked ones showing off their muscles and bones, tans and complexions, and as a boy most everything seemed not just vast in scale but ancient in time. Sand dunes and ocean bottom molded into hard rock? Globs of the earth’s molten core spat out, left to dry and eroded into mountain ranges and looking glass prairies? Wind and rain, fire and ice; life and un-life wedded at the hip, the elbow and soul?
Your fingers take up roughly half your hand; on Steen’s’ west slope, there’s only fingers and the spaces between them. Seven U-Shaped glaciated gorges up to 4,000-foot-deep join river to summit with watery veins. The whole mountain snowbound and then draining, water coming in pulses, fish feeding themselves and the birds, the magnificent ancient birds, then the freeze again, blowing snow, ice and thaw.
Over the course of a million years ending about 15.6 million years ago, seventy volcanic eruptions—“lava floods”—laid down the thick sea of rock that covers vast areas of eastern Oregon. Having begun its uplift about seven million years ago, Steens is only slightly younger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. In the walls of the gorges you see some of those lava floods looking like parallel pencil marks made with a ruler. In the flattish bottomlands of the gulches lines of Sky Island greenery—home to 5-foot-long beavers, some claimed, before they were exterminated and the aspen and willow forests obliterated to make pole pasture fences and pole corrals. By the turn of the 20th Century, Basque and Irish immigrants shepherded upwards 140,000 sheep on Steens Mt. alone. They kept it up until the mountain was so degraded that even sheep couldn’t survive up there anymore.
Ecologically speaking, if you want a snapshot of how, at their very worst, the Euro-American conquerors acted like a swarm of two-legged locusts eating everything in sight, google “Plume Hunters.” Google “Theodore Roosevelt, Preservationist.”
Today Harney’s marshes and ponderosa forests are just shadows of their recent selves. If, for the few years it lasted, Steens made outstanding summer pasture, for thousands of years it had provided summer oases for the Paiute. Today there’s still a few hundred Paiute living in Harney who got schooled some on how things were with nature before the fall. Yet, for reasons that should be obvious, hardly anybody ever asks them anything.
Finally standing at the tip of Steens’ fingernail summit made me happy to be alive: here, now, always. Parts of Oregon, Idaho and Nevada in an eyeful, below my feet a nearly mile-deep plunge, a wrinkled sagebrush sea surrounding the pure white salt pan called “Alvord Lake” (4,040 feet) that sits at almost exactly the same elevation as the luxurious marshes on the other side of the mountain. North and south, the summit looks like a rocky serrated seashore jutting into the void, an escarpment made of headlands and coves, a divide floating in thin air, a world of browns, greens, blues, greys and whites. In and among the cliffs giant hoodoos, flinty fingers, pillbox hats, strings of trees descending like pack mules. And the wind—where’s the wind in a place so lofty, so huge and alone? How can the temperature be perfect? How can the silence be perfect?
Leaving the mountain, we knew we’d only gotten a taste. Like looking down at Death Valley from Dante’s View, or across the Grand Canyon to Bright Angel ascending, or from any major prominence in the High Sierra or the Wind Rivers, the Sangre de Christos or the Bighorns, a taste is all you get. Just a taste that lasts a lifetime.