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Exploring Back Roads Around Harney County

The 1967 song by the WHO “I Can See for Miles and Miles…” could have been the theme for a recent 1,500 mile jaunt through Harney County in south central Oregon. If you live in a wet redwood forest and want a change of scenery the Great Basin high desert in Harney County is the place to go.

My husband and my idea of a great get-away includes wide open spaces, few people, dry roads and a rockhounding destination. It was a cold snowy trip full of visual rewards and shiny rocks. Given the temperature was in the teens at night with two feet of snow on the ground this was not a camping vacation.

Our first choice for accommodation would have been the Field Station on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge south of Burns OR. Heated dorm cabins with shared living/kitchen/bath space are a great bargain in a beautiful location. Unfortunately they were having water system problems and couldn’t host visitors (I HIGHLY recommend them). We ended up in a motel in Burns.

Traveling up I-5, then east on Highway 299 and north on Highway 395 we saw a lot of open dry highway and interesting roadside distractions. I’d never seen a food truck offering Biscuits & Gravy but folks were lined up waiting. A kerosene pump in a gas station means some people some place must still be illuminating and heating with it. Bright snow poles atop roadside reflectors guide snow plows down highways covered in snow.

I love the Abert Rim north of Lakeview OR. It’s an exposed fault of layer upon layer of basalt rising 2,000’ precipitously over the roadway and the valley floor. It featured frozen waterfalls, avalanche paths and lichen blooms in red and green. There are roadside warning signs for crossing Big Horn Sheep.

Sightseeing you realize there is a whole science around the placement and design of snow fences over highways. This was open range country where cows have the right of way. Migration paths for wildlife also included wild horses, deer and antelope. Alkali Lake had sand dunes along the highway and a road sign read “Next gas-118 miles”.

Ice in its many shapes and forms is part of the winter landscape. Lake Abert showed reflections of mountains and clouds in its still waters, but variegations of ice strips often filled open waters. We drove with caution when shade from trees prevented ice from melting on the roadway. We passed miles of rolling sagebrush hills that had never been fenced, ranched, mined, or had side roads built through it, it’s just there. On straight stretches you could see for miles in front and behind your car and there were no other vehicles. I’d guess we passed a car every 20 minutes, but we were not alone. Bald eagles watched us from atop telephone poles.

Maybe because everything was white and frozen solid a brown cow really stands out in a snowy field…and thousands of them are really noticeable. I realized for the first time how truly extensive cattle ranching is from the CA border north. Mother Nature provides a snow pack that melts in the spring and waters hayfields. That hay is what keeps the cows alive come winter. We saw cows stampeding after tractors as they shredded and spread the hay in long rows on feed lots. Corrals had saddled horses tied up and real cowboys tending cattle. Stock dogs barked on top of hay bales being towed by tractors. Fencing was juniper fence posts and corner posts made of wire baskets full of rocks as wood is in short supply.

In the Blitzen River Valley we went to Peter French’s Round Barn. A rancher in the 1880s built a 100’ round barn around a juniper tree trunk, with circular rock stalls around the center and the indoor space was to break and train saddle horses in the winter time. Walking around inside I was fascinated by the oval irregular sun light patterns on the floor. I looked up and realized it was the late afternoon sun shining through the knotholes in the exterior siding that provided the light show.

Stopping at the Riley Store we were accosted by a flock of ducks in the parking lot. At another stop the cafe had chicken livers and gizzards on their cafe menu. Another restaurant featured instrumental Bible hymns as background music.

More roadside attractions…We were on our way to visit family in NV driving south through Catlow Valley and my husband and I both said “Did you see that?” Since there was no traffic as far as the eye could see we backed up a quarter mile and sure enough…there was a herd of fenced Buffalo. Turns out they were once native to the area up until about 500 years ago when everything dried up due to climate change. Hopefully some rancher is reintroducing them to south Harney County.

Oh, and about rockhounding? Check out Harney Lake’s south side. A typical high desert playa lake, it can have a shoreline of 100 miles and be only 5’ deep. A wide variety of rock were spit out by volcanos in the Cascades to the west and wave action in the shallow lake rolled and tumbled agate and petrified wood, among other rocks, for eons and gravel banks of those stones around the lake are full of shiny pebbles going “Pick Me UP!”

As a rockhound always hoping to inspire youngsters (rockpups) to collect stones I always gather enough to take to the Comptche School. My grandson is in third grade there and I read a picture book about rockhounding to the kids and let them each choose a rock from my stash to take home. I did this with Obsidian from Glass Buttes OR in the past and the students loved it.

On the way home an amusing sight was cows trying to walk on ice, ungraceful yet comical. There were mule deer herds in downtown Lakeview and Burns and wild horse herds in the city park in Dayton NV. A frozen dead cow with it’s feet in the air in a desolate part of NV made me wonder what killed it and why no other critters had eaten it?

It was a nice 5 day escape into the great outdoors and mountain ranges I’m used to seeing in then summer dry heat during treks to Burning Man were glistening snow covered precipices reflecting sunset colors. I love Comptche, but I love the Oregon Outback in winter too.

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