Desert Wanderings

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Apache Devil
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Joined: Mon Apr 13, 2009 3:21 pm

Desert Wanderings

Post by Apache Devil »

When the call comes, it takes away logic and reason, shifting thought processes into an alternate paradigm. It is much like the power that the nude body of an attractive woman has upon an eighteen year old boy. I am almost powerless to resist.

Thus, for the second time in as many weeks, I load a small amount of supplies into my truck and drive over the snow-spotted Cascade range, heeding the summons of the desert.

It is difficult to describe the feelings that come over me as I crest the Cascade summit and come down into the crackling dry lodgepole forest that mark the gradual descent to the high sagebrush plains. An amazingly varied number of emotions flow through me, ranging from a weird form of enchanted melancholy, to outright frivolous joy. At times it is an almost silly sense of hope, as if a lost love awaits me somewhere out in those desert valleys and dry canyons. The thought conjures forth a memory.

One bright morning, about four years ago, I had been in my truck, speeding north on a lonely highway somewhere near Roaring Springs Ranch. The mighty fault block of Steens mountain lay just southeast of me while the great desert swamps of Malheur county were still a fair distance ahead. The sagebrush glowed golden green in the morning sun, it's spires not yet taking on the silvery gray of midday.

To my right I saw something moving in the corner of my eye. It was a big, spirited Arabian horse galloping across the plain. It's rider, a lovely young girl with long, auburn hair flowing behind her in the wind. Both horse and rider had abandoned themselves to the total joy of youthful freedom. Not far behind the girl, a handsome young man followed on a similar steed. His shoulder-length blonde hair whipped in the breeze, a smile clearly discernable on his chiseled features.

Momentarily feeling their happiness, I smiled. Then, out of nowhere, a crushing sadness descended upon me with the knowledge that my time for knowing that beautiful young girl and cavorting with her in the desert had long passed. I had my 50th birthday that spring, and for a brief few moments I found myself tossed and blown by one of those passing emotional storms of male menopause.

With a shake of my head, I bring myself back into the present. There is beauty in the scene outside. Among the clumps of brittlebush that dot the open floor of the sparse forest are patches of brilliant yellow buckwheat. Dwarf lavendar lupines line the highway. It had been unseasonably overcast and rainy west of the mountains. Here, the clouds have broken into marshmallow fragments, exposing a saphire sky.

On occasion while traveling, I become victim to feelings of anxiety for no reason. The affliction chose this morning to pay me a visit, placing hovering clouds of discomfort into my consciousness. Recognizing this familiar foe, I push it aside continue to enjoy myself. If I were to pay heed to the mental enemy, it would keep me forever at home, perpetually afraid to go anywhere far away lest my truck break down or get wrecked, rendering me unable to return to work on time.

I park at Klamath Marsh, ignoring the ridiculous voice in my head that asks me what I will do if my truck does not start again. Screw that. I get out of the truck and take in the scene before me. The marsh is one of those great, beautiful places of Oregon. Thousands of acres in extent, it forms a vast sea of cattails and other wetland reeds, laced with trails of amber water.

This upper arm of the marsh on the Silver Lake cutoff is one of the most peaceful places in all of the Pacific Northwest. Auto traffic is very light and fewer still bother to stop except for the odd bird watcher here and there.

The bird watchers are a rather unique breed of human being, quiet people who carry a camera in one hand and a laptop computer in the other. They are not given to conversation exept perhaps, with other bird watchers. They do not seek to congregate with other humans and always seem to be looking at something far away, even when inside of a restaurant or a store.

Bird watchers are far from my mind as I stand and gaze across the green vista of marsh rushes, their tops moving gently in the breeze like waves on an emerald sea. silencing my thoughts, I am aware of the diversity of bird cries all around me. Some 600 species have been sighted in the marshes. It is easy to close my eyes and imagine that I am in the depths of a South American jungle.

The noonday sun sparkles off of waters the color of beer as insects buzz and trill in the millions. Metallic blue damsel flies ride tandem in their mating flights as schools of tiny minnows speed aimlessly in one direction or another. Red-wing blackbirds perch on cattail stems and scold while ducks and geese swish their heads through the water in search of food.

Outwardly serene, even lovely, but there is awesome power in this ecosystem. It is a great orgy of life and death, a vast interlocking system devoted to the gathering and distribution of solar energy. In the warm summertime, an acre of this marsh probably generates twice as much energy as a similar sized parcel of Brazilian rainforest.

For the next forty miles or so I drive through rolling uplands cloaked in open forests of stately ponderosa pines interspersed with marshy green valleys. The orange pine trunks remind me of the hide of huge reptiles. With the marshes forming great factories of life, almost any North American mammal you can think of can be found here. There are bear, elk, mule deer, coyote, even a herd of bison back at the western edge of the greater marsh.

Gradually, the marshes vanish. The land becomes more arid. The pines become stunted and hardly little junipers appear among them. The marshy valleys are replaced with sagebrush flats. In the distance there are familiar landmarks, Table Rock, Fremont Point, the Conley hills and Picture Rock Pass.

I come out onto the last of the lowland marshes near Silver Lake. It is the edge of the high desert. I will see no more wetlands until I reach the big valley of Summer Lake, about twenty miles to the southeast. Along this route, highway 31 skirts the edge of the desert all the way to distant Lakeview, but my destination lays in the summer Lake Valley.

The few miles between Silver Lake and Picture Rock Pass are a study in classic high desert terrain, a sandy, rolling waste of greasewood, sage and rabbitbush. It evokes tails of cowboys and Indians, visions of the old west.

At the base of Picture Rock Pass, the road goes straight up the lee side of an enormous fault block. High above are massive buttresses of cracked basaltic lava, speckled with the green of scattered junipers and clumps of sage. The bajada near the highway is dotted with car-sized boulders that have fallen from the caprock. Some of them may have fallen yesterday, or perhaps, two thousand years ago.

On the top of the pass there is a pullout on the south side of the highway. If you were to wander out into the scrub there, you would find boulders decorated with human artwork, ranging in age from four to ten thousand years. The pictures painstaking carved in the hard basalt are diverse. There are human stick figures, various animals, some of which no longer exist. There are also strange designs, one of which has haunted my mind for many years. It is a pyramid shape with half circle on the bottom. Over and over I have revolved this shape in my mind in an attempt to figure out the idea that some paleo-Indian had tried to pass on to the future. I will never know. Neither will anyone else. It could be a mystic symbol, or it could be something as simple as a drawing of a teepee.

On the other side of the pass, Summer Lake Valley is a study in a wide variety of terrains. The floor of the valley itself starts off as a dry desert, slowly turning into extensive wetlands within just a few miles. Then, beyond the wetlands, the greater part of the valley is a vast playa. The north side of the valley is bordered by a great fault block that stretches for many miles. It is called Winter Rim.

The air is significantly cooler atop 3000 ft Winter Rim, and it races down the slopes and out onto the playa to raise enormous columns of dust and huge dust devils for the entire length of the dry lake. The looming ghostly walls of tan dust often tower thousands of feet into the sky. Those who see this for the first time often think that all hell is breaking loose in the valley, the end of days.

Traveling down the south side of the playa, I see what looks like a thick length of rope laying almost all the way across the opposite lane of the highway, but I know it is not a rope. It is a huge gophersnake. A compassionate driver coming from the other direction swerves around the reptil instead of killing it. I immediately pull over to rescue the creature.

The gophersnake is a splendid specimen, a little over five feet long and as thick as my wrist. The skin shines as if it has been varnished. This snake is one of those hybrids that Summer Lake Valley is known for in herpetological circles. It is neither the rich brown of the pacific gophersnake, nor the light, almost white coloration of the Great Basin variety, but a perfect blend of the two.

In typical gophersnake fashion, the reptile hisses, flattens it's head and inflates it's body to look even bigger as it coils in a defensive posture. I always smile when people in my small town talk about how these snakes "hiss like a rattler." Rattlesnakes do not hiss.

Hoping that no traffic appears, I hold one hand out in front of the snake to hold it's attention, wriggling my fingers. My other hand reaches around and back to gently slide under the coiled body. As I slowly lift it up, the snake is non-plussed. It does not know which offending hand to strike. Within a few seconds it seems to realize that I am not going to harm it. The creature calms down and tastes my skin with it's forked tongue, behaving as if curious. sun-warmed and powerful, the sleek reptile glides between my hands, up my arm and around my neck as I carry it away from the road.

A muscular constrictor, the gophersnake pursues rodents. Mice, young rabbits, groundsquirrels and of course, gophers. It will also consume birds and their eggs, but prefers rodents. After taking a few photos, I watch the snake slide gracefully away into the sagebrush, making sure to let it go on the side of the highway towards which it had been originally headed.

The reptile is again lost in it's ancient wilderness and I take a few minutes to look around me. The view is indescribably beautiful in an eerie desert way. The valley is huge. Yosemite and Sequia parks could both be lost in it's vastness.

Above me, Winter Rim rules the valley, an enormous uptilt of lava, banded with dirty white rhyolite in places. The air rolls perpetually down from the cool heights to cause turbulance on the playa. Like immense ghosts, the curtains of dust rise in talcum veils of salty alkali. The giant dust devils play like mischievous monster children from an ethereal universe bisecting with our own, their dervish funnels tearing chunks out of the hard playa, the footsteps of the Wendigo.

How lonely this place must have seemed to those who came here first, the paleo-indians who carved their crude pictoglyphs on the basaltic boulders of the rocky pass west of me. There were repeated volcanic catastrophes that must have made this mysterious land seem to be a very unwelcoming domain.

I have to wonder how many men, women and children perished when the crown of mighty Mazama collapsed into itself, layind down choking blankets of thick, hot ash for hundreds of square miles. I also wonder how many perished when the earth erupted in a titanic steam explosion a few miles to the northwest, creating the huge, moon-like crater called Hole-In-The-Ground. It must have resembled the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, with effects almost as deadly, raining enormous boulders and strangling dust for many miles. It is chilling to contemplate and it could happen just as easily today in this clear-skied land of fire, ice and wind.

Driving back to the little Summer Lake store and post office, I am indecided as to spend the night or head home. It is a long drive back over the mountains and the desert whispers in my ear, telling me to stay. Driving back east a mile or so, I walk into the rustic lodge and rent a small cabin out back by the pond.

Inside my cabin there is a bed folded up against the wall behind oak doors. There are also a couple of lamps, a small couch and cushioned chairs as well as a sink and a small refgrigerator. I deposit 12 bottles of beer and two BLT sandwiches into the fridge, compliments of the lodge kitchen. I also set up my notebook computer and make sure the Wifi is working. It has been my experience that Internet connections do not work in about half the motels, hotels and lodges that advertise it.

The wifi signal is low strength, and slower than molasses on ice, but useable at the very basic level as long as I do not ask too much of it. Now it is time to get back into my truck and go be in the desert.

The man at the Summer Lake Store and POst Office bears a close resemblence to one of my lifelong best friends. He is amiable and we chat a bit while I grab a piece of jerky and a bottle of water. Outside, I ask his wife about a dirt road that heads north to one side of the small rest area on the opposite side of the highway.

"It's a 12 mile loop that comes back out at the wildlife refuge headquarters," she says. "A really nice ride."

Only a few hundred yards from the store, the sandy road enters a big and very salty greasewood plain. The ground is so laden with alkali that it puffs up like dry foam in between the clumps of tough sarcobatus. It is desert and I like it. I have seen miles and miles of identical terrain two-hundred miles south in the desert heart of Nevada.

There is a difference between this terrain and the lands farther south. In Nevada, this landscape would be swarming with zebra-tailed lizards and coachwhip snakes. There would also be long-nosed snakes. Any rock outcroppings would be home to desert spiny lizards. None of these are present in Oregon. Information on the subject is difficult to find, but my personal belief is that the cooler climate of the last glaciation pushed many species southwards. They are slowly moving northward year by year, to one day return to their prehistoric home.

The east end of Summer Lake Valley, from the hotsprings to the little town of Paisley, is home to leopard lizards. These are large, voracious lizards, much more typical of the southern deserts. However, there are none at the west end of the valley. After Paisley, the lizards vanish, not to be seen again until about sixty miles or so east of the town of Lakeview, close to the Nevada border.

In the area around Fields, and Denio, Oregon, the herpetal fauna becomes much more typical of the southern deserts. Not only is the leopard lizard present, but there are also big, beautiful collared lizards, western whiptails and striped whipsnakes. Zebra-tails, desert spiny's long-nosed snakes are still conspicuously absent.

Thus are my thoughts as I cruise slowly across a lonely greasewoood plain in the western Summer Lake Valley. The ceaseless ponderings of a naturalist.

Ahead of me there is a little bridge over a small stream. I cannot tell if it is a natural waterway or a man-made canal to conduct water away from the refuge. The latter makes no sense to me, so I assume that it must be natural.

Like most Great Basin streams, it is green and murky. Steep-sided and opaque, the stream could be a foot deep, or five feet deep. There is no way to tell. A small sandbar on the west bank is scattered with the shells of some kind of fairly large freshwater clam, apparently harvested and eaten by an animal, most likely a raccoon. The insides of the whitish shells gleam with a green-tinted mother of pearl. The size of these shells makes me wonder if they could be farmed and harvested for food. Such a resource coule possibly help to relieve pressure on our overly-harvested seashores and estuaries.

It strikes me as a peculiar form of insanity that we insist on breeding and reproducing more human beings than our planet can support, much of the planetary population languishing in poverty and starvation in order to support the much smaller and far wealthier portion of humanity. I place one of the shells in my truck, hoping to make a species identification at a later time.

Beyond the stream, the greasewood plain appears to continue all the way to diablo Rim to the north. The road forks and both forks end at the gates of private ranches, well posted with No Trespassing signs. I am puzzled. What happened to the alledged 12 mile loop coming out at the refuge headquarters? With a defeated shrug, I turn the truck around and head back the way I came.

Back at the lodge, I sit in the small lobby by the restaurant for a few moments in order to plan my next course of action. A woman who must be at least my age, walks in with a much younger man and a preteen boy. A few lbs overweight in a luscious way, she has the most erotically enticing body I have ever seen on a human female. Her incredible figure totally denies the gray of her hair and the lines of her still-pretty face. she catches my eye and gives me a sultry smile that is like a blow to the pit of my stomach. With a wistful sigh, I realize that it is going to be a lonely night.

Trying to forget the woman and the sexual heat eminating from her body, I go to my cabin and peruse the Internet while munching a cold BLT. Afterwards I stand on the small dock at the bass pond, watching a couple of medium-sized white bass gliding about in the thick water millfoil covering the sandy bottom. Thus far I have seen no other kind of fish here.

In this shallow body of water, the bass are prey to the fierce Caspian Tern, a beautiful white bird with an incredibly steamlined body. Performing eye-popping airobatics, the tern whips about over the pond with amazing speed, looking for the smaller, unwary fish who get too near the surface. Spying it's prey, the bird dives into the water in a violent head-first dive at full speed, popping back into the air with a wriggling fish in it's deadly beak. Living a fearful existence, the fish must also contend with everything from hungry gartersnakes to raccoons.

The National Wildlife Refuge consists of a mixture of wetlands, dotted with ponds, criss-crossed with canals and interspersed with patches of sagebrush/greasewood flats. Dirt roads atop dikes lead to grassy parking areas where bird watchers from around the world come to pitch their tents, sitting about cleaning camera and binocular lenses when not hunting the objects of their desire with the same.

The mosquitos here are horrendous, making life impossible unless you spray yourself liberally with repellent. Birds, ranging from sandhill cranes to cliff swallows, are far too numerous to list here, even if I did know all the names.

Out on the flat, I watch tremendous thunderheads turned into fantastic sculptures of red and gold by the setting sun. Between multiple layers of cloud are multiple layers of cloud, rent here and there by azure windows into the clear sky behind the marbling of indigo and moody purple.

The air is heavy with ozone and the scent of flint, but the storm passes to either side, brilliant electrical flashes clearly visible in the distance. Back at the lodge, the evening air has begun it's mad race down the steep slope of Winter Rim. As the deep blue of sunset takes over the sky, the wind becomes a wild thing, madly whipping the willows and cottonwoods about in a hurricane frenzy. I glory in the buffeting gusts as I watch the first bat of the evening frantically trying to fly into the wind. It's furry little body hangs in one spot, unable to make any headway. Within a few seconds the creature gives up and zips away in the opposite direction.

Once again I get that oddest of feelings, that inexplicable sense of a connection between the eastern Oregon sagebrush desert and the lonely tarpaper shack where I was born. The only commonality that I can find is that this distant place in time and space where I once spent my childhood shared a sense of timelessness, as if eternity could pass and nothing would change. A period of time far shorter than eternity proved that it could indeed change, and vanish under the mincing blades of time.

Geologically speaking, the sagebrush desert is a fairly recent landscape, but it has an illusory appearance of great antiquity, a piece of nature forever frozen in time. Far overhead, a passenger jet gleams reddish in the fading sun. The sight brings floods of memories.

In those distant days of my childhood, the skies were still primarily ruled by the large, prop-driven planes of another era, but change came rapidly. The age of Telstar and Sputnik had already ended. The first planetary probes were being readied. Soon the great silver behemoths left over from the 2nd world war would leave the skies forever. Man would walk on the moon and the age of sophisicated hedonism would begin. Childhood would end as we left our innocence behind with Leave it to Beaver.

A wave of melancholy passes over me and I think about the woman in the lodge. She will never know how badly needed she is tonight. It is still twilight when I ignite my fire. The wind still blows wildly, but the iron ring of the firepit is a foot high and the wood is oak. There will be no flying sparks. The green grass is well-watered and there is no dry vegetation within a hundred yards of the lodge.

Full darkness dscends, and once again my thoughts turn to the erotically lovely woman, the fullness of her perfectly shaped breasts, the exquisite curve of her buttocks. I wonder what her eyes would look like with the firelight flickering in them, her hand in mine, laughing and chatting.

My attention is mercifully drawn from the art of self-torture by movement seen from the corner of my eye, something moving about the starlit waters of the bass pond. Scores of the tiniest bats I have ever seen swoop over the pond's surface in a great feeding frenzy, so close to the water that they often splash against it in their furious pursuit of insects. I watch the amazing sight for a long time as my fire crackles in the wind, which still comes in powerful gusts, but with longer calm periods between them.

I love the magic night and it's mystic creatures. There is something very wonderful about this valley and it's diverse terrain. I munch my lat BLT sandwich as the lonely spell engendered by the erotic woman leaves me. My mood is uplifted (a few beers may have helped) and I smile at the sparkling stars above. They conjure forth a recent memory.

Less than a month earlier, I had been here with my nephew. Late that night, he had joined me outside. He is one of the few family members who shares my love of the desert. His wife, less enamoured of the night and the wind, chose to retire to bed.

At first we sat and chatted at a picnic table at the east edge of the lodge's gravel parking area. A deeply amber yard light sat in the branches of a huge cottonwood overhead, covering the scene in sepia tones that had the effect of awakening many old memories.

As Glenn spoke of this or that, my mind regaled me with mental snapshots from various times of my lifetime of wandering in the desert. From somewhere out of the desert night, a tiny deer mouse wandered into the yellowish light to sit on it's little haunches, watching us as though thinking about joining in on the conversation. More likely, it hoped we had food and would drop some delicious crumbs. Glenn chased the frightened creature away into the dark in an effort to capture it, failing. He had a perpetually hungry ball python at home who loved such small mammalian tidbits.

At length, we grabbed a couple of bottles of beer and walked out onto highway 31, a ribbon of gray leading into the vast blackness. Coyotes cried in the distant gloom and the plane of the galaxy shone brilliant above us, reminding me of a night 20 years earlier when he and I had been together in the desert at a great natural stone forrtess called Fort Rock, a place only 30 miles to the northeast. By a blazing fire of juniper that we had scrounged on the way there, we guzzled beer and banged on our guitars with youthful abandon. Our companions were kangaroo rats, owls and scorpions. Perfect.

I Shake my head back into the present, the kaleidoscope of various memories, both good and bad, dissipating as I look about. The wind has risen anew, along with a brilliant moon. Nightbirds and coyotes still call. In the morning I will be gone. How long will it be before I come again. A brief flickering memory of the erotic woman flashes through my mind. I pour water on the dying coals and turn my footsteps towards the cabin.
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