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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

EVOLVING ROADS: Car Camping with Kip & Rico (Part Four)

It’s benign most of the time.

You’re warm. Through your eyelids, you can sense sunlight gently streaming in the window.

You’ve been talking to your dad, and though your dad died decades ago, part of you knows that this is all a dream, and so talking to dead people isn’t all that strange and neither is the sensation of floating in a white, cozy cloud. It isn’t until you open one eye that you begin to freak-out. “That’s not my chest of drawers,” you realize, “and that’s not my carpet!”. Your other eye pops open.  “This isn’t my bed!” and, “This most certainly isn’t even my room!  I’ve been drugged somehow and kidnapped and I can’t move my arms!” Just as the panic rises and you flop out of the bed tearing at the tangled industrial-strength king-size bed-cover, you remember, just before you hit the floor, that this is a hotel room and you’re on a business trip.

Except, I’m not in a cozy warm cloud. I’m lost in the Antarctic huddled in a blanket made from an unzipped sleeping bag. Shrieking wind is tearing at bits of ruined shelter — shreds of blue tarp slap my face. It stings. I try to curl into a heat-conserving ball and wrap the flailing ends of the inadequate blanket under me, but the wind is clever and works at untucking the short ends. I wait to wake up in that warm hotel room… but I never do, because I’m not on a business trip and I’m not asleep.

I’m lying on a blue tarp, shivering under my sleeping-bag-blanket in some kind of diabolical wind-tunnel on the bank of Lake Mann at the base of Steens Mountain. The fire ring, which mere hours ago contained a hell-worthy conflagration, now emanates only cold gray ashes.

I risk another peek out from under the blanket. The sky is starting to show light. Part of me argues, “Just sleep until the sun comes up. It will be warm then.” But another part argues, “By the time the sun shines into this valley, you’ll be a popsicle.” and though that last bit seems hysterical, I steel myself for a sprint to the Montero where my gear is.

Being inside the Montero makes a big difference. I’m grateful that Kip has already forgotten his city habit of locking his doors at night. I’d sleep in the front seat except the colors outside are beautiful so I find my jacket and camera and go to meet the sunrise.

Uncle Rico seems immune to the wind...and weather in general.

And Kip will probably never know that there even was any wind.

As alluded to before, despite brief periods of surprisingly strong winds, our resident cloud remains a constant companion.

When the wind dies down, I break out a grill and the groceries I need to make cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped jalapeno peppers (for breakfast). I was counting on 12 pieces of bacon per package but learned that isn’t always the case with thick slices. Even worse, I forgot to bring toothpicks, so I had to wrap the peppers with more finesse than usual and hope that the bacon molded itself on as it shrank. That wasn’t always the case either, which is why this picture is a file picture from our Willapa Bay trip. Kip and Rico are polite about the cheese-stuffed peppers with a side of bacon, but I feel like I’ve disappointed them.

In no danger of starving, we set our minds to solving the puzzle of catching fish in a six-inch deep lake. Kip has a comprehensive book about Oregon lakes, and the Mann Lake entry reveals that some people wade out into the lake and then cast toward shore. It sounds like it’s worth a try, so I take off my shoes and socks and hike up my shorts and strike out for deeper water. 10 minutes later I’m about 40 yards into the lake and water is tickling my...shorts, but frustratingly, while the mud now appears to be 2 feet deep, the water remains confined to a 6-inch layer floating atop the ever deepening mud. 

Photo Credit: Kip   2018

As I return to shore, I catch a pair of cows smirking at each other, as if to ruin the illusion I cling to that this is actually mud I’m wading in.

Meanwhile, Rico and Kip have been casting a variety of lures with no success. At times, they claim to see the dorsal fins of Loch Ness Monster-size-creatures trapped towards the center of the lake. But I can’t see them without the binoculars they’re using.

This bird’s colorful wing markings and unusual beak caught my attention. Rico said it was an American avocet. After sinking into the mud myself, it is easy for me to appreciate these bird’s adaptations for fishing along the lake’s extended muddy shoreline - long legs for wading, webbed feet for distributing weight on insubstantial surfaces (or swimming I suppose), and a built-in fishing pole.

As it becomes evident that we won’t be catching any fish, we calculate that it’s time to move on. Although I had recently visited the Malheur Wildlife Refuge area, in the face of questioning I become less and less confident in my assertion that there is a gas station in Frenchglen. Given my uncertainty, we decide to head back to Fields Station to top-off the tanks and get ice for the ice-chests. Once we are resupplied we head towards Frenchglen (60 miles away) to check out Page Springs Campground and the much-hyped Donner und Blitzen River.

At first, I wonder why they would name a river after two of Santa’s reindeer. But cursory research reveals that donner and blitzen are German words for thunder and lightning, which supposedly, were the conditions encountered when troops crossed the river in 1864 during the Snake War (and which, retrospectively, also make Santa’s reindeer sound much more like bad-asses).  What you don’t hear so much about is that the Snake War was a significant set of skirmishes between Native Americans and American soldiers which eventually resulted in over twice as many deaths as the more famous battle of the Little Bighorn. I suppose that’s why the river hasn’t retained its Native American name.

The Donner und Blitzen river may be a mythic trout stream, but it seems to pander to fly fisherman...not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that the accepted convention here is to catch and release and that’s just not going to provide many fish tacos. Not only that, but the ratio of mosquitoes to campers is pegged at the high end of the scale.

Now that we are on the gently sloping side of Steens Mountain, we want to follow the available road up to the top even though the Page Springs kiosk indicates that the gates to the Mountain Loop Road are still closed. We reason that we may not get as far as we want, but expect there may be interesting things to see along the way.

Our reasoning pays off. The gates are not closed.

Kip standing before the glacier-carved Kiger Gorge.

Rico surveys the scene. That notch at upper middle was visible from Mann Lake.

It’s like that time my parents handed me a camera at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. I took a whole roll of the same picture.

At the East Rim Overlook, I spot Mann Lake.

To the southeast lies the Alvord Desert.

Photo Credit: Uncle Rico   Copyright 2018  (click on image for slightly larger version)

Rico takes an awesome panorama picture with his phone.

Rico is wearing a special bra for binoculars, but I think he is just keeping two beers in it.

Photo Credit: Uncle Rico     Copyright 2018

Rico gets a shot of me doing a patented old-man impression as I dodder around trying to compose a shot.

A photographer’s goal would be to stay atop the observation point and watch the Mountain’s shadow stretch out to the East to meet the coming darkness. But I am not alone and we still need to find a campsite.

We find what we are looking for in the sub-alpine/quaking aspen zone at about 7000 feet.

I string my hammock up in a small aspen grove (Now we’re talking!).

...and stoop to some shameless pandering.

(triple reinforced stitching)

Kip sets up his tent in a small clearing nearby.

As the sun travels beyond the horizon, we fall into our familiar dinner routine. By now nobody will be surprised to discover that this evening’s meal is going to be trout tacos. Kip, however, surprises us with a new snack variation (besides the salt and pepper pistachios). He sets about trying to make popcorn over a propane burner, heating the oil in one of my thin aluminum pots. I think the odds are about even that he will significantly burn the popcorn. But he doesn’t. Generally, I like to season my popcorn with Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, but Kip uses real butter and a seasoning I’m not all that familiar with. Whatever. This simple treat, well executed, seems a particularly extravagant snack in this setting.

Somewhere in the middle of deep frying the trout, we realize the stove is out of propane. To make things more complicated, the proprietary fuel canisters for Rico’s range are now all exhausted. Kip’s propane burner has the potential to heat the oil, but it is shaped something like an upside-down rocket ship and will be an unsteady, dangerous support for the cast-iron frying pan filled with still-sizzling oil. I scramble to find a new propane tank in my gear.

For the most part, Rico manages to save the bulk of the trout. For those few pieces that soaked up too much oil, I’m pretty sure I see him placing them randomly in the trout plate hoping we won’t notice. A running joke for this camping trip is that I’ve been overcooking the tortillas. Working with the precariously balanced burner, I’m — I guess paranoid is the best word — paranoid that I will once again overcook the tortillas and so I try to get them in and out of the oil as fast as I can. Later when Rico observes that the tortillas appear to have been “merely dipped” in oil, I realize I may have been a tad too spastic. Thankfully, none of us are sporting skin grafts.

Sitting before the evening’s firewood holocaust, I’ve come to expect unusual conversations. If it isn’t Kip and his knack for saying things that are hilariously out of character, it will be Rico defending outrageous positions so matter-of-factly that I find myself in agreement. But tonight Rico has once again taken up the topic of petroglyphs and insists that the power of the shamans is real and that we, even now, are influenced by, or even protected by their energy.

Like a popcorn kernel unable to contain itself, Rico springs from his chair wielding one of the ultraviolet flashlights. “It’s around us!” he screams. “It’s all around us!” and he darts one way, and then another, subjecting everything in range to the scrutiny of his ultraviolet beam. Kip and I are bewildered, but we follow Rico on his mad search until he comes to the jeep. There suddenly, radiating intensely in the black light are mysterious native American icons, just like the ones we’ve been finding all week (well, maybe not the rabbit).

Before we can stop him or comment, Rico is racing off to the Montero. When he gets there, he sweeps the vehicle with his beam and there on the hood are concentric ray-arcs, spirals, lizards and forkman.

The depictions of petroglyphs are hilarious. Kip and I try to figure out when Rico had time to execute his drawings without being seen. It turns out that various markers are highly fluorescent under ultraviolet light, but nearly invisible on, say the surface of a dark-colored car during the day-time (not so much on a white colored car as Kip found out surveying his hood the next morning). The implication is that Rico may have been decorating things ever since he handed out the ultraviolet flashlights. Quickly, I check my forehead in a rearview mirror (because I’m a heavy sleeper), but no fluorescent patterns appear there.

In the morning, in the aspen grove, amongst the aspens, the leaves whisper in the gentlest of winds. But beneath the sweet-nothings filling the air, more conventional messages are conveyed by the tree’s bark. Matt and Debra were an item back in ‘89. C.H.S., J.F., M.S.A., A.S.H., and perhaps fraternity and sorority members have been here. Somebody killed their first deer back in ‘05.  Rico says it’s a mistake to carve big block letters into the bark because the scars grow and become illegible. He thinks the way to make an enduring message is to carve thin lines. I tried but concentrated so hard on the wrong letter that I misspelled my name (As an enduring message from me, that somehow seems appropriate).

It has become increasingly hard to keep track of the days. Even so, a growing unease is evident as we sense our time on the road is coming to an end. Unless we want to make a 6 hour trip on our last day, we need to head West before establishing our next camp. Rico reminds us that his goal to find an ancient mortar is still unfulfilled. We travel back down the mountain to Frenchglen and beyond in search of something the Lorings called the Krumbo Boulders, one of which is Mortar Rock. It is said to contain two mortars, one 7 inches deep and one 8 inches deep.

Photo Credit: Uncle Rico    Copyright 2018

Petroglyph Rock turns out to be the easier of the two rocks to find.

The depth of this carving makes it very distinctive from most of the petroglyphs I’ve seen on this trip.

Our search is hampered by a terrifying blanket of mosquitoes. I find it necessary to spray repellant not only on my exposed skin but also on all of my clothing front and back to keep the sharp proboscises from penetrating my shirt and pants. Still, scores of mosquitoes alight on my hands and wrists before they taste the repellant. I look something like a Pavlovian trained dog as I repeatedly swipe at any high pitched noise or tickling sensation. We scour the landscape east of the Petroglyph rock according to the Loring notes but somehow manage to overlook it.

We find respite from the mosquitoes at the boat ramp at Krumbo Reservoir, probably because of a breeze off the water. We take the opportunity to re-hydrate and as we sip our beverages, Kip and Rico start to imagine what they’ll be able to do with their booty of sunstones. Both of them collected easily 3 times the number of sunstones that I did and Kip is quick to point out that it is a well-known fact that sunstones are equivalent to what he terms ‘male enhancement.’ Kip goes on to ask what it’s called when a person decorates articles of clothing with glued-on sunstones. I’m not sure who came up with it first, but the answer is “Bedazzled.” Kip then begins describing how he would go about bedazzling a pair of glasses, and we begin to imagine the garish eyewear of Elton John and Deepak Chopra. Rico volunteers that he thinks bedazzled sunglasses are obviously impressive, but then he earnestly turns to me and warns me not to wear sunstone-bedazzled glasses until after I meet someone. After all, Kip adds, “How would you know whether she loved you, or just wanted your sunstone-bedazzled glasses?” Rico and Kip spell it out in a simple formula: Sunstones = panty droppers.

I just wish they would have shared this information earlier while we were still actually searching for sunstones.

We made it to the Southwest edge of Crane Prairie Reservoir for our final campsite where Rico prepared guacamole with an authentic stone pestle. It wasn’t what he had hoped for, but the guacamole was exceptional, even without an authentic ancient mortar. I wrapped the last of the peppers with bacon using a packet of 12 cinnamon toothpicks I found in the Qwick-shop when we stopped to gas-up in Burns. Rico also prepared margaritas with damiana. Kip distributed raw cookie dough for dessert.

Later I walked down a short trail and emerged from the pine forest to stand at the edge of the reservoir. I set up my tripod to capture the moon and Venus, but by now my tripod head was broken and the whole process took much longer than it should have. A frigid wind was blowing over the surface of the lake and this was the best I was able to do before I retreated back into the shelter of the forest.

Photo Credit: Uncle Rico  Copyright 2018

Quite a while after the trip, Rico posted his pictures in a Dropbox.  I found this one in there. I’ve chosen it as a fitting end to this narrative. I’m not sure that it has an enduring message for everyone, but what it says to me is, my friends are artists, and I am grateful to have traveled these roads with them.




Kip models a pair of sunstone bedazzled glasses

Deb: Okay, turn your head on more of a slant...

Now, make a fist. Slowly ease it up underneath your chin.

This is really looking good.

Kip: You can say that again.

Deb: Kay, hold still right there. Now, just imagine you're weightless, in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by tiny little seahorses [Deb takes the picture] That was the one. I think that's gonna come out really nice.

- dialouge from the movie Napoleon Dynamite (or is it?)

Friday, July 13, 2018

EVOLVING ROADS: Car Camping with Kip & Rico (Part Three)

From my supine perspective in the giant mosquito-net house, the snoring noise emanating from the S.E. corner is, by deduction, Kip, who must have migrated from his chair sometime before dawn. But it is the heat-lamp-like beams of the sun that have prodded me from unconsciousness as my body begins to glisten like greasy chicken on a buffet island. I shed my sleeping-bag cover and risk the mosquitoes outside, seeking shade. Outside, I see Rico’s sleeping bag in the shadow cast by his cot. Whether he got there by accidental tumble, instinct, or conscious strategy is uncertain, but I’d guess some mixture of the last two options.

The inexorable advance of the sun prods us to action (even if it is sluggish action). Our sleeping accouterments get folded, stuffed or rolled. Beer cans are policed. Cookware and plates are cosmetically cleaned under a less than rigorous paper-towel protocol. The bags and boxes and ice-chests are re-sorted into the vehicles. Finally, the appropriate lures are chosen from personal fishing arsenals for enticing those particular fish that reason suggests might accumulate at the base of significant falls.

If truth be told, however, my personal fishing arsenal consists of a blunt collection of bass tools that are increasingly obviously not fooling any trout. Instead, I reach for a long lens and lag behind Rico as he descends into the canyon. I try to catch a different kind of magic — all the richness of an instant in time — as Rico plumbs the recesses of the plunge pool.

We stop to top off the fuel tanks in Adel. 

Kip asks, “Is this town named after the famous singer?”  He knows full well that it isn’t. 

The gas pump is at a little island near a patchwork building that appears to be a combo bar, gift shop, restaurant and, curiously,  youth hang-out.  I say that because a trio of teens wearing reasonably coordinated shirts and pants (smartly accessorized with coonskin caps... and side-arms) materialize out from behind the adjacent tiny one-room post-office structure and saunter across the parking lot. They enter the combo-building as if they own it. Struck by the novelty of the coonskin caps, I reach for my camera in hopes of documenting what appears to me to be a rural 'gang'.  But I quickly check my impulse to take pictures despite the attraction of the glorious ring-tailed headwear. I reason that even though my college degree was in Art (which really doesn’t qualify as a college degree)  I might still, because of my unfamiliarity with local customs, be mistaken as a liberal elite. I well remember the day I unexpectedly met my girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend in a small-town Kansas pub only to have my friendliest overtures interpreted as negative comments regarding his mother. Perhaps it would be wise to not draw undue attention in this Eastern Oregon outpost where I am a visitor.

A young mother handles the gas nozzle, all the while simultaneously admonishing the actions of her feral 5-year-old (who runs loose, tasting unlikely objects). When she finishes with the vehicles, caps screwed tight and little doors slammed shut, she manages to wish us a pleasant day as we pull away without incident.

The landscapes begin to impress themselves into the moldable regions of our brains. The high plateaus are overrun with water-hungry juniper bushes — prickly shrubs with sights set on becoming trees. Competing grasses wither and dust devils rise from the parched soil. Basalt crumbles under the assault of alternating hot and cold temperature extremes. None of it seems very hospitable. But in the pauses, in the moments when you catch your breath or sip from a frozen Pabst Blue Ribbon can, or gaze toward blue bands of mountains shimmering on the horizon — subtle movements betray life hiding in the cracks and shadows, sometimes at your very feet. Western Sage lizards start and skitter from crevice to crevice. Cottontails explode out of nowhere into frantic zig-zag sprints, barely touching the earth. Then they freeze in golden grasses, effectively invisible while still. Striped chipmunks display a fatal indecisiveness when attempting to cross paved highways but otherwise materialize here and there as if traversing different dimensions between point A and point B.

Rico, in an uncharacteristic fit of near poetry, attempts to express some fundamental truth of the animating power of nature, and how this truth has been expressed through the millennia and recorded on the rocks we have been examining — by people who hunted and lived according to Earth’s benevolence.

Rico seems to suggest that merely by viewing the ancient petroglyphs, we somehow benefit. Perhaps by some spiritual osmosis, the Shaman’s art enlightens us, though literal understanding eludes us.

To me, this sounds like some shit I might say — not my scientist friend. Certainly, art can touch us at emotional levels and thereby move us to action. Maybe, in the end, that is the power of the Shamans. But rock art seems notoriously able to resist interpretation, and whether it is the work of influential medicine men or the graffiti of idle children remains a point of debate. Regardless, like a hapless Fox Mulder, I want to believe in the power of art.

As the miles pass, we begin to stretch beyond Rico’s familiar spots to destinations unknown to us. Rich locales described in the Loring and Loring book provide an impetus to climb higher and higher into the high desert which has the effect of making the term ‘high desert’ less and less precise (shouldn’t it really be the ‘really high desert' by now?).

Soon we begin to mistake temporary streambeds for roads or imagine the general direction of a turn-off according to a subtle change in the color of the grass.  Kip’s modified Montero with its new manly suspension and virile tires keeps apace with Rico’s time-tested Jeep. 

Since that first night of gentle aerosol showers, the sky has been squeezed clean of clouds so that the atmosphere nearly begins to suck moisture from the ground and from all living things. Following behind the Jeep means breathing a dusty wake of grit and sage pollen. My nose whistles as dirt and drying mucous construct obfuscating booger castles deep in my nostril passages. I long to pick them and feel ready to argue that doing so publicly would be justified.

After half a day of bouncing over road-optional terrain, Rico and Kip eventually remember that reducing the air pressure in their tires improves traction, flexibility, and flotation. By now, the sun is at its zenith. The appearance of two shade trees corresponds with the disappearance of the road we are following.

The Earth has provided shade.
We sit in it.

Rico and Kip adjust their tire pressures.

If you ask a medical device engineer, a project manager and an art major what this is, you’d get an answer something like, an arrowhead workshop. Take it for what it’s worth.

The vehicles climb ever upward until we reach the top of the world — 360 degrees of horizon. The sky seems closer, almost as if you could see through the blue and off into space. Before us lies a vast playa that stretches to the East for miles — a flat basin surrounded by basalt rimrock — a ghost lake laid out before heaven.

Scattered on the surrounding rimrock and isolated boulders, we are pleased to find hundreds of pecked and carved designs.

I have a flashback. I can remember back to an idyllic time when my parents took me and my siblings to a lake to camp with a number of their friends and their families. This temporary community joined together to catch crawfish, and all the children ventured out into the shallow water and contributed to the effort. The adults sat around a large fire with a boiling pot, drinking forbidden beverages and laughing and talking. The cadences of these voices created a background noise that flowed into the night and braided us together, something like a dog’s comfort jacket. I couldn’t exactly hear what any particular adult was saying, but I could feel the ebb and flow of emotions, joy, laughter, surprise and comfortable silences — the telling of yarns, jokes, and secrets. Finally exhausted, my eyelids slowly drifted closed and I disappeared into oblivion.

Here in this dusty basin, in the face of all these images, I imagine I can hear a similar noise — a similar story, but in a language I can’t decipher.

When I catch up with Kip and Rico, they are standing before a virtual chapel of images.

Rico speculates that the production of petroglyphs must have been noisy. I remember my college sculpture studio and the characteristic rhythms of the wood carvers, or the jewelers, or the bronze casters chasing their castings. I wonder what the petroglyph carvers sounded like and vow to create my own petroglyph to find out…

(But not here).

Windblown soil from the plateau above is periodically washed into the basin. Ever so slowly, this process of erosion is burying some of the designs.

We spend as much time here as we can, but eventually re-acquire the trucks and turn our attention to finding our next campsite.

Over the next horizon, it becomes obvious we weren’t at the top of the world after all.

Kip said, “Look!”
I said, “That’s the muddiest lake I’ve ever seen.”
Kip said, “That’s the Alvord Desert.”

We set up camp at Mann Lake at the base of Steens Mountain, from this side, a sheer, 1-mile high vertical escarpment.

Rico casts into the shallow lake. He hopes to add another species to the list of species he’s caught — the desert-adapted Lahontan cutthroat trout. Unfortunately for us, the lake appears to be only 6 inches deep.

The wind acts funny around here. Though it is clear the wind is blowing, the clouds hover in place above us. It calls to mind the way you can, among rapids, maneuver your boat into quiet eddies behind rocks in the midst of the maelstrom.

Kip sets his tent up, throwing his sleeping accouterments into the shelter to weigh it down. 

A steady breeze makes it difficult to use our gas range. We build an aluminum foil wind-break which allows us to make this evening’s edition of our trout tacos. This evening’s cocktails start out as rum and cokes, but there isn’t much rum left so we switch to screwdrivers. When the screwdrivers run out we switch to coke and tequila. 

“What’s coke and tequila called?” somebody asks.

“Joanie and Chachis,” says Kip knowing full well it isn’t.

A short time later, as Kip eats his second fish taco, we hear a noise that sounds something like a speeding train. The noise grows in volume until suddenly Kip's tent bounces into the back of his head as part of the leading edge of a vigorous wall of wind. As suddenly as it arrived, it’s over. But Kip gets the hint and ties his tent to his Montero.

The eddy-surfing clouds accompany us into the night. Beyond, a spiral arm of our galaxy once again marches across the sky

I stare transfixed — until exhausted.

My eyes slowly close.

I disappear into oblivion.

Continue to PART FOUR?



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