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?
SEE ALSO: PART ONE
SEE ALSO: PART TWO