“Fill ‘er with regular, please.” I said to the attendant as I handed over my plastic. “Fine weather, ain’t it?”
“Shore is,” he affirmed, glancing up at the cloudless cobalt sky and smiling. He swiped my credit card and handed it back in one motion. Looking to be right about my age (63), sandy-colored, sun-burnt, stocky and dressed like a cowboy, he proceeded to fill ‘er up as I went and grabbed a squeegee out of the nearest bucket.
“I’ll wash your windshield,” he offered.
“That’s alright. I could use some exercise.”
After peeking inside the car at Trisha, Abel and Jeff, the fellah looked at me and asked, “So where ya’ll headed?”
“Down to Malheur Lake. We’re out to maybe see some coots.”
He laughed. “Coots we’ve got. Ducks, geese, swans, cranes — you name it. Why just a couple of hours ago a big flock of pelicans flew over the highway here heading for downtown.”
With the Big Sandy Desert flatlands to the west, the Ochoco Mountains (Oh-Chee-Coz) and the sky-scraping Strawberries to the north, the rolling sagebrush Stinkwaters to the east and tall, glaciated, snowbound, 50-mile-long Steens Mountain to the south, Burns, Oregon, is an oasis in the Cold Desert. It’s a place of gathering winds and waters in a region where there’s plenty of the one and usually not a drop of the other. Although Burns is the seat of the great County of Harney (9th largest in the US, by golly), and a fuel stop on US Hwy. 395 (the western leg of the Pan American/Al-Can highway), Burns is just a cow town about as close as you can get to the middle of nowhere.
“With all these irrigated alfalfa fields,” I ventured, “I bet ya’ll get a fine crop of mosquitoes come summer.”
“Shore do. Find yourself in the wrong spot and they’ll let you know.”
“Bet you get some serious winds, too.”
“Boy do we: instant freezes, sandstorms and Chinooks. We get knee-knocking cold, too, and enough heat to make you shrivel up like a leaf.” He paused, surveyed his surroundings, then smiled at me and said, “I like it myself. It keeps the people away.”
After we both laughed at his joke, he turned thoughtful. “To tell the truth, I can’t take it like I could when I was a kid. The cold’s colder, the hot’s hotter and the wind sometimes gets on my nerves. If it weren’t for all the hunting and fishing, chances are I’d be gone from here.”
* * *
After spending more than a month working overtime to complete a restaurant remodeling job in Portland, Abel arrived here in Prineville in need of a couple of days off. Although, a working fool like his daddy, he was ready to get started on the home improvement projects we’d laid out. Still, when I suggested we put off the chores and go and have some fun, he didn’t object. The longer you dig and scratch, the better it feels licking your paws.
We’d crisscrossed the Great Basin during our three decades of family car-camping and backpacking trips, but none of us had ever been to Burns before (tucked below the basin’s pinched northeast corner, Burns is 225 miles north of Winnemucca, Nevada). Since it’s only 110 miles away from Prineville, and the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (it’s on the Pacific Flyway) and single fault-block Steens Mountain are places National Geographic magazine has featured, when I suggested we all take a day trip out that way, everybody agreed it was a good idea. Spring is the best time to go and spring it was.
Prineville is located at the fork of Ochoco Creek and the Crooked River (it sure enough is crooked). For miles around the ground is river-bottom flat. The ground’s so flat that, when the streets are covered with snow, you can drive around town without using chains (running snowplows is seen as a waste of public money around here). At only 2,900 feet above sea level, Prineville is about as low as you can get east of the Cascades. Because downstream the river enters a slot canyon and carves between vertical basalt cliffs 300 feet tall, any way you go, to get out of Prineville you’ve gotta climb out. Topographically speaking, we’re in what the old Mountain Men called “a hole.” We’re in a hole so deep that the town is invisible until you get right up on it; so deep that the vast juniper-covered plain atop the tall rim-rocked bluffs standing westward is called the bottomlands.
So we get in the car, switchback up the highway to the top of the bluff and then turn due south on George Millican Road. George founded the now ghost town called Millican down on US Hwy. 20, that ribbon of interstate commerce that connects Oregon’s Pacific port of Newport to the city of Chicago. What’s there in between? To the west lies Corvallis, Lebanon, Sisters and Bend; to the east: Burns, Boise, Jackson Hole, Casper, Sioux City, Cedar Falls and, gracing the west bank of the Mighty Mississippi, Dubuque.
Before we moved up here, I never knew Western Junipers grew in pure stands or that they sometimes live to be to 2,000 years old. But the 40-mile straight-shot length of the Millican Road is lined with a continuous stand of pure juniper: juniper, sagebrush, rabbit bush, clump grasses and lava rocks. Not a single pine tree, fir or willow anywhere; not a cottonwood, birch or oak. Deep and silver green, red cinder, sorrel clay and white, yellow and purple-flowered, the dwarf forest seems to reflect light; its twisted figures like Josiah trees sporting fur coats and frosty blue berry bling. Breaks between the canopies reveal what look to be alleys twisting into a maze. How can the animals find their way around inside there?
Although, with the Crooked River canyon to our south, we’re traversing the lower lip of the bottomlands, the ground keeps climbing, very subtlety at first but more and more obviously as we get along. About halfway to Hwy 20 is Alfalfa Hwy, Millican’s one and only crossroad. The stop sign planted there is so out of scale and place that, in addition to the signs warning of its approach, there’s a blinking yellow beacon hanging from wires above it. At stop sign we see our first car.
The next 14 miles is more of the same. Then the road turns east and begins quartering up the side of a tall, fairly steep ridge. Below to the east the ground opens up and we spot a dry, boulder-strewn, zigzag arroyo speckled with lone junipers here and there. At the knife-edge summit, the junipers disappear and there it is: snaking away to our east and west a wandering tree line riding the rim between the Columbia River Plateau and the Great Basin; to our front the Big Sandy Desert. Halted on the tippy-top, we lose our eyes in a vast tawny-green expanse dotted with ground-hugging shrubs no taller than a Ki-Oat. Nowhere a tree to be seen, the landscape’s only ornamentation being the low, smooth and naked mountain ranges that stretch into a vanishing point 100 miles away. As if to put an exclamation point on the change, the south face of the ridge is only half as tall as its opposite and we reach the bottom and Hwy 20 in a minute.
It’d been a good long while since we’d had shimmering highway mirages escorting us like lead horses. Since we were heading east and it wasn’t too long after sunrise, we were accompanied by highway mirages pretty much the whole way to Burns. When about an hour later we crested a rise just before Wagontire Junction, off on the southeast horizon we saw a mirror-like lake wedded to the sky that, as we descended, evaporated into a brown notch in the Stinkwater Mountains.
Before the California Cattle Barons moved in and, along with plenty of others, began diverting water for flood irrigation, during the wettest years Malheur Lake and its little sidekick, Harney, filled with so much snowmelt that they joined together with the nearby ponds, flooded the tules and made a body of water covering more land area than Lake Tahoe. During the most severe sustained droughts, both lakes disappeared altogether. So far it’s been the driest year in Oregon’s recorded history and now the lakes are so low that nearly all of the waterbirds paddling around are hidden behind miles of marchland. We do see hundreds of white pelicans flying in what looks like a whirlpool above what must have been a school of fish. We see lots of ducks and other birds and — this was nice — during a hike we got up close to a bunch of coots grazing a patch of grass. Sort of goofy-looking and clumsy on land, coots are also known as mud hens.
With not much to see, and in no hurry get home, we decide to head straight north and take the long way back. When again would the four of us get the chance to drive the 70-mile-stretch of US 395 between Burns and John Day? So, after backtracking and passing through “Historic” downtown Burns, we cross the two forks of the lower Silvies River and ascend through the rocky canyon of Poison Creek. Here again we see junipers and fractured basalt palisade skylines crowned with lone trees, stone hoodoos and gremlins. After a few miles we leave the creek and climb up a mountainside forested with ponderosa, Doug fir and lodge pole, and soon reach Devine Summit (5,340ft.), a shady and well-watered crest that may well seem “divine” if it’s summer and you’re up from the desert; not so divine if it’s the dead of winter. Beyond, after a very short descent, we rejoin the Silvies River. From here and all the way to the divide some 30 miles away, the Silvies lazily braids through a lush sub-alpine meadow broken up into cattle ranches, their low-slung HQs set in windbreaks far off the highway and miles away from each other, the surrounding forested hills like cupped hands holding water. Up ahead the 20-mile-long wall of the snowbound Strawberry Mountains, their namesake peak (9,038ft.) a pyramidal beam of white light, frames the sky just east of north, seemingly growing taller with our approach.
When we reach the rim and say goodbye to the Great Basin, you’d never know it. No sign marks the spot and the pass is nameless — unless you call “Summit, 5,152ft.” a name. Descending into the deep V-shaped canyon of the aptly named Canyon Creek, the forest thins to a line edging the water and the rugged heights are spotted with clinging bushes.