Eastern Oregon: A Sampler

Eastern Oregon-2041Driving into Oregon from Northwestern Nevada, we were still in the Great Basin, with flat playas in each little basin. After about an hour of driving and futzing around, we came to a T in the road where Highway 140 dead-ended at Highway 205. Logic would say that we only had two choices, turn right deeper into Nevada or turn left towards Oregon, but Michele pointed out that the Winnemucca Chamber of Commerce suggested a third choice. They suggested going straight – cross-country style, I guess – as a better choice. We opted for the road to Oregon (where we had a hamburger in Fields).

Eastern Oregon-2042Driving through Oregon, both Michele and I kept remarking about how wet it was.  True, the hills weren’t wet, but most of the valleys were bright green with intensive farms – ranches? – and even if they were being watered by mining the aquifer, it was wet to us.

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We were running along the bottom of Steens Mountain and, on our right, we could see that subterrarium water, running down from the canyons, was watering the trees that were starting to colonize the valley.

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I understand that it doesn’t look wet to most people, but it would if you had been driving through much drier Nevada for a couple of days. The green is so bright, so intoxicating, that it is easy to understand why most Arab countries have green in their flags. In the Muslims mythology, the color green represents nature and life. As we drive up this long straight road running alongside Steens Mountain, scratching our bug bites, we were sure they are right about the life part…bug life for sure.

Remember those brown rubber doorstops that are wedge-shaped? Now imagine that the wedge is huge, about 50 miles long from north to south – or the other way around if you are coming from the south, like us – and 9,733 feet high. Except that it is not really a wedge, it is a huge block of the earth’s crust that has tilted and looks like a wedge on the surface. The high part of the wedge catches the weather and is eroding, washing down hill into the valley at the low, western, part of the block. This makes the low part heavier – and the high part lighter – further tilting the block. Now imagine that the block is made up of layers and layers of volcanic rock, basalts and lava flows, from about 17 to 14 million years ago. That is Steens Mountain.

What makes the whole thing unusual, is that Steens is a block with only one mountain. As an aside, Steens Mountain is named after Army Major Enoch Steen because he liberated the mountain from the part of the Paiute Indian tribe which, heretofore, considered it their their home. End aside.

We drove up the wedge from the west and, as we got higher, it got wetter and greener. We passed the delightfully named Donner und Blitzen River and climbed into the trees where we camped.

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It had been getting clouding and, the higher we climbed on the mountain, the chances of getting rained on increased. We found an isolated spot in an almost deserted campground and we were set up in time to have a sunset dinner – of fresh salad, raw veggies with Sage and Mushroom Olive Oil, and a barbecued, grass-fed, steak – over looking a dry meadow.

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At about three in the morning, it started to rain lightly and we got up, ran around camp checking everything, and threw our bag into the car, just in time to have it stop. Michele and I looked at each other, shrugged, pulled the bag out, and went back to sleep. The next morning, Michele slept in, which I only mention because, when she was going through my pictures from the last couple of days, she remarked Why didn’t you take any pictures of me sleeping in, in a sort of Don’t you love me anymore voice.

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Then we started up Steens Mountain, driving slowly with the windows down; enjoying the warm air scented with sage and wildflowers.

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Photograph by Michele

When we got high enough to look into the first canyon, it was a revelation for me.   From the valley, these canyon looked just like any other Southwest Canyon, but from on the mountain, I realized they were carved by glaciers.

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As we got higher, we could see all the way to the edge of the world and we also saw one large rain cloud. It was raining but, because it was so dry, the rain wasn’t hitting the ground.

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The top of Steens Mountain was surprisingly flat; tilted but flat. Then, at the tippy top, the edge just dropped away, plunging down into the Alvord Desert, almost a mile below. It was about this time, after we had been out of cell phone range for a couple of days, that Michele’s phone told her that she had a new message, Courtney Gonzales wanted to know if we wanted to join her and Gina to see an Opera that night. Ahhh…the wonder of technology.

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As we left Steens Mountain, she – he? – gave us one more gift: a snow field with a couple of guys filling their ice chests, who replenished our ice.

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As we dropped off of Steens, the landscape went from green to sage to dry-grass and back to green as we got to Frenchglen.

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We were not only in Eastern Oregon, but we were also in the Southern part of the state and had a wedding to go to in Northwestern Oregon, so we made a long haul northwest. The most prominent feature of the landscape, as we drove through long valleys, were the lava flows that formed a capstone over the softer, earlier, ground. The flows must have cooled slowly because they formed columnar formations that were striking.

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By the time we got to Burns – population 2,806 – we felt we were back in the Big City. We weren’t, of course, and we had miles to travel and one more major stop, The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument  .

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There are three separate parts to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and we only went to one, The Painted Hills section where we watched the sunset. From there it was west and a little south, in the fading light, to Prineville where the complaint of the day was that Google had used Union Labor to build their new server farm (rather than local guys).

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