Friday, June 01, 2007

Flat as a Pancake 2: Head East

One of the things I love the best about travelling east through Oregon is passing through the vegetation change that follows the rainfall gradient across the state. From the Cascade Crest down to the edge of the high plateau the forest dries and opens, the wet fir and spruce forest giving way to juniper, lodgepole and ponderosa pine: hunter greens and grays and umber succeeded by feldgrau, golden-yellow and sage.

This zone carries you through the valley of the Deschutes and south of Newberry to the edge of the plateau, where you suddenly drop several hundred feet into the arid Fort Rock Valley and your surroundings change again: this time the trees thin, shrink and finally disappear, the sage and bunchgrass and rabbitbrush take over. Dusty silver, white and ochre dominate. The delirious babbling of the Brewer's sparrow fills the place of the pinyon jays' calling. You have left the soft scent of the woodlands completely behind.

You are in the High Desert.

Before you leave the forest completely, there is one sight to savor: Hole-in-the-Ground. Proving that our pioneer predecessors weren't all humorless literalists, this maar crater is,'s a big hole. In the ground.

Look at the picture and you can see where it is: right at the very edge of the ponderosa forest. To the north and west the forest stretches all the way to the Cascades. To the east, and south; a sea of sage. The hollow left in the earth by the shattering violence of ancient volcanism marks the end of one, and the beginning of the other.

So we stopped, and oohed at the big...hole. Ate some teriyaki jerky. Listened to the campers at the far edge of the rim blast something into oblivion with a rifle. Waited out a brief shower - more virga than actual rain - and moved on...

...into the valley beyond.

We had enjoyed a dusty ride through the ponderosa forest to Hole-in-the-Ground. Now back on the pavement we turned southeast to the town of Silver Lake, supposedly the "largest town" in Lake County. We found this risible, akin to billing a three-inch high pile of marbles on your living room floor "the largest pile of marbles in the living room!" Being the largest town in Lake County is like being the biggest chihuahua or the largest jumbo shrimp. I'm sorry. It just doesn't impress anybody. And let's just pass over the creepy looking little store with the fat guy smoking out front, and the slasher-movie deserted buildings. Oh, and the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall? WTF? How many Jehovah's Witnesses can there be in Silver Lake? What, do all the JWs east of the Cascades swim back here to spawn or something? Go figure.

Okay, so Silver Lake is wierd in a kind of David Lynch-y way. has the Cowboy Dinner Tree. Now anyplace you can tuck into a 1/3 of a cow works for me. And we were hungry, and the other dining choices in Silver Lake looked pretty skeevy. So we made the long, long drive south to the - and it actually says this in the guidebook, so don't look at me that way - shacky little buildings out in the sagebrush.

Oh, man, did those steaks smell good.

Of course, we didn't have reservations, and the deal with the C.D.T. is that people come from, like, Pomona and Ottawa to eat there. So we didn't get a faceful of tasty Silver Lake cowboy grub. But we DID have a lovely talk with the nice lady in the gift-shop-and-waiting-room, who still remembered gasoline-powered irons, and got to enjoy...

...the family of nesting mountain bluebirds in the eaves. I think these birds are the most attractive of the genus Sialia, prettier than the other bluebirds as they are than, say, the crows. You can see the female about to fly from the nest-eave in the picture at left. Her lovely dove-gray foreparts contrast with the bright cerulian wings and tail; her mate is even more vibrant, a goegeous azure blue that reflects an iridescent sheen in the light. Both parents were, as Mojo and I exchanged a look, working their bluebird asses off to keep the next generation in grubs and free of used insect larva.

On the way north from our failed attampt at dinner I prevailed on my bride to relax, read and indulge my pursuit of terns on Paulina Marsh. We had lots of red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, snipe winnowing over the flooded fields, a prairie falcon looking rather ragged from moult like a badly hung-over Horus and several spectacular cinnamon teal. But no terns.

Until suddenly: there! Bouncing in the air as if inflated with helium, turning, looping weightlessly, the flight of the hunting black tern is a wonder to see. I seldom enjoy these birds, their habitat being so far from our Portland home, but I love to watch them when I can. They seem so innocent of gravity, a thing purely of the air and stranger to the crawling concerns of the ground. I stood in the gravel road and watched the four of them until they were black specks in the evening sky. Nice.

We had a steak dinner - no 24-ounce hand-cooked sirloin for us - in the little pub n' grub in Fort Rock town. No 4-star cuisine but hot and meaty and a cold beer to cut the dust...ahhh...

That night we camped a Cabin Lake, a primitive site hacked into the very edge of the ponderosa forest by the USFS back in the Nineteen-teens. A well dating back to 1916 for stock grazing provides water, but the pit toilet was vandalized and never repaired. The Forest Service seems determined to let Cabin Lake dwindle, and were it not for the "guzzlers" and associated bird blinds behind the guard station buildings it probably would have returned to the desert already. I have spent some peaceful nights there, often alone, as the campsite is often deserted off-season or during the week. So far from the works of man the stars are ablaze, as bright and immediate as they must have been for the first humans to wonder at and invent tales and legends to fill the dark velvet hours.

But - the blinds are there, and so are the birds. We "enjoyed" a very noisy Lewis' woodpecker stationed right above our tent. I honestly thought that most birds were diurnal. I swear. How the hell can you see bark beetles at night, you 'pecker? The next moring it was smokin' hot finch-on-finch bird action at the blind: bathing, drinking, whoa buddy... The little flock includes Cassin's finches, red crossbills and house finches. A couple of pretty little Chipping sparrows dropped in for a drink a bit later, and another Lewis' spent a long time trying to pick insects off a tiny sagebrush stalk. Busy, birdy morning and a nice way to wake up.
Part of the fun of the guzzlers is that the birds are so used to the blinds that once you have been inside for several minutes they use them as perches, and so you can hear the whirr of their wings and the scrabble of their clawed feet. It's rather like crouching inside one of those hamster balls while your budgie scrambles around on top. You feel a little bit like prey.
Meanwhile, back at the tent Mojo had slept in but arose vampire-hungry. We both needed some better coffee than the godawful sludge I boiled up in the percolator. So it was back into town for breakfast. And then up the road to Fort Rock.
I'm not sure why so many websites and information booklets call Fort Rock a maar: it's not, or at least not a typical maar, and you can tell by looking at it. Looks nothing like Hole-in-the-Ground, right? That's because it's a tuff ring, a donut of shattered magma erupted into the Ice Age Fort Rock Lake. It must have been a hell of a sight, exploding and steaming in the shining Pleistocene pluvial lake and sending flamingos and ibis rocketing. Now the breached walls are dry, and the flamingos present only in plastic on the scrubby lawns in Fort Rock town to the south. Now there is only stone, and wind, and the intermittent noises of the short-lived people who come and leave Fort Rock to the lizards, the birds and the desert flowers.

The rain of the preceding day must have brought these flowers out in profusion. We saw a wild variety of tiny white, cerise, bright yellow and purple blooms tucked into the plants of the desert floor. These colorful ephemera made a nice contrast with the silver-gray sage and the warm tan and brown of the stone.

Which, as you can see, is spectacular in itself.

Together Mojo and I climbed to the west rim of the rock ring.

"By the north gate
where the wind blows
full of sand,
I climb the towers and towers to watch out the barbarous land"

I don't know if there's anything I can add to the pictures. Fort Rock is the beauty of the high desert: stark, angular, harsh, with little of the soft and beckoning beauty of the lush forests of the Cascades or the Coast Range. Fort Rock doesn't beckon. It defies, and the kind of people who come here to stay are a hard and realistic breed.

And they came early - within several thousand years of the arrival of the first of the mastodon hunters from Berengaria. They stayed in the rock shelters along the great Lake, hunted, fished, weaved their sagebrush and tule sandals, and left for somewhere else ... or returned as the northern Paiute peoples. Or so the Paiute say. There's really no way of knowing. And the scraps of reed and sage in Fort Rock Cave aren't telling, either.

By now the day was getting hotter, and we were frankly longing more than a little to get out of the sun and closer towards our home and the Little Pea. We discussed a drive to Crack-in-the-Ground (funny, all of these "-in-the-ground" things out here, innit) but were too dusty and tired.

Instead, we got back in the now-dirt-colored "Freestyle" and barreled up the highway, back through the subdivisions, back through the campers and RVs and semis, the chicken-and-jo-jo places, the minimarts and gas stations. Back to the land of sprinklers and cheese fries.

We did take a long cooling break along the Deschutes River at La Pine S.P., sprawled in the grass, reading and just doing nothing. A last nod to nature, if of the most tamed and domestic sort.
Note to the reader: Chris Moore's "A Dirty Job"? Laugh-your-ass-off funny. Give it a chance. Didn't find "Practical Demonkeeping" quite far enough over the top? Okay. This one is. Trust me.

And, for the record, the "Big Tree", ol' "Big Red"? It's not so big.
We had a lovely dinner a deux in Bend, spent the night and then home the next day to a very lonely Peeper and slightly dazed looking Grammy and Grampy. Tanned, ready and rested for the next eighteen years of parenthood.


walternatives said...

Flabbergasted with this rich post - I feel like I was with you two! The flora and fauna, the links, the photos - all in all, great documentation. Wish you could have eaten at the CDT; the first photo of it made me think it was an abandoned building. And where did that name come from Cowboy Dinner Tree? Hanging the cow on a tree to butcher it? Hmmm.

atomic mama said...

I also felt a pang of disappointment that the CDT couldn't accommodate y'all! But everything else? I love it, I love it, I love it! Welcome home.

Millicent said... terns.

And, please, live finch-on-finch action? I don't know if I'm gonna let Thor go birding with Uncle Chief.