Sunday, February 06, 2011

Grass and Wind

Spent two days on the east side of the Cascades last week - what in Oregon we call the "dry side" because of the change you encounter crossing the barrier of the mountains. The air dries and warms as it crosses the Cascade Range, and the east side is desert as the west is forest.I drove from The Dalles among the Columbia River south to Redmond in the middle of what geologists call the "High Lava Plain", a route I haven't taken for a while. What's interesting about the trip is the change that occurs as you drive south from the great river valley.

From the river south you ascend through hills like steps, each on higher than the next and cut by sharp valleys that seem trivial after the passageway of the River of the West. But these drainageways are the life of the hill country, providing water and shelter from the cold winds that scour the Columbia Valley in the winter. The roads wind up the valley sides and the ranch houses and small settlements huddle in the draws as far below the high, cold ridgetops as possible.Life thins here, as the hills rise away from the river. There doesn't seem like much to hold a man. The grass is thin, the trees stunted. The soil has a thin, pale look and crumbles from the friable road embankments like the volcanic ash from which it formed. Even the burying grounds look empty, hunched under their forlorn canopy of ragged winter trees, their dead held only tenuously in the ground, even now unwilling to remain in this lonely place.Finally you overtop Tygh Ridge and look south across the plain that extends south the whole way down to nearly the California border, the dun ridges enclosing the dark greens and emeralds of the farmlands in the valleys. Once across Tygh Valley the road runs over the broad arch of grassland that spans the desert between the Tygh and Deschutes Rivers before descending into the little town of Maupin.

Maupin is an absurdity, a tiny clutch of houses huddled down in a bend of the Deschutes with a bridge where the old ferry used to span the river. It probably served as a place for the early white settlers to bring their produce to be sent down the river to The Dalles and then on to Portland, it was the ferry crossing between the Columbia towns and the central Oregon centers like Bend and Madras, but it serves no such purpose today. What vitality it has it combs out of the summer visitors who use it as a entry for playing in the water; rafting, fishing, kayaking - the Deschutes has become a playground of a river. And Maupin is where they come to find a way into the playground. In the winter it has a faintly silly but seedy, untenanted sort of air, like an unemployed balloon man or an out-of-work clown. I have no regrets leaving Maupin behind.Once you climb out of the Deschutes valley you realize that your surroundings have changed again. The grass prairie has given way to sagebrush and juniper. I have heard that these plants and especially the sage that most people, even most Oregonians, think of as the very symbol of Western wild lands were once much less common than today. I don't know if this is true, but what I have heard is that much of the High Desert was once grasslands, and that a combination of overgrazing and the plow disturbed the land enough to allow the sage to take hold. It certainly has south of the Deschutes; the land is gray-green with it, and the air is spicy with its scent.Once you have crossed into the sagebrush sea the last human permanence disappears. The desert has swallowed you up, as it has everyone who has passed this way since the northern Paiute were lords of the desert and their peregrinations were the only human passage through this place.Even now, the single houses, the scattered power transformers, the miles of wire fence, seem to perch on the edge of the wild as if a single cold winter night will cause them to take flight and return the land to the emptiness and the wind and the lonely song of the horned larks that rise and wheel above the sagebrush, announcing their presence to the vacant sky.


Lisa said...

What a wonderful photo/history log. Your sense of place outdoes that of the NYT prairie columnist (Verlyn Klinkenborg) IMHO.

FDChief said...

I am humbled. Just glad you liked it. I'm very fond of the Dry Side.

Lisa said...

Very lovely -- thank you for sharing.