I saw the sun break to the sky today
-- Glenn II
The elderly lady who runs the Miles Motel, has given me a tip for wildlife watching. After a breakfast of chicken fried steak and eggs, I shall follow her and try for a peek at a Sandhill Crane. I have never seen one of these stately birds up close and am eager for the experience.
Waiting for breakfast in the Homestead Restaurant, my attention is attracted to a small display of rocks in a plastic case that sits atop a wood stove. An elderly gentleman from a neighboring table approaches and explains for me.
"The right side is all tracenite." (not sure of the spelling) He points to fanciful shapes in the cut stones. "Here's a Brown Dolphin." He looks at me quite seriously, "I later found out that there really is such a thing as a Brown Dolphin you know. This one here is a top hat."
He points to another stone. "This lady's dress blew up over her head when a gust of wind caught it." I look closer at the rock and smile. She is obviously wearing no panties.
"The left side is Warner Picture Jasper." He points out more imaginative shapes with bashful pride. A twister on the prairie, a seal, an Eskimo, many more.
"You found all of these?" I ask.
"Yessir I did."
I am amazed. It had to have taken many, many painstaking hours to sift through stones out in the wilds, searching, cutting, finding the shapes within. I look at the kindly faced old man with respect for an artist and a romantic.
With my breakfast downed, it is time to move on. Although I follow the advice of my hostess, no Sandhill Cranes seem to be in evidence, but Mule Deer are numerous just about everywhere. They are almost tame. Some of them even approach to within fifty or sixty feet, perhaps to see if I am going to toss goodies to them as many other tourists doubtless have. They mingle freely with the livestock of the ranchers, blurring the boundaries between the untamed and the domestic, fat, healthy deer that many hunters would love to see inside of their rifle sights.
It is time to get into my car and drive southwards, to see something that I have been yearning for. Today I am going to lay eyes upon Lake Abert for the first time.
This lake is all that I could have hoped for. It's gray expanse is grimly beautiful beneath an overcast sky, forbidding, mysterious, waves whipping up briny froth to be hurled about by the desert winds, it is everything that a desert lake should be. This ice age relic is salty, saltier by far than the sea.
Highway 395 skirts Abert's eastern shorline, beneath the imposing shadow of mighty Abert Rim. The rim is the uplifted end of an enormous block of basaltic lava that upended from the pressure of geologic forces back in the miocene period, millions of years ago. Such scarp faulting is responsible for much of eastern oregon's awesome scenic geology. In front of the rim, Abert Lake sits on the lower rear end of another upended fault block, Coglan Butte. These great tilted slabs lay against each other like dominos that have been lined up and pushed over.
Once upon a time, a mere ten thousand or more years ago, Abert and Summer lakes were part of the ancient, pluvial behemoth, Lake Chewaucan. As the glaciers receded and western America dried out, the huge, ancient lake began to dry up, splitting into two.
Summer lake, fresh with adequate drainage, supports fish and a variety of other freshwater aquatic life. Abert is a basin with no drainage, harsh and salty, the final resting place of the Chewaucan river. Nothing that flows into Abert ever leaves again, except by evaporation. All of the incoming salts and other minerals remain. Lake Abert, like Utah's Great Salt Lake, is a haven for Brine Shrimp, odd and tiny little crustaceans that are popular as food for tropical fish. There is little else except for the waterfowl that feed upon the Shrimp.
At Abert's north end, I see broad strips of solid salt laid down along the shoreline, dotted intermittently with only the toughest pickleweeds and saltgrass. Westward on the far side of the lake, a desert wilderness of hundreds of roadless square miles beckons to me, monolithic rock forms dotting the distance, it is an area that will require much more exploration in the future.
Back in Paisley, the weather is rapidly changing. Dark clouds are moving in, the wind has heightened, racing across the desert in vicious, rogue gusts, sending rabbit turds dancing across the flats (literally, I saw them).
The moody aspect of this weather over the town appeals to me, I just wish I could shake the vague undercurrent of anxiety that is nearly always my constant travel companion. will the car break down? Will I get in a wreck and destroy the car? Will I be able to cross the pass tomorrow in order to get back home? All legitimate concerns, but they occupy much more of my mind than they should. I have come here to have fun, not to worry.
I wonder whether to have dinner in the restaurant, or perhaps wait until my stomach tells me it is dinnertime, not because it sounds good. Perhaps a beer in the bar, take some time to relax and think about it.
The beer is good, but I am forced to reflect that the modern brand of country music is total garbage, a fact that is continually brought home by the brain deadening assault from a small television mounted above the bar. Once upon a time there was at least some variety in the vocals if not the music. In the 90's, every male vocalist sounds exactly like every other male vocalist. Every female vocalist sounds identical to every other female vocalist. The exact same mechanical warbles are placed in the strategic spots of each song, the whole thing wearies me. Perhaps it is a symptom of approaching curmudgeonliness brought about by age. 41! Christ! I am ancient.
Despite my general dislike of modern country tunes, Trisha Yearwood's face on the TV bottles sit. One is printed and framed with wood. Perhaps I have written about it before, but with something less than precision.
This bar was built in Boston in 1905 and shipped around the horn to Portland. It was brought to Paisley from Arlington, Oregon in 1906 by a six horse freight wagon driven by Melvin Parker. Appreciating various ornate carvings on the venerable old piece of furniture, scares, whittlings, cigarette burns, all smoothed over by the passage of time and lots of varnish, I drink a toast to good old Melvin, whoever the hell he was.
A decision is reached. Dinner will wait. Time for another quest. Back on the eastern shore of Summer Lake, there is a small gravel pit where I caught a Leopard Lizard on videotape last summer. With luck I may find him again, or some of his kinfolk. It would be nice to log some more close up video of one of these fine looking reptiles. Unlikely as it may be, a real coup would be to film a pair in the act of mating. Hopefully lady luck will smile upon me and those angry clouds will withhold their threatened downpour.
There is a sound in the air that off and on sounds like a jet passing overhead. It is the sound of wind rushing over the buttes and through canyons, weather in motion on the desert. It brings with it, more worry of snowed in mountain passes.
The Leopard Lizard quarry is unproductive, an incoming weather system has cooled things down too much for the comfort of heat loving reptiles. Walking about on gravel that once formed the bed of ancient Lake Chewaucan, I suddenly stop in my tracks. It is a large Western Yellow Bellied Racer, a subspecie of Coluber Constrictor. (despite the scientific name, none of the snakes in this family are actually constrictors). The snake sits loosely coiled around some lumps of gravel. I approach very carefully so as not to startle the creature into swift motion.
Something is fishy here. At first I think that the snake is being still in hopes of not being seen, but after a minute, I realize the truth. It is stone, cold, dead. Why? There do not appear to be any signs of injury. I turn it over and see the story written on the bright yellow belly. A pea sized hole about three inches up from the cloacal vent. It is not a bullet wound, there is no exit hole. The best guess I can surmise, is that perhaps the reptile was run over by a vehicle, while it was on soft sand, the site of it's injury was between a vehicle tire and an unyielding, sharply pointed rock. The snake then crawled away to a different spot and waited to die with reptilian stoicism. Too bad, it was a nice specimen of it's kind.
After dinner I return to my room. The roast pork was rather bland and dissatisfying. The weather has turned chill, but not frigid. With a shock, I look at my empty double bed and realize that I am lonely. Not for the first time, I wonder what this experience would be like with some special someone with me, some violet-eyed girl who likes these ventures into remote places that I am so fond of, a hot body to keep me warm in that desolate looking bed.
There is a cure for this melancholy. I don my evening garb, black jeans, black silk shirt and dark blue trench coat, and walk down to the Pioneer Saloon for a beer. I am quite aware that I will look much different for the locals, but the thought only amuses me.
Formula for kicking loneliness. A couple of beers in the smalltown pub while reading the bartender's stack of Garfield books, a BLT sandwich to go for the midnight munchies, then return to one's motel room to read a good book, in this case, Annie Dillard's famous Pilgrim At Tinker Creek.
After a while, two rather pretty girls come in, one of whom is the blue eyed brunette I am accustomed to seeing in the restaurant, a girl to turn a man's head, but wearing the look of a taken lady.
Others come and go, none staying long, none giving me more than a quick glance where I sit at my table, reading Garfield funnies and nursing my beer. The Garfield comics are indeed funny and I begin to worry that someone may see me trying to suppress my laughter and decide that there is piss in my brainpan. It is time to bow to the inevitible, my empty bed awaits me.
Outside I discover sublime nighttime beauty. The clouds have broken up to reveal inky spaces dotted with blazing stars. From one indigo bordered gap, the moon shines with a brilliant blueish light. I can see streaks of snow on rugged Fir Timber Butte behind the tiny town. They are midnight blue, enchanted beneath the magic spell of stars, clouds and moon. This is a place for lovers and dreamers, songwriters, poets and others who play with words.
A Brazilian rain forest would have nothing over the night sounds coming from the Upper Chewaucan Marsh tonight, as well as the trees and shrubs in my own immdediate vicinity. I feel as if I am strolling through some mystic zoo or aviarium. There is every kind of tweet, honk, whistle, flap or coo coo coo you could imagine. I hear small things skitter away into darkness at either side of the road.
One of the night creatures has focused upon me. A Screech Owl. I cannot see him, but he is apparently following me from tree to tree as I walk down the road, sending a shiver down my spine with his constant calls. What strange message is he trying to give me? Perhaps something important that he cannot make the stupid human understand, a dire warning maybe.
In front of the motel, there is a single, dim, amber light that sheds a ghostly luminescence upon the picnic table by my door. I am the only tenant. Here I sit and open a beer, listening to the invisible menagerie. The motel faces directly into the darkness, the night country of the wetlands and Coglan Butte beyond. I enjoy a silent communing with nature, a deep breathing of brisk air before bed, Annie Dillard's book, and sleep, not to mention the brown bagged BLT sandwich that I almost forgot about. It is crisp and delicious when I bite into it.
Morning is bright, in spite of being half cloudy. I sip an iced mocha and take a last look around, at multitudes of chittering Quail, A grazing Mule Deer, an Arabian horse who swishes her tail as she watches me from her rustic corral. Yesterday I had shamelessly plundered the landlady's sugar cubes to bribe the animal into coming closer. No dice. This fine looking horse is no one's fool. She has probably had a belly full (excuse the pun) of dipshit tourists cooing, oggling, and offering her sickeningly sweet goodies from over the fence.
A Denver omelette and hot, black coffee taste good in a rustic cafe across the highway from Summer Lake national Wildlife Refuge Headquarters. My table is next to a row of windows along one side of the building, where sparrows are nesting, only a couple of feet from me. Hawks and Buzzards wheel lazily in the sky against sun varnished rimrocks. Groups of much smaller birds twitter around in the bright green Cottonwoods.
How ironic, I muse over another sip of coffee, that the greatest springtime explosion of life that I have ever seen, is in the deep interior of a lonely desert. When I take my leave, I drive slowly, watching silver and golden morning sunlight turn Summer Lake into a blinding spectacle beneath looming Tenmile Butte, who's rugged rim is veined with april snow. I will be back to delve deeper, to see and experience more as I unlock the secrets of Sagebrush country.