by Wayne Christensen

More Adventures of the Desert Rat...

I find myself surrounded by a
serene and timeless silence that
blends itself into sublime
desolation with the skill of an
artist working a palette, at once
subtle and brazen beneath
cobalt heavens, where the fire
of life burns down upon tawny
soil. I like it.

The evening has assumed that magical, golden quality so typical of high desert summer. We have just finished setting up camp and fighting with carnivorous Yellow Jacket wasps for our supper. Now it is time for relaxation with what daylight remains.

My oldest brother and my sister, along with their respective wife and husband have joined my nephew Jason and I for a late summer campout in eastern Oregon.

Jason and I had planned on heading out in that direction in the first place in order to slake our desert fever. When we found that the others were going our way, we decided to join forces for as long as the paths of both parties should converge. Consequently, late afternoon found us all together amidst Ponderosa forested uplands east of Klamath Marsh.

The evening warmth is luxurious as we laze about in camp chairs, sucking on various beverages hot and cold, telling lies while the high desert sun imparts coppery highlights to widely spaced Ponderosa canopies above. Our camp site is just barely high enough above open Lake County desert to put us into Pine domination transition zone between Sagebrush desert and subalpine forest. Western Junipers are scattered amidst the stately pines with clumps of Sage peeking at us from bristling thickets of Antelope Bitterbush.

While the others are content to relax and soak up the soft evening ambience, my sister's husband and I are too restless to just sit around while plenty of daylight remains for some on foot exploration.

An old road, little more than a wide path in the pumice and ash soil beckons to us. We stride lazily through the enchanted desert forest, watching Golden Mantled Squirrels scurrying across fallen trees that have been barked and silvered by time. They may have fallen five years ago, or twenty five. Decay takes place very slowly in this dry land that is cold for much of the year.

Dotting the cinder strewn soil are dark blocks of lava, each in use as a perch by it's resident Western Fence Lizard. The small reptiles watch us warily with glittering black eyes, racing to the opposite sides of their personal rocks if we venture too close.

If one searches diligently enough, gorgeous little Western Skinks can be found, their lovely cobalt tails gleaming like blue metal. Only a few inches long, this tiny lizard is one of North America's most beautiful reptiles.

Rattlesnakes are almost gone from Lake county, mostly wiped out by human idiots who feel a strange compulsion to kill any such creature they may happen upon. The "Camp Hero" brandishing a nickel plated Gun Show pistol in one hand and a beer in the other, is always eager to bravely "Save" his loved ones from an awful death by destroying any serpent that may be skulking towards them, never mind the fact that it is they who are trespassing, not the snake.

The morons who grope the hardest for an excuse to kill something invariably spread the same saddlesore nonsense about Rattlers purposefully stalking small children. They tend to spread stories about distant relatives who were surrounded and attacked by the reptiles and other such total idiocy that belongs with fanciful tales of "Hoop" snakes and other trash that distances us from the very real and wonderful natural world, an utter shame.

Our camp lays just inside the border of the hydrological Great Basin, that point at which no water leaves this largest and least inhabited desert of America. Water escapes from this strange and vast land only by evaporation. Runoff residue leaves it's mark in numerous ghost lakes of dry, alkali mud and salt.

Standing on the edge of one of these eerily flat basins, a person may indeed see phantom waves of distant, nonexistent waters, rippling spookily blue beneath a saphire sky.

Eons of evaporation have left some of eastern Oregon's deep desert valleys so salty that even the quintessential Sagebrush is unable to grow, replaced by such salt tolerant vegetation as Shadscale, Saltgrass and Pickleweed. On the barren alkali flats, soil toxicity is such that nothing grows except some Algae during infrequent wet spells.

Despite the lack of vegetation, rare heavy rains bring forth an explosion of flourishing life to these inhospitable sinks. The cool waters soak down into the hard, chemical laden mud where odd and wonderful things begin to happen. Mummified little cysts of organic materiel begin to swell and open. Billions of microbes begin to swim and multiply in the pale muck, like some staged reenactment of the birth of life on Earth, some three billion years ago.

Into this microbial soup of furious life and death, come the larger things to gather up the free lunch, things that you can see without a microscope, although a magnifying glass is still useful. Brine shrimp appear by the million, their lacey appendages frantically fanning the murky water for edible morsels. The giants of this weird, watery world are the Tadpole Shrimp. Only vaguely Tadpole shaped, these alien looking creatures spend most of their existence as miniscule eggs entombed in the rock-hard salty mud of the barren playas, springing into sudden existence with the falling rains. With their flattened, spade shaped heads and segmented tails, these creatures make one think of some of the armored post-Cambrian fish that once swam in warm, Silurian lakes and seas.

Back in camp, evening is rapidly closing. A makeshift poker table has been put together where my brother, sister and respective spouses are preparing to do battle with a deck of playing cards in the yellow light of a gas lantern.

My nephew Jason seems to be up to something altogether different. No one pays much attention to him until we are suddenly bombarded by voices and music. Collective gasps of horror go up at the sight of a television perched upon the tailgate of his truck, it's surreal light shining on the rustic bark or nearby Ponderosas. Attached to the truck's canopy is a sinister looking black satellite dish.

"What the hell?"

"Turn that damned thing off!"

"Where's my gun?"

"Kill him!"

The contraption is quickly shut down in the face of united opposition, the lovely evening sounds of high desert Pine forest are restored.

Daytime desert heat is quickly reflected back into the clear night sky as countless stars spring forth with scintillant brilliance. The Big Bear, aka Ursa Major, rules over the collection of cold white, fiery points of light. Not as spectacular, but much more important is Polaris, the dim north star, around whom, the entire sky revolves in a slow and stately dance.

Ursa Minor and Ursa Major are chaperoned by the intervening Draco, a string of white embers winding sinuously between them. The distant galaxy Andromeda, is a very dim and blurry smudge in the sky, best seen if you look slightly to one side. Orion The Hunter rises much later, slowly winning his year long battle for ascendancy until he finally rules the night in mid-winter.

The poker game comes to an end and soon no one is awake but my brother Glenn, Jason and myself. Jason and Glenn settle down to watch "The Beast From 20.000 fathoms" while I wander about the fringes of camp aimlessly, cold beer in hand, enjoying the peaceful night on this, my last desert trip of the year.

Morning comes. After a greasy breakfast in a Silver Lake cafe, our party splits up. Jason and I are going to continue east, farther into the open desert that we both love. The others are more into the sedate comfort of tourist style camping. They are going to head west and spend a night at Paulina Lake, inside of forested Newberry Crater. It is a fine place if you want to be corraled up with a couple thousand other camping tourists. Jason and I are having none of that business.

Our first stop after saying goodbye to the others is the east end of Summer Lake, a place I know well and have named the "Leopard Lizard Quarry" for it's numerous reptiles. This small gravel pit lives up to it's name. Right away we locate and photograph two juvenile Leopard Lizards. Since they have not yet absorbed enough solar radiation for a high level of activity, we find it easy to approach the large headed lizards where they hide amidst gnarled Sagebrush stems.

Jason points out a very small Pygmy Horned Lizard, gently holding the tiny animal while I snap a photo, then releasing it. I have seen these reptiles in the Fort Rock Valley, but thus far, this desert plain between Summer Lake and Paisley is the only part of Oregon where I have ever observed Leopard Lizards. My previous experiences with these shy and swift lizards had been in central Nevada, where I found them virtually impossible to get close to. They flee with amazing speed when one is still twenty or thirty feet away. Like the Collared Lizards, Leopard Lizards may run on their hind legs on flat ground.

The Leopard Lizard may be Oregon's largest lizard. Near Salt Wells in Nevada, I have observed individuals that I estimated to be in the neighborhood of sixteen inches from snout to tip of tail, rivaling southern California and Arizona's Desert Iguana.

Jason's next discovery is an obsidian arrowhead that gleams in the morning sun as I photograph it. I experience the usual eerie feeling as I touch this human artifact that may be thousands of years old, yet still looks much as it did on that long distant day when strong, sun bronzed fingers chipped it into existence from a hunk of shapeless stone.

This gravel pit that once formed part of the bottom of ancient lake Chewaucan, is not done surprising us yet. Fist sized Agates lay all around us, initially unnoticed. Jason is ecstatic as he examines one huge Agate after another. I begin to suspect that it may have been rock hounds who dug this small quarry. Agates are not the only mineral treasure in these warm sands. During a previous trip, I found a Sun Stone in this same spot. I wonder what future explorations will reveal in this land of endless surpise.

The country along highway 31 is relatively new to Jason and we are temporarily undecided as to where we should head next. Jason consults his well thumbed Oregon atlas and points to a dirt road that lays a couple of miles ahead of us. It leads northeast over rugged desert hills, eventually coming out at mysterious Lake Abert.

"Whaddya think?"

"Let's go for it."

About a mile up the highway, a small tragedy occurs while I am staring out the window at rugged and colorful buttes along Winter Rim.

"Something just ran out in front of us." Jason says. "I think I hit it."

"Let's back up and take a look."

The luckless victim is a splendid adult Leopard Lizard, fully twelve inches in length. The tip of it's long tail still twitches. The body seems to vibrate in my hand, warm and vital as it's life energy runs out. The granular skin is soft and pleasant feeling. My nephew and I share a mutual distaste over being the cause of this fine desert animal's demise, but as someone much wiser than I once said, "Shit happens."

Shortly, we take a left, heading northward on Jason's mysterious dirt road. A small agricultural station is the last sign of civilization as the truck bumps and grinds it's way up the bajada through a boulder strewn canyon. I am once again surprised that there are no Collared Lizards perched upon the surrounding basalt boulders. It has always been my experience that Leopard Lizards and Collareds are generally found fairly close together. Habitate preferences for both species differ only on a minor level. Leopards like open flats, while Collareds generally seem to prefer the surrounding, rocky bajadas. Thus, the two large and somewhat similar (in body shape) lizards do not seem to directly compete.

There are behavioral differences in the two species as well. I have never been able to get within twenty feet of a sun warmed, fully active adult Leopard. They spring wildly, throwing up a characteristic spray of sand as they vanish with amazing speed. On the other hand, Collared's seem to be comparatively slow and stupid. I have never had any difficulty getting close to them. For a really close up look, one need only wriggle the fingers of one hand a couple of feet in front of the lizard and grab it from behind with the other hand. Be prepared however, to be swiftly rewarded with a series of vicious bites. The jaws of both Leopard and Collared Lizards are large and powerful.

We wind our dusty way farther up into the rugged canyon as Side Blotched Lizards zip across the pitted road and huge birds of prey are startled from rocky perches, lifting off with a ponderous flapping of great wings. The rutted road continues to lead us windingly upwards through jumbled boulders and twisting canyons. It is the type of country that makes you expect to see Bandana faced bandits come bursting out of the nearest gulch on sturdy horses, six guns a blazing.

At length we chug up onto a broad plateau, the backside of those huge buttes that overlook the Chewaucan marshes. The dusty yellow of the canyons has given way to a vast, flat expanse of crusty brown soil, liberally strewn with cinder gravel and small boulders of the omnipresent lava. This wild scene is very reminiscent of footage from Africa's Kalahari desert that I have watched on television. Very little imagination is needed to picture herds of Wildebeest and Zebra beneath the bleaching midday sun, feeding on the stunted clumps of Sage. Indeed, there are the hoofprints of ungulate animals everywhere. Cattle.

Ahead, tgo the east, I see a distant black wall running north and south, the forbidding shadow of Abert Rim, guiding us to briney Lake Abert and highway 395. After a supply stop in Lakeview, we breifly continue southeast on highway 140 before turning north towards Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and Warner Valley. This area is new to me and I am burning with curiosity as we rapidly rise in elevation, climbing the last mountain seperating us from the valley.

This place is desert rat heaven in Oregon. To the east looms the massive bulk of Hart Mountain, a typical if huge, uplifted fault block. It hangs threateningly over Crump Lake and the tiny community of Plush like an enormous tidal wave turned to stone by a capricious Medusa.

To our west is a golden expanse of desert that stretches for miles to the Coyote Hills and distant Hogback Summit. The desert is sparsely spotted with Greasewood and other shrubs that can handle salt saturation. Here and there we can see snow-white patches of pure salt that glisten in the brassy afternoon sun.

There is a series of blue lakes of various sizes leading northward for miles into the distance, seperating Hart Mountain's towering mass from the tawny desert. The mountainside itself is a thing of splendor in the ever more golden light of a westering sun. Every couple of miles or so, there are green, wooded canyons leading up the face of the otherwise arid looking mountain. By at least a couple of these canyons are conveniently placed shelves of flat rock that would make perfect camps. I would be perfectly happy to stop here while there is still some daylight left for a bit of on-foot exploration. However, Jason seems to have become almost maniacally intent upon continuous driving.

We wind our way out onto the open desert valley. Except for the northward stretching line of round lakes, this is one of the dryest valleys I have seen in the state, certainly the saltiest, more reminescent of northern Arizona or central Nevada than Oregon.

Our road leads us cloes alongside one of the smaller lakes and we are surprised to see a number of people fishing. Trucks and tents are strewn about amidst Greasewood clumps and saltpan. The anglers are a pretty good indication that this water is free of excessive salinity, despite a great deal of salt that is obviously present in the surrounding landscape. Apprently, enough water is shed by the mountain to keep these lakes well flushed.

We slowly but surely leave the mountain behind us as we continue westward. Suddenly, we come to a stop. I leap out of the truck to pick up a hefty snake who had been crawling across the sandy road. It is a beautiful Great Basin Gopher Snake, a male in the peak of health. Sunlight breaks up into iridescent little rainbows on his warm, muscular hide. The snake is very docile, almost as if accustomed to handling. After taking a couple of photos, I carry it a hundred yards or so off of the road, pointing him in the same direction in which he had been heading. The snake goes busily upon it's way and I hope that it will not turn around and return to it's suicidal basking spot, as the next motorist to come along may just as easily kill the animal either accidentally, or with malice and forethought.

As Hart Mountain grows smaller behind us, we cross the central stretch of Warner Valley. Here the desert soil is a kind of dark, reddish brownb and signs of cattle are again visible, although I cannot imagine what they find to eat here. Only stunted Sage and Greasewood shin gold in the late sun, clinging stubbornly to the bare soil. A few more miles go by and the soil changes to mostly bone-white sand. We stop to look over a small dry wash that looks as if it belongs in the central Mojave, a thousand miles south of us. The wash's sandy bottom is spotted with black lava, smoothed and flattened by flash flood torrents, scoured to an immaculate ebony.

Parched hills ahead mark the western boundary of Warner Valley, blocking evening sunlight so that the dry wash is enveloped by a soft, pastel glow. The dry air is beautifully balmy. Somehow it seems difficult to beleive that this is Oregon, not somewhere hundreds of miles to the south.

A bit more driving and we rendezvous with highway 395 on Hogback Summit, high above Lake Abert. Here we see a small herd of Pronghorn strung out along a hillside. The quasi-Antelopes look beautiful in the yellowish orange sunlight on this side of the hills. Farther north, I prevail upon Jason to stop near a small cluster of desert dunes that I have previously visited.

The sun is almost gone, but enough of it remains to work a marvelous transformation upon the desert hills east of us. They become bathed in glorious shades of soft copper and gold, rivaling anything that I have ever seen for sheer beauty. In the thrall of this lonely splendor, Jason and I have become somewhat ecstatic, stumbling about on the soft and silky dunes, intoxicated by evening's wonderous spell in this desert paradise. South of us, towards Alkali Lake Playa, an azure sky slowly deepens into indigo, streaked with salmon pink, violet and gold. Evenings like this are one of the desert's many treasures, something to be experienced in the flesh. Neither words nor cameras can ever adequately capture such a joyous time.

With a blazing confusion of stars overhead, we make camp at a different dune field miles to the west, near Christmas Valley. The air is filled with hundreds of nocturnal white moths that are attracted to any light source. In order to grill our steaks withouth them becoming coated with crisped insects, it is necessary to set out a couple of battery powered lamps around camp to act as moth decoys. within a short time, the number of insects gathered about the lights is incredible. Our lanterns are scarcely visible through the macabre, fluttering cloud.

We discover another potentially bothersome critter in our midst when Jason breifly snaps his flashlight on as though warned by some sixth sense. He is somewhat horrified to see that there are scorpions almost everywhere underfoot. A feisty acting little yellowish fellow attempts to seek shelter beneath his foot. Jason's hair literally stands on end as he skips away. I quickly double check my tent to be sure that the door is tightly zipped. My shoes and clothing will spend the night inside of the tent with me.

I do not know much about this particular specie of scorpion, lathough I doubt that they are particularly dangerous. Nonetheless i would prefer not to be stung by that wicked looking barb that they drag along behind their crustaceous looking little bodies. Contrary to most artistic protrayals, Scorpions seldom move about with the tail curved up over the body, only when the animal is on the alert and use of the stinger is imminent. Teasing the stinger with a small twig or wire quickly produces a droplet of cloudy venom.

My 20 year old son Aaron, commonly picks Scorpions up by the stinger, holding it between thumb and forefingers with the bar pointing harmlessly outwards between the two, a practice that he may feel secure enough with, but leaves a lot to be desired for my comfort. As in spider bites, the main danger of being stung is when the creature becomes trapped between you and some other obstacle, such as clothing. Thus pinned and in danger of being crushed, the Scorpion, like any other living creature, attempts to defend itself as best it can.

The night becomes cold soon. In this high desert country, late august is already chill with the breath of autumn after sunset. As sun warmed sands quickly cool, Scorpions and other small ectothermic animals rapidly seek hiding places for the night, vanishing in a period of minutes.

In late morning sunshine, Jason and I hike down an old path near Fossil Lake. The sun is intensely bright, reflecting from blazing white snad and gnarled Rabbitbrush. Hundreds of Rabbitbrush blossoms form splotches of unnaturally bright yellow amidst the Sage as lizards streak from clump to clump like ghostly little phantoms. The trail, a long unused dirt road, leads us to a big, very flat field that at first glance looks like a green meadow. I suppose it is, in a way, but these are no lush mountain grasses dotted with summer wildflowers and buzzing honeybees. The entire field is covered with a harsh and wirey mat of Saltgrass and Pickleweed. The plants are so encrusted with salt that we can hear it crunch underfoot. Some grass blades are coated with up to a quarter inch of the mineral.

There are places near the center of this field where no living greenery whatsoever has managed to nbreak through the hot, white crust. Moisture is close to the surface here, creating patches of saline saturated mud that exhudes an evil, sulphurous odor. Overhead, a lone vulture wheels in a surrealistic blue sky. A few distant bird calls and the buzzing of insects only seem to add to a great stillness in this alien looking place.

Jason calls my attention to a small pool of open water only a couple of feet across, but with no visible bottom. Surrounded by a ring of white salt several feet wide on all sides, the blue water seems to be so diluted with brine that it has the viscosity of pancake syrup. A ghastly hole into some quicksalt netherworld? Neither Jason nor I have any desire to venture onto the salt crust to see how far we can push a stick into that weird blue pool.

At the south end of the field, I crest a low ridge to see what looked like virgin Sagebrush desert. The big Sagebrush grows tall and thick for miles here, too thick to walk through, totally unbroken except for occassional clearings of snowy white sand. There is no sign of over grazing, or any grazing whatsoever for that matter, only the ageless looking hoary Sage intermingled with brilliant Rabbitbush flowers. The landscape before me may have been a scene from the primeval Oregon desert of ten thousand years ago, where Saber Toothed cats still stalked the wiley Pronghorn and black haired, sunbronzed people chipped obsidian into sharp spear and arrow points. I find myself suddenly reluctant to turn and head back. A part of me wants to simply melt away into this land and become one of it's wild creatuyres, the wild eyes who watch the two legged interlopers from distant hideouts. However, leave I must, and leave I do.

Back by the truck, I move an interesting looking rock to expose a very active and startled Scprpion who runs about in circles, vainly attempting to find something to sting, coming close to harpooning my finger in the process, a reminder never to turn over a rock by jamming your fingertips under the edge where you cannot see.

The day is still young and warm as we pull into the little grocery store at Christmas Valley. Hot coffee is a heavensend. I savor each steaming sip as a baggage laden small car pulls up next to the truck and a good looking young woman hops out. She is happy and excited looking, eager to tell of her own weekend trip as her husband enters the store. Radiant with enthusiams, she asks, "Have you been to the ice caves?" She bubbles on, "Have you been to the lava fields, Oh, and Fort Rock, Fort Rock is so beautiful!"

I smile and engage her in conversation about eastern Oregon's scenic beauty, the beauty that has so enraptured this young lady that she must share it with the first dusty stranger she sees, sitting in a beat up old pickup. After they leave, Jason and I grin at each other. A new born desert lover. I hope that she learns to treasure and protect this land, to be a conscientious visitor who leaves no sign of her passage except a wave and a pretty smile. Jason's truck coughs and rattles it's way to life and we begin the homeward trek beneath a clear desert sky, already planning next year's journeys as we bump along.