by Captain Wayne
No Sunshine For You
Into the bright sunlight we venture with hope and aspirations,
-- Melody Ann Christensen
Into the bright sunlight we venture with hope and aspirations,
-- Melody Ann Christensen
Towards the end of march I crossed the mountain summit, past Diamond lake, past snowbound Crater Lake National Park and on towards my beloved desert. In my company, a platonic female companion who desired to see those lands of which I speak and write so often.
My friend, whom I shall refer to as "Jenny", was temporarily free of her young children and just as eager as I was to get out after a long winter of ennui.
Down the eastern slopes we sped, down into dry lodgepole and Ponderosa Pine country, the desert's borders. Heading north on highway 97, I enthusiastically count the miles while we pass through the tiny logging communities of that region. Places like Chemult, Crescent, LaPine, etc. Rustic towns with rough Redneck reputations. Places where a lot of tobacco is chewed and enormous quantities of beer are consumed.
The turn off finally comes and we are on highway 31 east. The Lodgepole Pines gradually decline in numbers until the forest is almost exclusively Ponderosa and Bitterbrush, tawny, dusty soil, studded with Pumice and outcroppings of dark reddish brown lava. Typical transition zone where Oregon mountains morph into Oregon desert.
The change on this route is more abrupt than usual. As we round one last downhill slanted corner, Sagebrush and Western Juniper suddenly appear. The big Pines end, a jagged slash, trees on one side, the desert on the other.
A vast gray-green desert valley opens up before us. Rocky lava monuments dot this valley and the slopes of the bordering hills bear markings of ancient waves from a vanished lake.
The largest of the lava relics is a huge and dark monolithic presence protruding from the windswept Sagebrush sea. Fort Rock presides over the valley, a monsterous and silent guardian, stoicly weathering the passing eons with a calm and infinite patience, a solemn reminder of the geologic violence that shaped this volcanic landscape.
There is no visible difference in the rock or the valley from when I first laid eyes on both, almost two decades ago. In the chill early spring wind they brood under a lowering blue-black sky of scudding clouds. Broken patches of clear blue mingle with shafts of late afternoon sun.
It is the first time that Jenny has ever seen this place and she looks upon it with a kind of awe, almost fearful. Her eyes wander from the silent spaces of the valley to the tiny pioneer cemetary laying within Fort Rock's intimidating shadow. It is a motley sepulcher of tombstones, metal plaques and wooden crosses dotted with gopher holes. The small enclosed circle of desert within Fort Rock's walls is like the floor of a giant open roofed cathedral. The stillness, broken only by the sound of wind racing against naked stone is intimidating to someone who has not gotten to know and love this place that has so many faces.
I feel happy and free to be back in Sagebrush country, even if the weather was a little chillier than the weatherman had predicted. Jenny and I joyously explore the intricacies of twisted rock and brightly colored lichens, poking into crevices and looking under stones. We encounter a pugnacious looking scorpion but feel no revulsion, only wonder and admiration at this rugged and tenacious desert regular. A darkling Beetle clumsily scrambles up the sandy slope of a low rise. It's rear end pokes upwards, giving the impression that it is intently following a scent trail like some macabre little black bloodhound.
Only the barest hints of spring have come to the Sagebrush plains. Between the hoary Sage shrubs, tiny green leaves, generally in pairs, lay flat on the buff sand. We are a bit early to see them, but from these diminutive specks of green will come colorful pea sized blossoms that will also lay flat against the soil, replacing the moisture squandering leaves that gave them birth. Desert afficionados call them "Belly Flowers" (you have to get down on your belly to appreciate them). The flowers must bloom and reproduce rapidly before the onset of the shriveling summer drought.
Another flower that I have seen bloom in the driest seasons remains unknown to me by name. It is a small white orchid-like blossom that appears atop a stem that averages a foot or less in height. The stem sprouts from a cluster of flimsy dark green swords. I find that this mystery flower is not yet in bloom, although the little sword clusters are numerous.
We make our way around hoodoo rock shapes in pastel earth colors, admiring the golds and reds emblazoned across the inner side of the eastern wall by a westering sun, now poking though a hole in turbulent clouds. These colors are delicately softened by intervening clouds and at that moment I hear an alien and haunting sound.
Several Crows are soaring across the inside perimeter of Fort Rock's bowl shaped valley, calling to each other. Their hoarse cries echo eerily from the cliffs in a forlorn and ghostly chant, as if to herald the approaching night. I am so enraptured with this mystic and enchanting sound that I attempt to capture it with a small hand held cassette recorder. The resulting recording is disappointing because of excessive motor noise from the cheap recorder.
It is almost dusk when Jenny and I poke about the shallow caves on the eastern wall. Actually more like deep hollowed out crevices than real caves. By this time, it is very gloomy on that shadowed side of the rock. The particular cave we are looking at was once an important archaeological site, along with similar caves in other nearby areas.
At this time Jenny begins to exhibit some very odd behavior. She backs away from the cave, one hand against her head. "I am seeing something here" She says. "Something happened here long ago.I feel so much misery".
With a deep inward sigh I realize that Jenny has probably had one too many beers. She is trying to impress upon me that she is having some kind of a paranormal experience. I listen politely while she talks about it and try not to roll my eyeballs, but inwardly I am disappointed. Conjuring ghosts and psychic visions in such a beautiful place seems like a sad waste of valuable time.
While she continues to cloak herself in an air of mysterious and grim silence, we work our way back down to the car. It is almost completely dark and time to find something else to do before setting up the tent for the night. Jenny and I are both night owls and are in no hurry to turn in.
Jenny's behavior becomes rather erratic as we drive on towards Christmas Valley. At times she is almost belligerent and makes occasional references to her vision from the cave. She says that she saw a white woman with the indians, and that this woman was forced to live in a separate cave from the others because she was white. The white woman has a baby, the father lives in the communal cave with the rest of the clan. I am tempted to ask her if she saw Elvis too, but I hold my tongue. This is her trip too, let her enjoy it in her own way. Who knows, perhaps someday I may use her ghost vision to write a fiction story. Fort Rock would lend itself well to such an endeavour.
The Fort Rock Valley certainly does have it's share of history for a writer to draw upon, from the paleo indians who lived here many thousands of years ago, to the vast wave of homesteaders who moved in near the turn of the century to begin what they envisioned as a great wheat empire, only to be turned away in bitter failure as the desert drought and alkaline dust stole their crops and their dreams.
Nowadays there is some cattle ranching and a few big Alfalfa fields, but the lonely desert wind still blows largely over eye aching expanses of Sagebrush and Bunchgrass, just the way I like it. This is the domain of the romantic, a sanctuary for the claustrophobic who have tired of encroaching noise and civilization, the place I hope to retire to in my final years. I am reminded of a part of a poem that Reuben Long found tacked on the wall of a deserted homesteaders cabin.
And, if there is a choice of a place
For I know that the soul I once
We stop midway to Christmas Valley. The Hale Bopp comet is splendid looking in these crystal clear desert skies. It assumes magnifiscence through Jenny's binoculars. I am awestruck as I realize just how clear the skies are. The familiar constellations are almost washed out in the profusion of starlight. I finally begin to pick them out. Pegasus, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Bootes.
I suppose that in the face of such cosmic beauty with the comet as a main focus, it should not be difficult for those who are prone to such things to believe in the supernatural.
In the tiny town of Christmas Valley, we enter a tavern to find that aside from the bartender, we are the only occupants of the cheery little place. Everyone else has found better things to do on this chilly march night. We order a beer and my former pleasure returns. I am free for two whole days without a care in the world, in the desert, in a bar.
Booze and the desert just seem to naturally go well together. Many have been the nights when I laid back on desert dirt with a bottle in my hand, watching the flames of a warm camp fire, listening to the coyotes salute their nameless gods. At such times I know that life is good.
The bartender turns out to be an intelligent and friendly old fellow. He is a man who retired from a high level government job in order to spend his later years relaxing in the Oregon outback.
The bar is a comfortable and pleasant place. The lights are low, mainly limited to what is thrown off by beer signs and a string of Christmas lights above the liquor cabinet. A mounted rack from a Longhorn bull hangs over the cash register. Just below that is a sign printed with felt marker between two cardboard hearts, "Thou shalt not snivel". Above the Longhorn rack is a shelf that holds an old time kerosene lantern, a cow skull and a number of other rustic articles.
For a long time our bartender friend patiently sits and talks about anything and everything with Jenny and I until I finally realize that he is waiting for us to get the hell out so that he can close up. With gentle persistence I persuade Jenny that it is time to leave. It is not difficult to understand her reluctance to leave this charming little place.
About eight miles up the road past Christmas Valley, there is a turn off heading for a popular recreation area. The Fossil Lake sand dunes and the so called Lost Forest. As soon as we reach the turn off, snow begins to fall. Just a few flakes at first, but soon it is a veritable blizzard. A snow cloud has covered our clear night sky.
We press on. By the time we reach the dunes, the snow has abated. None of it has stuck to the ground. Early spring is a curious time of year in the Oregon desert. The weather is totally unpredictable and absolutely crazy, often going from one extreme to the other in just a few hours or less.
By now Jenny and I are laughingly drunk and I quickly set up the tent in order to get it over with so that I can build our fire. The evening is frosty cold, but serene and lovely. The moon has risen and it's light is bright enough to read a paperback novel by. The Junipers cast sharp shadows against soft sand dunes and I fall in love with the night.
Around this time Jenny seems to remember that she had a mystical experience earlier and wanders away into the Junipers, her troubled attitude returning, I guess I am supposed to notice, but I simply shrug my shoulders and open a beer. I do not wish to offend her, but I am just not interested in chasing spooks.
The fire is warm and cheerful and I just want to stand here and watch the sky, the moonlight on the dunes, feel and smell my desert. As always it is wonderful and I am content. I am in love with this country, and if there be spirits here, my love will extend to them as well. Let us all be at peace with the enchanted desert night. My .44 will protect us against anyone or anything who does not want peace and harmony.
Jenny comes back with an intense look on her face. She informs me that we cannot venture in a certain direction because there are dark forces at work there. Looking in the indicated direction I see only a landscape of sand, thickly dotted with moon silvered Ponderosa Pines, an enchanted spectacle.
Silently sighing, I feign some slight interest and then try to get her interested in something else. We are low on firewood so I encourage her to join me on a wood gathering walk. Most of what we manage to garner is small dried Juniper twigs and branches, but it is resiny and adds to the coal bed. After a bit I find a wealth of big Pine cones beneath a stunted Ponderosa. I am not so interested in how much light the fire can produce as in how much heat it will generate. The moonlit night does not need any more light, but it is frosty.
Morning arrives and I lazily stretch in my sleeping bag. In her own bag next to me, Jenny still sleeps soundly. It is a halfway clear day and the temperature is somewhat warmer. Jenny rises shortly after me and we breakfast on cans of Sharks and X-men spaghetti by Boy Ar Dee. It has the redeemable value of tasting good whether warm or cold. Somehow though, I would think that the X-men would choose classier fare.
Fossil Lake's dunes are beautiful, tawny and soft looking in the morning light, dotted with Russian Thistle (Tumbleweed) and Juniper skeletons. Jenny and I take a lazy walk up onto them and admire the view.
The sand is like talcum powder, inviting one to sit down and play in it like a child. I fill a plastic bottle with it to add to my collection of samples from various desert dunes. The only sand in my collection that is as silky and fine as this stuff is the red sands from Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park of southern Utah.
Jenny delights in rolling around in the sand, letting it drift in velvet streams from her fingers. I snap a couple of photos and mainly just stand there, soaking up the morning ambience. This is a lovely place.
Fortunately signs of human abuse are minimal, despite the heavy summertime use of the area. The dunes are an open invitation for the operators of small recreational four wheeled vehicles. This is not necessarily bad except for the fact that there are always the few who abuse the land by destroying fragile desert vegetation with their vehicle tires instead of keeping them on open sand and established roads where they belong.
After a bit Jenny and I leisurely pack our gear and return to Christmas Valley to have an early lunch in a restaurant that is an extension of the tavern. We meet again with our bartender who sits with an attractive older lady, smiling over his coffee.
The waitress is friendly and sincere as she pours our coffee. She is concerned over Jenny who has developed a sudden and debilitating headache.
As we finish our greasy but tasty lunch, Jenny's headache improves. The Cafe's patrons are very friendly and eagerly tell us what lies in every direction from Christmas Valley. We choose to take a southwest road which will put us back on highway 31.
The road to our junction leads us through an area where many small trailer houses have sprouted up in formerly wild desert, an ill omen of the coming rush to the Oregon sun belt. To the west of us is a rather spectacular group of reddish buttes and towers. I would like to investigate, but they appear to lay on private land.
We reach the junction. In front of us is the Silver Lake playa (spanish word for dry lake), partially filled with water at this time of year. We take a left and head east towards Summer Lake.
Shortly before crossing Picture Rock Pass, we see a small herd of Antelope. They are grazing on ranch land at the east end of the playa, striding along contentedly and paying no attention as we oggle them with our binoculars.
The wildlife refuge at Summer Lake is an inviting place. As we take a dike road out onto the half submerged playa we see a wealth of wildlife, mainly in the form of waterfowl. A big Ferruginous hawk takes wing from the rushes and a Wood Duck paddles along in company with a group of Mallards. Red Wing Blackbirds balance precariously on Cattails and black clouds of Mosquitos rise around the car. With heavy sighs we realize that there is no possible way that we can brave the predatory insect swarms, we are prisoners within our vehicle.
Late afternoon finds us back at Fort Rock. I am almost startled at the sensation of homecoming I get everytime I set foot in this place, it is almost like I am walking into my own house rather than an ancient volcanic relic two hundred miles away in the remote desert. It is a feeling akin to warm invisible arms affectionately wrapping themselves around me in loving welcome. For some reason, the thought of Jenny's ghost chasing enters my mind and I smile ironically at my choice of metaphors.
This time Jenny and I climb high up onto the western rim. There are idyllic little shelves and hidden nooks with low natural walls where we can sit and look out over the western prairie at that dark line which marks desert's end and forest's beginning.
We delight in the sight of a Prairie Falcon as he hovers on a cushion of air swept up the cliffs. A Mourning dove flushes from some rocks and our Falcon makes a dive for him, folding in his wings and plummeting with amazing speed. In spite of his swift and graceful plunge, the Falcon misses his intended pray and continues to soar in search of another meal.
Before Jenny and I climb back down to the little valley floor, I take some pictures of Fort Rock's interior from my high vantage point. I have always wanted to make up a map of the monument, giving my own names to it's smaller features.
As sunset nears, Jenny decides that she wants her picture taken at the entrance of her haunted cave. Above the cave, where the cleft rises up the ruddy stone walls, several varieties of birds have taken roost. They are all cooing, clucking, screeching, like so many gossipy neighbors. One little fellow, a Clarke's Nuthatch I think, watches us intently from a small ledge some thirty feet up, turning his long head to watch with first one eye, then the other. The birds all fall silent as the Prairie Falcon's fearsome form glides by in the dusk.
Jenny and I spend our last few minutes at Fort Rock looking up at the rugged eastern wall from our car. We amuse ourselves by picking out faces in the rocks. We see many, an old indian, Richard Nixon, the Grim Reaper. I see one that is hauntingly melancholy, making the hairs rise on the back of my neck. It clearly appears to be the face of a child wearing a medieval monk's robe and peaked hood, peering over it's shoulder at us.
Ghosts at Fort Rock? Psychic visions and haunted caves? Since I am a skeptic when it comes to such things, I am a poor person to ask about them. But I can tell you one thing for sure. Whether supernatural forces are at work in this lonely place or not, your own mind will supply all the ghosts you could ever want.
All you have to do is sit in the forbidding shadow of the rock at evening time and let your imagination go to work and you will see them. All kinds of spirits dancing in the moonlight. Cowboys, maidens in gossamer gowns, homesteaders, Indians and all of the rest of the cast will walk this spooky stage, shadows of those who lived, loved and died on this land.
I do not fear these shades because I know where they come from and who they are. They are a part of the romance and mystery of the Oregon Desert, a part of us.