An ever-present quality of the desert is a deep, sometimes forboding, atmosphere of mystery. When I travel those lonely reaches of eastern Oregon I am powerfully affected by this strange sense of things unknown, answers unfound and sometimes, questions unresolved and poorly defined.
One is sure that there are secrets in this silent wilderness, that they wait to be discovered beyond each stark hill. Indeed there is always something to be found or learned if a person embraces the mood of mystery and uses it as a tool for opening one's mind and expanding the conciousness. Why does this plant possess a peculiar odor? Why is that lizard twitching it's tail so nervously as it crawls across a rock? Why are desert sunsets so colorful?
Once near Horse ridge, I was hiking upon a remnant of the original red-cinder highway that was once the only road connecting Bend and Burns. In the shade of a twisted Juniper I came upon remains of a 37 Ford, remarkably well preserved by arid desert air. Who had owned it? I wondered. Did it's owner still live somewhere? What could this ancient car tell me if it could speak?
Conjuring up even more mystery and romance are slowly decaying signs of long vanished human inhabitants from a long gone era of homesteading.
While traveling with some friends in my first car, I came upon an old building constructed of sod blocks. It was in a remote region of sage covered hills and canyons alongside a gravel road far south of Burns.
Far back into hazy decades of time someone had lived here. Without electricity, TV, VCR's, tape decks, cars, or chapstick. They had tenaciously struggled to wrest a living from this inhospitable wilderness with sweat and human muscle. At their doorstep sat my 71 Torino. An old and decrepit vehicle by my standards, they would have thought it an incredible piece of unimagineable technology.
I could not help but think of all that we take for granted in our present technological society here on our north American continent. What would those who built this poor mud-brick hovel have thought of the personal computer that I find so indispensable? What would they have thought of someone who told them that someday men would journey to the Moon in tiny capsules fastened atop of gigantic multi-staged cylinders filled with poisonous, explosive gasses? That those men would not only travel to that mysterious satellite, but they would return safely to Earth, where they would float down out of a blue sky to land gently upon the rolling sea, emerging from their floating vessel to tell a tale of an adventure that would make Odysseus envious.
Aristotle, who lived and died around two millenia ago might have had less trouble understanding those Lunar voyages than the former inhabitants of this primitive dwelling, even though they probably lived well into my own century.
To be fair I must admit the possibility that I may be quite wrong about these particular homesteaders. Perhaps they were moderately educated people, avid readers who lived long enough to learn about the work of Tsiolkovsky and Einstein. I will never know.
The desert has swallowed up their identities as effectively as the fearsome gravity of some interstellar black hole. They have crossed the event horizon of time.
Almost certainly their names probably still exist on yellow pages in some mouldering record book resting upon a shelf in a dark and musty vault or seldom opened filing cabinet. But will those names ever again be read and associated with this lonely spot amidst these time-worn hills?
Looking into a shadowy corner of the one room structure, I imagined a crude bed. Upon it, a man holding his young wife close, kissing away tears of homesickness that sparkle upon her soft cheeks in a kerosene lamp's amber glow. Smiling bravely he tells her of all that he will someday provide for her. Their lips suddenly meet in hot desperation and they do not see a tiny deer mouse gnawing into their last sack of flower. They are both breathing heavily and he fumblingly extinguishes the lamp.
I emerged from my inner journey to feel warm sunlight and a gentle, dust-laden, breeze.
Across the road I discovered a clear little spring bubbling up out of baked Earth under a rocky hill. I wondered if it ran year round and if it were here when the homesteaders built their modest little house. Did they drink from it or from some long buried well of which no sign remains?
At impatient sounds from my companions, I re-entered my blisteringly hot car and reluctantly left this magic place behind. My friends were two young men and an even younger girl whom we picked up as she hitchhiked from the side of a lonely highway. None of them could understand my interest in these wild places through which we traveled.
That was in the summer of 1978. Now, many long years later I realize that I have always longed to return to that desolate spot. Why? I could not tell you. It beckons to me through lengthening corridors of time, speaking to me in an ancient and unintelligible language, whispering to me of some indecipherable secret that blows away upon lonesome desert winds.
In that seemingly timeless environment the place probably looks much as it did during that earlier time of my swiftly fading youth. Perhaps I shall return this summer. Perhaps I shall stand within whatever is left of that same homestead dwelling with a lover in my arms, or maybe, I shall stand there alone and think of the first line of Robert Frost's poem, "Ghost house."
"I dwell in a lonely house I know,
Another time years later, I had succumbed to a stirring in my blood, the same stirring that so haunted my father in his youth. Possibly like him, I may have been fleeing from myself, trying to escape from that secret place, the uncharted landscape of broken dreams and the disillusionment of early adulthood.
Without knowing where to or from, I traveled, I ran, seeking to outrun the tears and anger of a life that was not following the expected course. All I really knew was that I wanted solace in that great peace that lay in the desert.
Following my heart towards an unknown destination, I crossed mountain ranges and endless sagebrush plains until I inexplicably found myself in the tiny frontier town of Winnemucca.
Leaving my van parked on a side street I walked the worn streets in cowboy boots, faded Levis, and a dusty Stetson that I had dug from an equally dusty closet. Resembling the locals as closely as possible (to look like an outsider marks you for the predators) I wandered about town on foot, playing cards, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
Keeping the wide brimmed hat pulled low over my eyes, I stayed quiet and anonymous while I roamed, the observer, absorbing the experience even as I tried to mentally sort out my own life.
Life was wild in this little remnant of a vanished west. I narrowly missed being hit by a man whose face was covered with blood as he was thrown out of a small bar-casino. At another establishment I calmly said "Have a good afternoon" and left when a drunken indian informed me in a very cultured, quite educated sounding voice, that he was considering the possibility of dicing my liver for stew meat. Another indian sitting outside a drug store was so picturesque and motionless that I took him for a wooden statue until I came close enough to see sparkling old eyes shining from the seamed face, a face that could have been fashioned of saddle leather. His black hat sported a band of silver dollars and a red bandana hung loosely around his neck. Staring into sunset's red flames he gave no indication of life whatsoever except for a nearly imperceptible movement of his chest as he sucked on a hand rolled cigarette. Realizing that I was staring to the point of intrusion I walked on, leaving this enigmatic figure behind.
Shortly after dark I had wandered down a gloomy side street and came to a little clump of buildings lit by flashing neon signs that I paid little attention to, except to notice the shape of a cocktail glass. I walked into one sporting a sign that read "MY PLACE." These words were accompanied by neon figures of scantilly clad women and of course, the quintessential cocktail glass. Having little else to do, I stepped into a rather active little bar where young girls were walking around half dressed in what looked like Playboy bunny suits. Behind the U-shaped bar sat a huge old black woman who glared about balefully.
Seating myself, I ordered a Budweiser. My eyebrows lifted when she opened the can for me and asked for two dollars and fifty cents. After I paid her, she kept looking at me expectantly. Giving her a polite smile and nod I decided to nurse my beer and pay her no further attention since she did not look like a happy person.
Several minutes passed and as many young girls smiled and greeted me as they walked seductively back and forth. Something was odd about this place, a weird sense of deja-vu, but I simply could not put my finger on it. My brow creased in thought as I lit a smoke and gently exhaled pungent fumes through my nose.
"So what do you want stranger?" The old black woman demanded in her raspy voice. "We sell pussy here Y'know. Do you want some or not?"
At this same time two nearly naked girls walked up and stood in front of me, jutting their almost bare breasts towards my face. One girl was inky black and slightly plump. The other was a slim, white, brunette with long legs. "I'm Cindy, this is Ebony." She said. "Would you like one of us? Maybe both?"
Very suddenly I felt more than a little bit stupid. My face became fiery red and I came close to choking on Marlboro smoke before I regained my composure. It was all clear now and I could not beleive that I had not realized that I was sitting in a cathouse.
With a writer's instinct, I looked about quickly to memorize as many details as possible before I left. Since I had no intention of purchasing the services offered and the swarthy faced old madam was glowering at me ever more malignantly, I felt assured that I would not be allowed to stay much longer.
"Well?" asked the brunette. she placed a hand upon my inner thigh and lightly traced over the fabric of my Levis with her gently tapered, long nailed fingers. I looked deeply into her big brown eyes. So young and beautiful, so frail looking. A girl who should be in the arms of someone who would care for her and shower her with affection while protecting her from worldly evils. What in hell was she doing in a whorehouse out here in this lonely outpost of the old and wild west? At the same time, a deep hardness in her eyes seemed to say that she knew all there was to know of the ways of men.
"Come down the hall with us." said her dusky companion as she snuggled up under my arm and ran her hand over my chest. "We'll give you a night you'll never forget." Like the touch of a vampire, I could almost feel invisible fingers jerking at my wallet, the hunger, so intense. These two had drawn their cards from the deck of life, you could see the reflection of the hand in their eyes, aces and eights held tightly in slender, red nailed fingers.
"Where are you from?" I said to Cindy, oblivious to their greedy pleading. Her eyes were the kind that weaken men's souls and I tried hard to remain unshaken, sauvely drawing on my cigarette as I took her measure, but I could not hide my unlined face from her worldly glance.
"Portland Oregon." I've been in Nevada for about three years now. Where you from handsome?"
They continued to smile and whisper about what they could do for me as they ran their hands about my head and chest. Both of these girls were pretty enough to have turned heads anywhere on Earth. What terrible things had happened to them that they could lose their self respect to such a degree as to resort to willingly spending their lives selling their bodies? Or was it simply a way of life that they enjoyed and found fulfilling? I could not fathom it.
As I looked again into Cindy's eyes I felt a deep sadness welling up from somewhere way down inside of me. A sadness profound beyond words. It seemed to me that I could see a dark emptiness somewhere behind those almond shaped eyes. An emptiness that was mingled with loneliness and longing. Or was the emptiness inside of me? Were these girls those proverbial "Prisoners of their own device", trapped in a world not of their creation? Alive but dead of hope or desire? Acting out their roles in a play as old as the American west? The answer was as elusive as dust borne on summer winds.
A vision came before my eyes of an old indian sitting in front of a dingy drugstore, the sunset reflected in his dark eyes. Those smokey orbs seemed to grow larger and closer until they faded altogether to be replaced by that flaming western sky. The mystery continually deepens. I thought to myself. It deepens and widens to assume cosmic proportions. Perhaps I was the prisoner, the captive of a vast illusion, Beaver Cleaver trying to sidestep the spiked wall of Prometheus.
I once more became aware of Cindy and Ebony patiently waiting for my decision. Waiting to see if I would choose to be one of the hundreds of anoymous men who would lay lovelessly with them between worn sheets in a gloomy, well used room.
For a moment, almost ludicrously, I wanted to speak of life and that intangible existential crisis that had sent me wandering to this strange place. Instead I Placed a hand on Cindy's soft fingers as I rose from my stool, painfully noticing how much they felt like the gently tapered fingers of someone I had once loved, now only a poignant phantom who occasionally disturbed my sleep. "I'm sorry." I said simply. "I did not know where I was. You are both very desirable, but this is not what I'm looking for tonight."
"What are you looking for?" said Ebony in a husky voice.
Through an open door I could see stars twinkling in the night. A soft scent of sage mingled with cigarette effluvium and liquor. "I don't know." I said and slowly walked out that door as if in a daze.
Hours later back across the border in Oregon's vast outback, I found myself driving through a haunting night tableau across a gigantic desert plateau bordered by the Dougherty escarpment. To my north lay Hart Mountain National Antelope range. To the dark south was the desert vastness of Nevada, strange land of anachronisms and mirages, the ghost of a different era on a vanished frontier.
The entire western horizon was lit by bright flickerings from a summer thunderstorm, looking like some distant apocalypse. I was entranced by the booming cadence accompanying those brilliant flashes. Parking the van, I got out and breathed deeply of warm desert air. Tangy Ozone filled my nostrils and except for thunder, the Giant's voice, all was as quiet as the tomb.
It was the kind of night that seemed to be custom made for me. I stood there for a long time listening to far away booming and watching vivid tendrils of electricity splashing across the western sky. I could not help but wonder if Cindy had ever stood outside on a night like this and marveled at the miracle of existence. Had Ebony ever pondered the universe while she listened to low growls of far thunder from a darkened bedroom window.
Amidst flashing lightning the old indian smiled into a vanished sunset as the almond shaped eyes of a prostitute looked through him and into my soul. Lighting a cigarette, I thought of Salvador Dali's limp clocks draped across skeletal trees. I thought of time and creation as great, silent, wheels, turning forever in an inscrutable void.
A soft wind rose and gently caressed whimsically waving sage as a coyote called somewhere in the distance. Except for lightning, the sky was as dark as Erebus. Above me a few stars managed to poke through black clouds, winking and holding on tight to their sparkling secrets.
Within my old Dodge van, I flicked my radio onto a coherent station and between bursts of static caused by the electric storm, heard a preacher shrieking about hell fire and brimstone from some remote station in Idaho. I turned it off, blotting out the raving lunatic. Mythology can only serve to confuse the issue. Golgatha is haunted by the accusing voices of the dead millions.
I choose the moment, the prescious, ever so fleeting spark of the here and now that is the apex of that long dark hill which leads downward and backward, across dim ages to others who spoke of their own present, their own instant of eternity. Time changes, but the voices are timeless. Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Einstein, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
With a last look out over a dark expanse of sagebrush, I sought my blankets and warm comfort. The secrets remained, would always remain.