High Desert vacation

Wednesday, September 7, 2006,
the start of our vacation

We camped in the High Desert on the rim of a mile wide crater called Hole in the Ground on this, the first night of our vacation. Earlier today, a man who was old enough to know better tried to drive a one ton, extended cab Dodge into the crater on a narrow ATV road that looked like a washboard with the ridges four foot higher than the valleys. He got 500 feet before the downhill side of the road collapsed, leaving his truck stuck and in danger of rolling over. He walked to a ranch house, and the retired rancher and his wife used a tractor, an ATV, and three come-alongs to keep the Ram from flipping down the hill while they pulled it out. The job was dangerous, and the wife rolled her ATV, injuring her ribs. The rancher is losing his vision and had to be verbally guided. They refused payment.


We drove to nearby Fort Rock, a 325-foot high volcanic ring that resembles a fort from a Tolkien novel. The town of the same name (population 25) has a museum that consists mostly of homestead era buildings from the surrounding area. It was closed until the next day, so we returned to the rancher’s house and camped in his yard. This gave us the benefit of a picnic table and a hired man’s cabin if we wanted to sleep indoors but, most of all, it allowed us the pleasure of the couple’s company.

They told us to enjoy their ranch while we could because they were selling out and moving to Prineville. The man had recently returned from the blind school at Portland, where three different black men had tried to mug him on the city’s streets. Prior to Portland, he had rarely seen a black person.He used a knife to discourage the first mugger, but carried a pistol for the others. As we visited, a herd of antelope grazed nearby. I asked how long he had lived there, and how he liked it. He said 27 years, and that he had liked it very well because he had never had an argument with a neighbor (there being none) or seen a government inspector.

I told him about my knee problems, and he said he has one knee that is “bone against bone,” but it didn’t seem to concern him much. Maybe it’s easier to put other things in perspective when you’re going blind.

I mentioned that it had been awfully cold the night before on the 5,000 foot high rim, to which the wife responded that the temperature at the ranch house (300 feet lower) had dropped to 18°.


Last night was little warmer, but Peggy would have taken the dogs to bed with us to keep Baxter warm had I not objected on account of the dirt.

When I awakened, the rancher was loading a homemade mortar and howitzer into his truck. His hobby is shooting artillery in accuracy contests (hell of a hobby for a blind man). I helped, and was amazed by how strong he was compared to me. I consoled myself with the thought that I had just woke up. It proved to be a meaningful consolation as I was later able to drag one of the guns by myself.

We spent hours touring the Fort Rock museum and visiting with the locals. A woman invited Peggy to her home to see needlework while I chatted with the men. I joined the museum foundation, and we bought two books about the history of the area. The most famous resident was Rueb Long, an author I have adored for The Oregon Desert, a book he co-authored with another rancher. Reub spent his summers at the hired man’s cabin next to which we had camped the night before—I felt as if I had slept on holy ground.

The temperature moved into the nineties as we drove south over Picture Rock Pass—where we stopped to admire a few of the dozens of pictographs that are spread through the sagebrush—and into Summer Lake Valley. Peggy wanted a motel for the night, so we paid $70 at the Summer Lake Inn. That evening, we set out for a walk, but the mosquitoes prevented it. We didn’t see or hear a one of them until we had gone a quarter mile, at which time they descended upon us by the hundreds and pursued us all the way back to our room. We smashed scores of them against the ceiling and walls, creating additional bloody spots to go with the ones that were already there.


We had planned to go deeper into the Great Basin Desert, but the weather was getting hot, so we headed into the mountains and didn’t stop until we were at 7,200-feet. Even there, it was warm. We camped on a ridge overlooking our previous night’s lodging. Charles Fremont and Kit Carson had looked off the same ridge on December 18, 1843. For days, they had labored in fierce winds and deep snows, and were facing the possibility of starvation. The lake and valley below looked like paradise to them. Hence the names Summer Lake and Winter Ridge.

It was bow season, and we spoke with a few hunters. I detest the cruelty of hunting (and ranching for that matter), yet hunters have often been among the most generous and kindly people I’ve known. This is one of those ironies of humanity that I have never understood. My response has been to try and focus upon the good in people, and the good is easier to find in many hunters than it is in regular people.

Our ranch hosts were hunters (as evidenced by their guns, bows, and animal heads), and if they had invited us to supper and set a plate of beef or elk in front of me, I would have eaten it. This would not be easy after 23 years as a vegetarian, but I have thought about such a scenario many times over the years, and have concluded that I had rather eat meat than cause offense if I were the guest of a man who made his living raising cattle.


Peggy and I climbed Dead Indian Mountain (7,066’) this morning. In the afternoon, she climbed Foster Butte (6,778’) with the dogs. There was no trail and, the rocks all looking pretty much the same, she marked part of her route with survey ribbons. She was as proud of summiting Foster as she was of many more formidable mountains simply because she did it alone on unmarked terrain.

I can’t say that I was entirely sanguine about her efforts, so when she had not returned by 6:00, I packed two quarts of water and two flashlights, and set out after her. I worried about my knee, but I couldn’t bear to wait any longer. Fortunately, she appeared from the other side of the mountain before I had gone a quarter of a mile. She explained that there had been false summits, and that she had spent a lot of time route finding.

Monday (Labor Day)

Peggy climbed Hager Mountain (7,195’), a prominent landmark that overlooks a hundred miles of desert, today. There was both a trail and a road to a fire lookout, but we had no good maps for the area, and I worried that the trail would give out or fork, so I asked her to take the road. It was a steep five-miles on a hot day, and she returned with blisters on both feet and dogs that were limping on burned pads. I felt bad that I had encouraged her to take the road, but at least I had not been worried. Instead, I had identified the few plants that I didn't recognize and read more about the Fort Rock homesteaders. Peggy and I had read one book aloud, and now I had finished most of another.

We hated to come down out of the mountains into the heat, but we needed water and a laundromat. Worse yet, Peggy was out of milk to go with her cookies. We drove to Silver Lake (the lake is now dry). It was the site of a Christmas Day fire in 1894 that killed a third of the 143 inhabitants. We paid $3 each for a shower at the town’s trailer park, which averaged out to be a bargain since Peggy took her usual thirty minute shower, while I was out in eight. As in most of the desert towns, there was a lot of property for sale.

We camped in a quarry from which we could see all three of the mountains Peggy had climbed. The moon was brilliant, and the scene lacked nothing to make it more beautiful.


We awoke to the distant smoke of forest fires, and could no longer see the mountains. As I made my coffee, I watched a large hawk circle lower and lower over Baxter who stood half asleep in the sun, probably wondering what the hell kind of a vacation it is when a dog is nearly frozen at night only to have his feet burned to stubs in the daytime. I knew I should yell at the hawk, but curiosity got the better of me.

Clearly, a 23-pound dog was too big for even a large hawk to carry, but I wondered if the hawk might plan to eat part of him on site and carry the rest off for later. The hawk finally landed fifteen feet to the rear of a still oblivious Baxter. It tilted its head this way and that, obviously in deep concentration about the advisability of attacking something that was so large yet so seemingly vulnerable. When it started hopping toward Baxter, I scared it away. As with the bobcat two years ago, Baxter never knew how close to death he had come.

We returned to the Fort Rock Cemetery (it and the rock of the same name being a mile north of the town of Fort Rock). Peggy continued on to the rock—blowing kisses as she walked—while I looked at grave markers and read about the deceased from my history books. She said she would only be gone a few minutes. She later yelled and waved at me from high on the rock, and I wondered if she was actually going to the top despite the fact that her feet were so blistered that she could only wear sandals. I remembered what she had said about “a few minutes” and returned to my history books comforted.

An hour later, an old man on a bicycle came by. I told him of my worry about Peggy, who was still on the rock, and he consoled me with stories of people who had been killed by falling. I wondered how much longer I should wait before going for help as the area was too big and too rough for me to necessarily find her if I searched all day. There was also the thought that, the sooner she got help, the better her chances of survival—assuming she was not already dead. I was contemplating selling our house and moving to a one room shack where I could pass the rest of my days within sight of Fort Rock when she returned, very pleased with herself for having summited.

That afternoon, we drove to Bend and visited Pilot Butte Cemetery to see the graves of still more of the people we had been reading about. Afterwards, we gassed up and headed back across the Cascades.

Peggy had her heart set on camping near McKenzie Pass, but the actual flames of a forest fire were visible, and the air was wretched with smoke. To my relief, she agreed to continue on a few miles down the west side. I was even a little concerned about this since a change in the wind could point the fire in our direction.

For the first time in decades, we stayed at an official campsite. No one else was there, and no fee signs were posted, so it seemed like a good idea until 2:30 a.m. when we were awakened by chewing sounds under the van. I beat on the floor, and the noise stopped, but only for a few minutes. When it started back, I got out and looked in vain for the source. As soon as I lay back down the noise resumed. We had already met one woman on the trip whose new truck had suffered $13,000 in damages from gnawing rodents, so we left. Ten miles later we pulled over and passed the rest of the night peacefully.


We hiked along the McKenzie River for a couple of miles and then drove home. We couldn’t have traveled more than 600 miles on our trip and probably less than that.

I turned on the radio and heard the news for the first time in a week (the only newspaper I had read was a 1915 edition of the Fort Rock Times, which reported one case of gangrene, two cases of smallpox, and the clubbing of 3,540 rabbits). The announcer said, “President Bush claimed during a speech today that progress is being made in Iraq, even while House and Senate Democrats called for the replacement of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld due to his mishandling of the war.” “I haven’t missed a thing,” I thought, but then learned of the death of Steve Irwin.


Two neighbors died while we were away. One was in his fifties, and succumbed to prostate cancer, the other in his eighties and a victim of diabetes. The younger man was a lawyer, and I hardly knew him, so I minded his death less than that of the older man whom I regarded highly.

Our cell phone—which we bought in case Peggy’s family or the neighbor who was watching our house needed to get in touch—died the first day out, so I returned it today. I was glad for the excuse. I don’t really want to know what’s happening when I’m away. I mentioned this to Peggy, but she kept her thoughts to herself as she often does.