A new story from The Hero’s Journey for The Daily ZU – read the full story at www.thedailyzu.com.
I’d once read that Steens Mountain might be the most beautiful place in all of Oregon. That’s much said. I’d been to Oregon’s beaches, up and down its coast, licked the icing from its Cascades, swatted mosquitoes in the heavy June snows at Crater Lake. So Steens had a lot to live up to. As I drove up Steens Mountain Loop Road, herds of pronghorn browsed the lower slopes.
I gaze up Kiger Gorge, a deep glacial valley that ends in a cirque. Snowfields cling to the headwall that scrambles up to the flat-topped mountain that caps it. A massive fault-block, Steens is actually one mountain, 50 miles long. Basalt cliffs teeter and plummet down to steep slopes of Grand fir and aspen. It all ends in a stream a diagonal mile below. Or it may be the thunder of the wind I’ll hear all this long, deliciously desolate trip, incessant, torturing like Wyoming gusts out here in the Oregon Outback, the Big Empty.
Steens’s east crest is a jagged wall of razored, iced peaks that dives without the benefit of foothills a mile straight down to the alkali flats of the Alvord Desert. Its west face is cuesta-like, flat and gradually inclined to the east. It reminds me of the Sierras. From its sharp crest, three U-shaped valleys gouged by glaciers drop to the ordinary world below. Here in mid-May, I camped at a narrow pass where a swing gate closed the road for at least a few more weeks until the snow melted. The gales and the bitter cold meant I had the whole mountain alone.
I set camp and hiked the Steens Mountain Loop Road for a couple hours up the inclined plane until the snowfields I had to punch through became constant. The cold, abetted by the wind, became almost unbearable. I kept it up, walking a giant, igneous hogback boundered on both sides by the U-shaped gorges called Little Blitzen, Big Indian and Kiger. The valleys sculpted four gigantic prongs which rose to the alpine parks at the summit of the mountain’s west slope. The whole way up, my wind-blazed eyes seared into the outer walls of the valleys on either side of my rolling, sage world draped with silken snow.
Toothy, basaltic peaks to the south bear snowfields. In the valley below, aspen leaf out for the spring. But up here, there are few trees. I pass a single stand of aspen that remain a wintry boneyard in the squalling wind.
Black scat with a healthy diameter is rife with half-digested grass. I prod it with a sharp stone. It’s still soft. I’m thinking bear, especially after I spot several more piles of berried shit up the road. There aren’t supposed to be black bears in the Great Basin. A deserted, NFS campground farther down the mountain didn’t have any Bear Aware signs, and the garbage cans weren’t critter proof. My shit detector must not be correctly calibrated yet.
Clouds coalesce at the peaks. The snow says ‘CAUTION: SLIPPERY WHEN WET,’ and I punch through some snow bridges a couple times. A friend had almost lost his life in similar circumstances a few years ago. Time to head back.
Living in the Four Corners, I can summit the La Platas and see into four states. But desolate as those Four Corners of the earth are, southeast Oregon has us beat in terms of forever. Near the summit of Steens, I am surrounded by an earth-girdling 300-degree panorama, rippled with distant peaks, bowed crags, inselbergs, and a mammoth plateau bunched with forests to the southwest on which Steens Mountain rides. Dots of snow fleck the flanks of far off southern mountains. All of it emerald and rolling in a golden distance.
But it’s so frigging cold and windy, I head back down. Sometime last winter, a couch-sized boulder in the middle of the road had calved from the crumbling cliffs on my right. Rich, rhyolitic reds bleed from the roadcut. The bluff is forested with fir that’s in turn sashed with moss, with old man’s beard.
When I have the chance, no matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing, I try to find a boulder or a log, siddown, and watch the sun set. Yet it was so cold and windy in the High Steens, I went inside my truck camper. I was reading The Enlightened Mind, a collection of prose about the sacred from all cultures written throughout recorded time, which is the only time there really is. For if it were not kept track of, time itself wouldn’t be.
As usual, the mystics described the indescribable, wrote about nothingness when they wrote about something, about the All when they spoke of One. In such a place as this, I would have felt as if I were cheating the ineffable not to at least try and brave a dusk, however frozen the sun held in the lonely sky. The wind drove with such a hunger, that I didn’t bother to windup the popup on the bed of my pickup. With the ceiling so low, I had to squeeze my cheap, Wal-Mart winter jacket out of the clothes bin beneath my bunk.
I hiked over a ridge across the road from my makeshift, BLM campsite. Little Blitzen Gorge dove a thousand feet down to the Blitzen River, with basalt towers etched into faces of the defile. Snow showered in the sun. Blossoms of paintbrush in fields of saxifrage and hawksbeard, of jewelflower and gentian, all ambered in a falling sun. Lichen enameled the chocolate rock in pine green, neon yellow, citrus orange and courthouse white. The stream gushed far below, an echoing thunder probably greater than the storm of its sound along the canyon floor.
To escape the gales, I found a grotto of volcanic walls notched into the clifftops. But the wind finds me everywhere, and zeroing blasts stabbed my lips and my toes numb. I turned east and headed up the hogback, its spine feathered with blue flax and bluebells. Tufts of witch’s hair hanging stiffly off the low limbs of the mountain mahogany, unbending to the wind.
My eyes dared the sunset, blinded by amber light that sets afire occasional snowflakes, sparks off a smith’s anvil. I think of my grandfather who died when I was 13. The thought comes out of nowhere, and so do the tears. I cry because I will not see him again. Then I realize that he sees through my eyes this cold, riotous beauty. He, and untold numbers of the unrevered dead. What are the living for if not to offer our senses to those on whose back, the earth, we tread?
As I hike up the hogback, it narrows. The basalt has fractured into stair-step terraces, its cliff-forming faces painted the green and yellow, the orange and white of the lichen which clings to it. The colors and the topography and the trees make it seem a subtropical mountainside. The crumbling, jointed cliffs seem a temple complex abandoned and claimed by jungle.
I reach a place in the hogback where I can see down the long line of the gorges of Kiger and Little Blitzen at the same time. As the sun reaches the horizon behind me, it casts travertine colors on the hogback’s walls. It throws my shadow long on the stands of mahogany. I wave my arms to see if I can land their shadows miles away, painting the gorge’s outer walls with my numbra, itself cast by the low-angled sun. What a conceit to believe that my silhouette, my absence, reaches that far into the world.
Deep recesses of the ramparts along Kiger Gorge, south-facing and snowless, crawl out at dusk as reaching fingers and sharp claws. Far, far south, the whitewashed Pueblo Mountains face the sunset, with a steel roll cloud churning above their summits. So arctic. So impossibly blistered with gusts. I scrabble back to camp just as the sun sinks below a western storm climbing over the horizon.
An unblighted land in the grip of a slow destruction by eolian sprites. Falling in love with its torrid wildflower hues, with the insane, violent beauty of its wind. All so gnawed with frost. Countless departed ones, and one called grandfather, seeing wildflowers through my eyes, numb from squall on my cheek.