Unleashed in the East
After this it was into Bend, and then a very long stretch across the desert to Burns. Saw what remains of Brothers, of Millican...Towns I have seen depopulated in my lifetime. Like touring the outer edges of a crumbling empire, seeing its outposts shot to splinters. The town of Hampton continues though; it's like a compound, and could probably defend itself if it came down to that. Beyond there, just the occasional farms and long stretches of nothing, punctuated by white-tailed deer.
The twin towns of Burns and Hines are former capitols of their respective industries (ranching and timber, respectively), and now are sort of there-because-there's-always-been-something-there. They sit on the outermost rim of what passes for civilization in these parts, and below there is nothing but The Great Basin. This would be the floor of a massive prehistoric inland sea that is now dried up, and forms a great deal of southeastern Oregon and much of northern Nevada.
We left our squalid, unimaginably hot room at the Days Inn, and began to search the bars for Truth.
We more or less found it, I guess, and had a template for where to go and what to do in town the next night. As Ms. Bee had a conference on water rights and law to attend (which she blogs about, of course), I had a mission of sorts: try to achieve the peak of Steens Mountain.
But that's all an excuse; just a sort of reason to go somewhere and look at things. Like Ken Kesey's dad always said, when you're walking up the creek, take along a fishing pole so no one will think you're crazy for staring at the water.
My accompaniment for this journey was the Sirius/XM station 'Willie', which is Willie Nelson's satellite radio station. Although I was deep enough in the desert that my cell phone didn't even kind of work, the reception from space was fantastic. I recommend this station; they're funny as hell and they have fantastic taste in music.
This was a Wednesday, which meant 'Wednesdays With Willie', in which listeners may call in and chat with Mr. Nelson himself on the phone. This eventually rolled over into the program hosted by one Dallas Wayne, who I'd not heard of, but then again, I'm not really country like that.
Country is fantastic soundtrack music for a spiritual journey, because it's filled with lots and lots of sweeping generalizations about life, and at any given point one may easily feel that the fella on the radio just read my mind for this very reason. It's very intersubjective; very group-mind.
Furthermore, Mr. Wayne is fond of inviting in a whole bunch of other older gentleman with thick Southern accents to sit around bullshitting about everything in general. This is satellite radio, so you can do that.
It was fun as hell to listen to these old time wordslingers go at it, and make no mistake; wordslingers is exactly what they are. They're not farmers, for gawd sake, even though they may sound that way...They're entertainment industry professionals, and adopt a pose of 'aw shucks' early on in their careers. They don't pitch hay and raise cattle -they portray an artistic interpretation of those who might, however, as those types tend to be somewhat taciturn.
I was thinking all this after I discovered that the road to the top of Steens Mountain was closed, took the curvy switchback road up from Frenchglen, and up onto the plains. I was now on a road that would go around the Steens in general, and Dallas and his friends were bullshitting about something or the other. I felt like I was rapidly becoming part of this conversation they were having.
"Why are we talkin' about this?" I drawled, then cracked the hell up.
There's a lot to be said for being alone in a truck in the middle of nowhere with a headfull of psychedelic mushrooms. You have this place of consensus that is just so rare in today's world. You may happily and loudly agree with yourself (not to mention unashamedly talk to yourself) and just kind of affirm things. You may remind yourself of all the things that are Okay, and ask yourself some honest questions about those that are not.
Again, all this with a backdrop of endless country witticisms and observation. I would occasionally pause in my commentary on life and the universe to adjudge a song; "That was heartbreaking," and then the familiar chords of Ernest Tubb's "I'm Walking The Floor Over You" come on, and it's like seeing an old friend: "Aww, pick it out, Smitty!"
It was a beautiful day, and I was having a wonderful time. I was also skirting the edges of what is known as Roaring Springs Ranch. This 'ranch' is actually a massive tract of land that comprises what remains of Pete French's ranching empire.
In the first big land rush around these parts, it didn't take long for lots of people to realize that this is no place for the small homesteader. It's the fucking desert, and people will indeed (and did) kill each other over water. So, as everybody pulled up stakes and ran, people like Pete French stuck around and ended up owning everything. Those that would not go were intimidated into doing so by French's men.
Naturally, this led to someone killing him. A tiny man with a huge moustache, he was known to never ever be without his gun, except the one time the day after Christmas 1897. He was partying with some friends at their house, he got called out and shot by a man who was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing in the case.
So anyway, it's Julius Caesar on the high plains, and I'm amazed that no one's made a movie about this specific incident, but to this day, it's the biggest privately held piece of property around there.
No one, no one at all on that road. I was on my way down to Fields, which is well on your way to Nevada, if you so choose. Fields is a couple farm houses and a landing strip, should you need to land your Cessna. The closest thing to a governmental authority figure I saw was a guy spraying weeds by the side of the road. I passed him twice, waving both times.
Around here, I realized that if I wanted to make it back to Narrows -the closest place with gas- I'd probably best turn around. But I was enjoying my driving so much. Here, Dale Watson came on with the song "I Got To Drive", one of those numbers where I can't tell if the guy is joking or not. (Please enjoy with video some guy made of his semi.)
So I was running back north, millions of bugs splattering against my windshield. I made it past Narrows, and ultimately back to the top of the hill where one may view the entire valley where Burns and Hines lay.
I quickly realized that not only were the legendary mosquitoes out in full force, and standing in one place for any length of time was out of the question, but that I was in the middle of a whole bunch of mounds. Mounds that were all decorated with plastic flowers. Hm. Pet Cemetary? I left.
And of course Bee had been basically sitting around listening to a bunch of ranchers complain about the goddam gummint all day long. We were soon to meet, down at the Central Pastime, which is about as good n' descriptive a name for a bar in a desert town as can be.