The Winds Blow Where They Will

by Sonya Malecky Spaziani, Wild Wind Art

We struck off on our trip late morning for Southeast Oregon. We made it to the east side of the Steens in only six and a half hours, but we were hauling and were accompanied by a friendly tail wind. Not having air-conditioning and being well into the 90's, we would often shift around in our seats to allow for air-circulation to our perspiring skin. It was interesting to see that even the ravens, sitting on the old weathered fence posts, appeared to be panting. We were treated to many beautiful sights in the open wild country; from mesas, to lichen painted rim rock, canyons, numerous ancient riverbeds that flowed over 10,000 years ago, and intense blue skies as far as the eye can see.

The wildlife was also very plentiful. High up on an old telephone pole sat two black ravens. One lovingly preened the other who eagerly ruffled her feathers and cocked her head to the side for easier grooming access by her mate. There were numerous hawks, gold eagles, doves, and quail, chuckers, ground squirrels, mule deer, antelope, and coyotes. In the shadow of the mountain at sunset, dusk settled in.

Driving south on the dirt road at the base of the Steens range on the east side, rounding a bend, we were surprised by a small herd of mule deer. They were all does, and two young ones born this year, anxiously stood still near the dirt road and stared at our vehicle rolling to a stop. A couple of them chose the perceived safety on the opposite side of the fence, and from a standstill, leaped effortlessly and gracefully over the barbwire and juniper.

Happy by the sighting, we continued our trek and settled contentedly in our seats discussing what we observed, when around the next bend a half mile or so, we were surprised by a larger herd of a dozen or so muley bucks crossing the road 10 to 20 feet in front of us. They all appeared to be young, as their antlers predominantly sported two forks, suggesting they ranged from two to three years of age. They appeared to be 'casually startled' by our vehicle's presence and continued their own trip toward the mountain; once in a while individuals would stop momentarily to assess our intentions. With it being deer season, I silently urged their retreat, before a vehicle I spotted a quarter-mile behind us made it's approach. They disappeared into the high sagebrush and into the mountain's cool and shadowy cover. We arrived at our first destination, Mann Lake at near dark.

We quickly and silently set up camp, like a well-practiced team. A wide variety of waterfowl made their presence be known on the lake's shimmering surface by busily making all kinds of sounds- chatters, honks, twitters, and much excitable fluttering and splashing. There were intermittent gusts of warm wind, and having heard about a change in the weather forecast before we left the valley, we were aware that it made it likely for a potentially severe storm in the southeast, so we got the tent stakes, and a couple rocks from a nearby fire ring, to pound them in with. When we reached toward the ring, we both noticed a not well organized but dense web and observed the black widow arachnid within by flashlight. We let it be, as it's been there long before we got there, and we were aware that there are many, many other poisonous spiders in the area anyway, this one was just unfortunate that someone had happened to come across it. It was far enough from where we were so we just left it alone, though we did capture it on film. We sat in our 2-person chair, and watched the full moon rise above the old eroded domed mountains to the east. Before its rise, we observed the stars and their brilliance, which also reflected in the water. Coyotes sang their lullaby as we drifted off to sleep...

The next morning, we got up before sunrise and watched the setting of the moon over mountain. The coyotes woke us up and Rick and I laughed as we heard the last howl... a little coyote pup trying his hardest to imitate the adults, what a finale! The waterfowl busily greeting the new day, as Rick set up his fishing line to try his luck at the native land-locked lahonton trout. Before he left he put on the water for coffee, and I brought him a cup of hair-curling brew, while he stood on the water's edge throwing in his line. As I approached, he caught a small one, and released it. A little later, what we thought was a snag on a submerged log, turned out to be a fish at least 24 inches long that refused to budge. As he was finally reeled it in closer, he took one look at Rick, slapped the surface of the water with his tail and broke the 4-pound test line. Rick walked out of the water, speechless. By late morning, we made a hearty breakfast, designed to stick with us until dinner. We attempted to escape the sun's laser heat by sitting alongside the truck, which offered very little shade, with the sun high above, an hour short of its peak. No trees in this part of the desert.

We broke camp and looked forward to the air movement in the truck that would provide some relief, as would the higher elevation near the summit of Steens at Fish Lake - our next destination. We made our way along the flank of the breathtaking mountain with its many rugged canyons, and the numerous and extreme peeks and valleys. The Alvord desert to the east reflected the noon sun with all its beautiful white playa flats (old 10 mile dried lakebed), contrasting greatly with the deep blue skies. The sage was pungent and sweet, and along the dirt road, grew the annual wild sunflowers for most of the stretch of the 30-mile fault-block. We rounded the southern most tip of the mountain and stopped at a road cut looking for leaf fossils of what used to be the edge of an old lake bottom, made of striated sediment.

THE BLITZEN HERD: We regularly enjoy visiting a ghost town on the west side of the mountain, or Catlow Valley called Blitzen (a German term for lightning). We often soak our hot desert feet in the Blitzen river that's known to the locals for its good-sized trout, either just before or just after our visit to the ghost town... A relief to our overworked, hot and tired pups. The cool mountain river runs down the west flank of Steens, and meanders it's way down through the pungent juniper forest to Catlow Valley.

Just outside that area, we were fortunate enough to spot a small band of mustangs, one stallion which stands out in my mind - a very hardy, beautiful and striking black and white paint. This band was the lowest/farthest from the mountain that I have seen before. And although I was sure they were mustangs, I couldn't get out of my head how beautiful this mustang was, with such correct and amazing conformation, that I began to doubt myself, and wondered if they were ranchers free-ranging horses. Later, through Oregon BLM office, I found out that they were indeed mustangs, and in fact I found a picture of the black and white, courtesy of BLM photographers. I'm not great at describing distance, but I believe we were about an eighth of a mile from him and this herd. His image is forever burned in my memory.

SE Oregon/Steens HMA
Photo courtesy of BLM

SE Oregon/Steens HMA
Photo courtesy of BLM
I stood there with mouth opened and amazed having seen this incredible horse. As the horses disappeared in the sea of sage and hills, and as I staired at their fading dust, I came to my senses as I suddenly felt alone. Rick had walked into the Blitzen ghost town.... I apparently lost all track of time. When I caught up with him, we walked silently on the thick fine dust among the old weathered buildings, some of them toppled, and some of them sitting at a diagonal, their odd angles look greater each year. We are always sure that by the next time they will succumb to gravity. Some of the buildings are hearty and upright. Up in the rafters of one (school) which stood angled at a diagonal, was a raven nest with what looked like an antelope leg bone, and two young ravens looking back curiously at us from their home as though they've never seen humans before. You can hear the fence hinges creak, the moderate wind make it's various hums and whistles through house windows/shutters, and spaces between old weathered wood-siding, fences, and various holes found most everywhere.

Wind-shaped home
Ghost town Blitzen. SE Oregon, Catlow Valley

   Two-story hotel
Ghost town Blitzen. SE Oregon, Catlow Valley

One of the buildings standing was a two story house, and while Rick looked at arrowhead chips outside, I slowly ascended the steps to the second floor of what was an old hotel. With each step, I could hear the steps and the old house groan and creak, and the house shift somewhat to my weight. The wallpaper was of pretty blue flowers, and much of it was gone. I also found pieces of their dinnerware which also had delicate wildflowers. A once beautiful home, now home to swallows, ravens, mice, probably rats, and scorpions, and the occasional dung beetle.

It was exhilarating hearing the lonely sounds, such as the howling wind gusts, and feeling alone but not quite. I enjoyed envisioning in my mind the kind of hustle and bustle, and life that went on out there, the sight they saw out of the window I sat, probably as I saw it, the many stories…. most of which lost forever. I sat in the window frame (and again the house shifted… or sighed), of the upper story, dangling my feet out as I listened to the wind blow through the open windows. I could also hear the winds rustling the golden dried prairie bunch grasses. I watched a gold eagle soar overhead, casting it's shadow on the sun-parched ground. I was startled to hear my name when Rick was looking for me. It was interesting that I felt compelled to reply in a whisper. I am sure I heard the old house give a 'sigh of relief' when I stepped off its steps onto the main floor.

We seemed to come back to 'present day', once we sat down in our pickup. We drove north to French Glen, where we replenished our water and ice and topped off the gas tank. We noticed a greater amount of tourists here this year. Shrugging it off momentarily, we made our way up the Steens from the west side. Dismayed, we passed several mini 'tour' vans with people in their clean pressed shirts and straw hats, peering out their windows, as though this was the first time out of civilization. Pushing what we've been fearing for the last 15 years, out of our minds, we reached Fish Lake early evening and again quickly set up camp. Rick was anxious to head farther up the mountain to take pictures with the sun lower in the horizon for optimum light/shadow contrasts. So we chose to do that, and have a late dinner. We drove up the wash-boardy road looking out for photo opportunities. We found an endless supply that satisfied Rick's keen eye. We spotted a small herd of antelope near the Little Blitzen Gorge, though they were too far for a good picture and they blended into the barren brown landscape. We made our way around and above the Little Blitzen Gorge, and waited as we watched for the sun to set. We weren't sure that it was going to be picture worthy, as the colors still looked muted at the moment.

We waited a little longer, breathing in the updraft of the cooling wind from the deep gorge, and observed this immense glacial valley while we waited. To our left, clinging on the north side, was a glacier, caught in a circ and from beneath it ran it's melted glacier water which turned into a stream that, even in that distance, we could hear it bubbling between wind gusts. It made it's way down to the valley floor 1900 feet or more below. From there it meandered and coursed its way, as a snake would, the rest of the length of this U-shaped valley (one of many on the Steens). Then... before us, unfolded the sunset we waited for… we were stunned at the intense red and amber colors it displayed.

Next on our agenda was the top of the mountain to take pictures of the rising moon. Here, the winds blew fierce, and I donned on my long-johns and sweats, and multiple layers of sweatshirts. Rick, concerned that the wind would cause the camera to shake, found shelter among the rim-rock, below the summit. Together we sat soaking in the view of the desert one vertical mile below. We knew the moon would rise a half-hour later from yesterday, so we settled in the rim rock after the camera was set on the tripod. In the twilight, just before total darkness, we could see the dry and white Alvord alkali lakebed below. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we scanned the horizon for the approaching moon's edge to begin to show, beyond Sheep Head Mountains. As the full moon rose, it was so exhilarating watching it and feeling the updraft of the fierce winds blowing up the mountain from the desert heated during the day below.

The giant moon was so magnificent; that I was sure the symphony I heard was not playing in my head! As it rose higher, it illuminated the shear cliffs, rimrock ridges, and giant boulders bigger than most houses. The only places not touched by the bright moonlight were the steepest deepest valleys below. We spent much of the evening there, touched by the glory and splendor of this great place, what we call our second home. Heavy eyes and cold bones finally overtook us, so we left and headed back to camp to make a late supper. For supper we shared Top Ramon noodles, a roast I pre-cooked at home (warmed it in tinfoil), with sourdough rolls. We called it a night...We awoke at sunrise, and while we were talking in the tent, I heard a 'thump…. thump…. thump' outside, and quickly looked out the tent window. A small herd of muleys, both bucks and does, were hopping over the sage, making their way down a valley just outside of our camp. After eye-popping coffee and breakfast, we broke camp and headed back up the road and around the loop heading down to our favorite waterfall, but not without stopping and overlooking the desert once again, sitting perched atop the massive mountain. Not far from the top, we were fortunate enough to watch a badger, most certainly looking grumpy and annoyed with us, but went on busily digging and when he wasn't digging he was waddling off to dig somewhere else. He wasn't too far from us, maybe 15 to 20 feet off the road was as close as he allowed us to get… or we wanted to get, to this elusive little tough guy with an attitude.

The waterfall is a quarter mile hike down from the road to the flat top of the gorge, where a creek runs the middle of it. We followed the creek down to where it tumbles over the rim rock with a little cave just below. With new film loaded in the camera, Rick took what looked like will be fantastic pictures of glacier scoured and wind blasted rim rock. With my .38 in my pack, ready to go, I took the lead route over the boulders to be assured there was no dangerous critter in the cave behind the waterfall. With it all clear, we made our way down these massive boulders and inspected the cave's soft dry dirt for signs of activity since last year, which appeared to not be any. The water pours down on top of a jagged smaller boulder, and where the water splashes on the ground, grows a two-foot section of tender green vegetation. Earlier in the year, there are also wildflowers growing there… I think were trillium. After three days of not showering, Rick took the brave lead and bathed under the ice cold water. I gathered up my will and also washed under later. What an exhilarating shower!! It was VERY cold!!!! We used no soap, just stood under it. The cave provided shelter from the wind outside, and a little of the sun shined part way into the cave to dry us off. When we emerged we were completely dry.

On the way back to the car, just above the fall, I found two golden aspen leaves, but there were no aspen where we were. They blew up from a stand of trees at the bottom of the gorge close to two thousand feet below. Knowing they glided on the thermal uplift that sent them up the canyon, I took them home.

We proceeded down the mountain, and to my thrill, came upon a cattle drive heading the herd down the mountain to holding pens. However, my thrill was mixed with sadness, as one of the ranch hands riding his horse alongside our truck, explained that we were witnessing the last cattle drive off the mountain due to the government buying out ranchers or trading for more, but less, pristine acreage off the mountain (they are turning it into a national park). We asked if they had a choice, and he said no. The government basically wrote Mr. Clemens a check, forcing them out by the claim of a eminent domain. The cowboy was friendly and spoke of this calmly but certainly full of emotion. This was the Clemens Ranch, well known ranchers in the area that I've read about in several different publications. Rex Clemens purchased the ranch from the Riddle brothers over 50 years ago (the Riddle brothers were notorious because of stealing/ controlling the water rights in the area).

It was sad listening to the cowboy, and Rick and I both had very mixed emotions about what's right. We're glad the mountain will be protected, but at what cost? We've been seeing it already with the vanloads of 'tourons'. Along with that will be buses, hotels, pavement, signs, guardrails, and restrooms... all taking away from the rich ruggedness and harsh beauty of this land, a sheltered place that is the last frontier in Oregon. Along with all the 'civilized comforts' and the public attention (thanks to 'government protection') will be more gawking people, noise, and trash, worn out trails. And what about the ranch that's been long established here for generations? Rick and I slowly picked our way through the cattle as we continued down the dusty road, and with long faces, said our goodbye to the mountain.

See you where the wild winds blow,