Saturday, November 5, 2016

Wilderness Rambler

On a recent September afternoon, after having spent the day cooped up in my study productively hunched over the computer, I stepped out the front door into a haze of yellow autumn light.  The air was exquisitely mild, as it can only be on days when summer runs itself out into fall.  I went for the mail and then, unable to bear the thought of going back to my desk, I went to the desert.

I threw a bottle of water and my camera in the pick-up, and headed down the rural highway that bisects the valley where I live.  Just before the highway climbs out of the valley's south-east end, I took a left onto a washboarded dirt road that was smartly marked with new government signage: "Mud Lake Reservoir."  I felt a faint stab of resentment at the sign, maybe because I felt that some places shouldn't be too easy to find.  The dirt road winds around some scrubby outcroppings topped with gray crumbling volcanic rimrock, and through some seedings of crested wheat grass.  Then there's a long climb up a steep incline cut into a hill.  At the top, I stepped out of the pick-up to admire the view—sublime emptiness:



Shocks squeaking, I bounced along the road which winds through a sort of high canyon carpeted with sage and bunch grass, juniper trees clinging to the slopes above.  Eventually, my view opened out onto a vast dry lakebed, known as Horse Head Lake, though I can't say when was the last time it held any measurable amount of water.  It is a sagebrush flat, and today a lone pronghorn stood sentinel in the dead center of the vast clearing, ringed around by cliffs and broken rimrock.  I stopped to have a closer look, but he did not run from me.  He only looked, his great black eyes catching the light.


  

Onwards I rambled, through the shallow juniper-strewn canyon and at last to the banks of the prosaically named Mud Lake, though in these final summer days the name couldn't have suited better.  The lake was dried up to the point of being a marsh, populated by a rowdy crowd of Canada geese and a herd of pronghorns, who upon seeing me stirred themselves into a graceful slow motion flight across the lakebed.  Creeping low through the sage like a predator, I stalked the geese with my camera, until, increasingly nervous at my approach, they exploded into a wild honking blur of wings, outstretched necks, and webby landing gear.




I saw no one.  I heard no one.  Only my own boots crunching on the gravel, the distant hum of an insect, the occasional cry of a bird.  All else was silence.  The sun-warmed junipers breathed their astringent aroma into the air, and I crumbled a few leaves of sage between my fingers to better smell the sharp tang off my skin.  I was alone.  True, people come out here, but they are occasional visitors: a pair of hunters, a rancher moving cattle, the odd rambler like me.  And then they are gone.  

It is interesting to me that some (surely well-intentioned) people, in the name of "conservation," would have much of my remote desert officially declared a "wilderness area" by an act of Congress.  What does this mean? It means, among other things, that no motorized vehicles would be allowed.  In terms of access, the net result would be that most of the small number of people who delight in the beauties of this lovely place would no longer be able to do so.  Only a backpacker, physically able and fit, equipped with food and water for multiple days, along with tent and sleeping bag, would be blessed to enjoy these far-flung precincts.  The rationale is that these lands need "protection."  But from what?  There is no oil, gas, or mineral extraction in these parts.  And why lock people out when so few come?  This desert is already wilderness.  But it is a wilderness that can be enjoyed by any rambler who takes the trouble to find it.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Predators


            In winter when I go out walking, I pack a stout Smith & Wesson revolver.  It’s heavy and makes an awkward lump under my coat.  The cylinder is filled with six hollow-point .357 rounds—designed to leave more than a dent.  I don’t carry the Smith because of gangs.  I don’t carry it because of crime.  It’s because of predators.
            Predators are a fact of life in America’s “back forty.”  In the past five months, my neighbors have shot three mountain lions within a mile or two of my house.  One of them was hiding in plain sight, just 50 feet or so away from the town store.  That was probably the same cat that killed my neighbor’s four day-old colt, which was corralled down the road from here. 
            The cats are afoot, and aplenty.  Our state fish and wildlife department knows we’re crawling with them, and will occasionally send a warden to dispatch a lion that has taken up housekeeping in the valley.  But new homesteaders keep on arriving.  When I’m out walking—often in the dark—I peer deeply into black barn doors, and scrutinize the limbs of overhanging trees.  It’s a strange and prickly feeling, the sense that you’re prospective prey.  Of course, I do have the Smith.  But it is well known that cats tend to attack by stealth, and from behind.
            The hunting and killing of large predators is a touchy business.  Many city folk can’t stomach the idea.  I can see their side.  Large predators—cats, wolves, bears—are gorgeous creatures, and look positively magisterial when staring out of the pages of a wildlife magazine.  It is also, I believe, a great privilege to live in a country where large carnivores still roam free.  When I lived in Scotland, you were lucky if you ever saw a hedgehog, let alone a deer.  Our North American predators are big, strong, beautiful animals.  Talismans.  Totems.  No wonder our sports teams are cluttered with large carnivore names.  Who, after all, would christen their football franchise “The Sage Hens?”  That’s right.  No one.
            So we Americans adore our predators.  But the stark reality is that some few of us must also live with them.  And here are the facts.  Predators kill cattle, sheep, and horses.  Predators kill pets.  And on rare occasions, they kill people.  So what to do?  The idea (I’ve heard this proposed) that rural residents are invading predators’ territory and should therefore remove themselves to the cities is unacceptable.  More realistically, the Rancher offers the predator a bargain:  Don’t come into my town, to my house, to my corrals.  Don’t eat my horses, cattle, sheep, or dogs.  Stay out of my sight and out of my stock.  Come here to do your killing, Long Tooth, and be hunted yourself.  Keep to the timber, the desert, the wild—roam free and in peace.   

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hart Mountain


            It doesn’t matter where you stand in south Warner Valley—in the vast jigsaw puzzle of irrigated hay meadows, among the tules at the edge of Guano Reservoir, at the terminus of the valley where Twenty Mile Creek tumbles out of its canyon—regardless of where you stand, you can see Hart Mountain. 
            From the south, you see the mountain in profile: a massive flat-topped monolith, standing sentinel at the mouth of the valley.  From north Warner, you look Hart Mountain square in the face.  From that aspect, Hart presents itself as a glowering black wall, gauged out by V-shaped gorges and ravines, that runs for miles along the valley’s eastern flank, ranches scattered loosely about its feet.
            Geologists call Hart a “fault block” mountain.  By this they mean that Hart was created by the slippage of enormous blocks of the Earth’s crust as they slid and ground along fault lines or cracks.  As huge wedges of rock slipped downward on either side of it, Hart Mountain was thrust up like it was being raised by a crowbar.
            In 1844, John C. Frémont and his men threw down their packs and picketed horses on Christmas Eve at Hart Mountain’s base.  Their goal was to reach the gentle climate of coastal California, but that winter night they spent huddled against the sleeping giant.  Who’s to say that one or two of those men didn’t lie awake that night dwelling on the presence close at his back—immense and invisible, exhaling in the dark.
            Hart Mountain is almost human.  It has moods.  Summer finds it clothed in warm colors, a russet bloom upon its shoulders. Fall thunderstorms cluster around its formidable brow, black and foreboding.  In the coldest, hardest part of winter, Hart hibernates—a frozen blue and white tomb.  And in rare moments, its head wreathed in clouds, the mountain dreams silently away.
            The people who ranch in this valley grow up, grow old, and die with Hart Mountain within their line of sight.  To these people, Hart Mountain is not just a part of the local geography, or a geological feature.  It is a permanent fixture of that subtle geography of the mind that anchors a person’s sense of place by dead reckoning. Like true north on a compass, or the pole star to a sailor, this mountain is a fixed point of reference for the people of Warner Valley.  Hart Mountain means home.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Cox Place


           Not very far from where I live, there's a ranch tucked under the shoulder of a great mountain.  They call it the Cox Place.  It’s out of the way:  across the valley, down a long dirt road, past some hot springs.  The house gazes out over hay meadows.  It’s a two-story building with a slanting roof that sprouts a squat red chimney.  Just beyond the kitchen window, a windmill straddles a well.  All around the house grow well-established trees; one of them, a Bartlett pear, is loaded with fruit in late summer.  The construction on the Cox Place is a bit old school, but enduring.  No Powder River panels here.  Lodge poll gates hang on stout juniper logs, which form the uprights in the corrals and shop.  In all, this is a modest place, big enough to run maybe two hundred cows.  It’s what you’d call a small family ranch:  a place where you could raise your kids close to animals and land. A place to live quietly. 
But no one lives here any more.
The Cox Place is an empty gutted bone yard.  Abandoned for over twenty years, the house is home to nothing but packrats and empty beer bottles that roll and clink against each other when the wind moans through the shattered windows.  The fences are down, and the yard strewn with buckets, burn barrels, beer cans, shotgun shells, corrugated metal scraps, expired farm equipment, coffee cans, nails, ancient hoses, and barbed wire.  The pears fall and rot, or are carried off by birds.  The hay meadows, once green and fertile, are choked with greasewood and rabbit brush.
What happened here?  Good intentions gone astray, possibly.  An environmental organization bought the Cox Place some two decades ago, and since then it has been gradually sinking into ruin.  I have no doubt that the leaders of this group intended to do something good for the land:  to “return it to nature,” perhaps.  But is this really a return to nature?  And by letting this ranch die, what has been lost?  Good people who take care of the land because they depend on it and live off of it.  Irrigated meadows that attract passing migratory birds.  Children who grow up with daily chores and animals depending on their care.  A lighted window in the dark when a traveler is lost or broke down.
But not at the Cox Place.  The windows are dark, the fire’s gone out, and no one lives here any more.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fall Works


If you’re lucky enough to have a job these days, you probably get paid every two weeks, or maybe once a month.  A rancher gets paid once a year, at the conclusion of fall works.
            Fall works are to a rancher what harvest time is to a farmer.   In the fall, the pairs of mother cows and calves are gathered in from the far-flung ranges where they have grazed away the summer.  The calves are stripped off the cows, weaned, and sold.  Then the rancher gets her yearly paycheck.  After paying off whatever loans and bills she’s accumulated over the past year, she gets to find out what her job pays. 
            Fall works is not just when the rancher’s crop is gathered and sold.  It’s also when she makes sure the seeds for next-years crop are sewn.  Cows are “preg checked” to ensure they got bred on the range, and will be calving in the spring.   Cows that are not pregnant, or “open,” are almost always sold as slaughter cows.  A cow costs money to feed through the winter, and raising a calf is the way she earns her living.  An open cow is a free rider, like an office worker that gets paid but hangs out at the water cooler all day.  In the cattle business, an employee like that gets culled from the herd and is sent “down the road.”
            Conclusion of fall works signals a full revolution of the great wheel that marks agricultural time.  Winter is for feeding cows and catching-up with lingering projects.  This is kitchen table time—time to plan for the coming year, time to spend with family, time to reflect.  Through the short, dark days of winter, feeding her cows is a rancher’s prime concern, until the new calves start hitting the ground in February.
            After fall works, cowboys of the wandering variety may “roll their beds” and leave to spend Christmas at home, or head for warmer country where they might be able to find some work.  Or, as the old cowboy song tells it, they may never make it back to where they came from…

Charlie was buried at sunrise. No tombstone at his head
Nothing but a thin board, and this is what it said
"Poor Charlie died at daybreak. He died from a fall.
He'll not see his Mother when the work's all done this fall.”