Steens Mountain

I’d once read that Steens Mountain might be the most beautiful region 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 I can hear 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 a Wyoming wind 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.  In this way, it reminds me of the Sierras.  From its planed and angled top, 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 gale 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 mountain, 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 gigiantic, isthmus of igneous boundered on both sides by the U-shaped gorges called Little Blitzen, Big Indian and Kiger that sculpted four gigantic prongs which rose to the alpine parks at the top 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 still bear much snow.  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 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.  Hey, it’s still spring.

Clouds coalesce at the peaks.  The snow says ‘CAUTION: SLIPPERY WHEN WET,’ and I punch through 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 scarve the flanks of far off southern mountains.  All of it green and rolling in a golden distance.

But it’s so frigging cold and windy, I head back down.  A couch-sized boulder in the middle of the road calved from the crumbling cliffs on my right.  Rich, rhyolitic reds in the rock, forested with fir that’s in turn sashed with moss, with old man’s beard.  I always look for cognates when I’m exploring a new world.  These red, cloud-tipped cliffs remind me of the Venezuelan plateaus of the lost world.  But the cirques and hanging valleys, whitened with snow and lined with lime and Kelly green for the aspen and pine and burgundy volcanics are more geologically akin to the Tyrol than the equator.

When I have the chance, no matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing, I try to 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.

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 God 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 muted pine green, neon yellow, citrus orange and courthouse white.  The stream gushed far below, a thunder greater than the storm of its flow 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 dare the sunset, blinded by golden 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.

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 numbra along the gorge’s outer walls.  What a conceit to believe that even 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 sharp claw and the silhouettes drawn dark in between.  Far, far south, the white painted Pueblo Mountains face the sunset, with a roll cloud churning above their summits.  So cold.  So impossibly blistered with gusts.  I claw 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 gnawing cold.  Countless departed ones, and one called grandfather, seeing wildflowers through my eyes, feeling the wind on my cheek.

© 2015 by Michael C. Just