Occasionally I battle with a strong urge to wander. When this urge hits I suddenly feel compelled to strike off across a landscape that is full of sharp corners, generally devoid of significant vegetation, and visited regularly by bad weather. A few places come to mind: Owyhee Country; Steens Mountain; the John Day Basin.
Oddly enough the timing of these urges seems to coincide closely with what are otherwise periods of unadulterated bliss. Such was the case coming into the end of September, when the urge suddenly wrapped its tentacles around my brain and began to squeeze the comfort out of my days. I fought back for a time, but one day my wife looked at me and asked, in effect, what was eating me. I’ve always worn my emotions on my sleeve. We talked for a while and then she said, “All I worry about is that you insist on doing this kind of thing alone. Isn’t there someone you could go with?”
The short answer is “Probably not.” Truth is, the only people I’ve ever truly enjoyed hiking with are family members. But too often their schedules don’t mesh well with mine. And as much as I love hiking with them, sometimes even they drive me crazy. “What’s the hurry?” I want to ask. I might go no more than three strides before I see something that brings me to a dead stop and rivets my attention. They, meanwhile, are striding along like one of Patton’s soldiers and before you know it they’ve disappeared around a bend. Left to myself, I average about a mile an hour over reasonably smooth ground; they clock in at 3.0 or better.
On October 7th I headed off for Mule Shoe, a small BLM campground located on the John Day River a few miles west of Spray, Oregon. (Solo, I didn’t even bring the dog.) I like to stay at this campground for three simple reasons: first, it’s almost always possible to park the pop-up in my favorite site; second, it is centrally located between Sutton Mountain and Sheep Rock, areas where I generally prefer to hike; and third, the toilet is invariably well-maintained. (Whatever else the BLM may do, it manages to maintain toilets better than any other governmental agency I’ve ever encountered.)
This reach of the river is a few hundred yards downstream from the camp. It isn’t particularly scenic by John Day standards, but I love it. I’ve caught quite a few small mouth bass here over the years, but never a rainbow or steelhead.
The river was down far enough to expose a fault in the bedrock I had never noticed before. I thought for a moment I had stumbled upon the fossilized backbone of a large critter. But it's simply an artifact of multiple geologic forces meeting in a common area.
That first night a full moon came up just as the last rays of the sun were vanishing.
Finding a safe place to hike turned out to be a bit of a challenge. I had overlooked the fact that it was deer hunting season. Most of the gullies and pull offs along the river had one or more pickup trucks parked in them, indicating that further up the slope a deer hunter was itching to bag a buck. I finally settled on an area that is adjacent to the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. The first mile of the trail follows an old dirt road running south-southeast from where Highway 19 crosses the river. At one point it splits into two routes. The south fork leads towards Sheep Rock and the Cant Ranch. I took the east fork and headed deeper into the hills just below Windy Point, a 4500 foot peak that along with Middle Mountain, dominates the area. The road faded into the open countryside about a quarter mile further on.
I tend to tread heavy when I’m in the bush, a habit I picked up early in life. Walking hard cuts down on the number of close-up animal sightings, but it also cuts down significantly on the number of rattle snakes encountered. Even so, I was able to jump a herd of elk. I had no time to change lenses but still managed to get a long range shot of some of them once they got far enough away to feel safe.
My route took me past quite a few stand-out, solitary junipers like this berry covered beauty.
It’s funny how perspective changes everything. I’ve visited the Cant ranch and the nearby Paleo Center a dozen times. Sheep Rock rises over both like a monument; but this shot, taken looking south from the bench below Windy Point, makes its sharp point seem like a relatively insignificant bump.
I continued east through the area until I ran into a fence line, then headed north until I ran into another one. These mark the boundary between public land and the Long View Ranch. I’m not big into trespassing, especially when I know the owner is serious about prosecuting interlopers. Accordingly, I headed west along the bottom of what I think is called Deer Gulch. The way in was steep and deep and after a few hundred yards I decided to get out while I still had a chance. Scrambling solo over broken boulders is very risky business. (Scale note: The juniper bush standing at the bottom of the gap is about 8 feet tall.)
I’ll be going back to this gulch at my very first opportunity. And if I can round up someone to go with me, I'll try my luck at going up along the creek bed and back along the rim.
I spent the morning of the next (and last) day of my short outing by exploring Holmes Creek Road, a well maintained gravel road that runs east off of Highway 19. The junction is about 15 miles north of the Cant Ranch. There are numerous sections of public land along both sides of the road, some of them several square miles in overall area. The road rises from the river (1920 ft) and tops out on a broad mesa almost exactly a mile high. By noon I was tired of driving, so I parked near a pair of dried up stock ponds and set off in a southwesterly direction toward the rim of the mesa. Less than a quarter mile into my hike I chanced upon a wild horse. The moment I made a move to my get a longer lens out of my pack, he was off like a shot. Still, this was pretty close quarters where wild horses are concerned and I felt pretty privileged to be able to study him for a few minutes, even at this distance.
I reached my intended destination about three hours out – a small jumble of broken basalt at the tip of a long,narrow ridge that afforded a decent view and little solitude. I hunkered down for a half hour or so, drinking the last of my tepid coffee and crunching away on a pack of Keebler’s peanut butter filled cheese crackers while I studied my surroundings.
Before I left I practiced a little of what I am now calling “Safe Solitude.” My kids gave me a wonderful little device awhile back. “Spot” it’s called and it can send out a variety of information to preselected phone numbers and emails. Including 911, if it ever came to that. I turned it on and a minute or two later it sent off my coordinates and a preset text to let my wife and kids know that all was well and that I was having a great time.
The next day I headed north along the John Day Highway, making my way home using a route I first traveled more than 20 years ago. Just after the highway crosses Thirty Mile Creek it passes through a canyon (Condon Canyon) that has long held my interest. This trip I finally stopped long enough to grab a shot of the area.
I think next trip out I will try to find out who owns the land along the highway and get permission to take a little walk. along a nearby feature named The Devil’s Backbone.