Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 15, 2005 Dry empty country.

After Burning Man, I spent some time in dry empty country. Not the deserts of the southwest, or even anything like Black Rock Desert, but just dry, empty places in Oregon and Idaho. Heading north from Lakeview, I drove through miles of rolling hills, covered with scrub brush, overlooking crusted saline lakes. In one place that passed for a town – three houses, a gas station, a small grocery, and a bar – a sign alerted the occasional car to “next services, 90 miles.” I guess the land there isn’t good for much, and there isn’t enough water to make it better, so its human carrying capacity is very low. Capacity to support animals isn’t much better, there were almost as few cattle as there were towns.

It was strange to drive for miles and see no trace of human settlement except the roads and the barbed wire fences lining them. It’s hard to imagine living in such an empty place, yet this is not protected land or a park. There’s just not much there to attract anyone, aside from the stark beauty of the open landscape.

At a bend in the road I stopped to gaze at a pasture with a dozen or so graceful horses, who crowded by the fence to inspect me when I approached with my camera. Horses are photogenic, and unlike people –Americans, at least - they aren’t uncomfortable when confronted with a camera. When I came close, they were curious, though one put his ears back as if to warn me that this was their turf, not mine. But when I kept my distance, they paid me no mind, ambling around their pasture, grazing, and occasionally snapping at each other. They seemed almost dream-like, these elegant animals peacefully wandering through the swaying grasses, their manes flowing in the wind.

Somewhere on the way I stopped in a town hosting the Harney County Fair. I like fairs, so I stopped to check it out, but it wasn’t as

interesting as the one I went to last year in Michigan. Or maybe they are all pretty much the same? This one was small, and a lot of the buildings were closed for judging of the competition items – the pies and artwork and quilts and things. The 4-H barns were crowded with animals, and the pens busy with children showing their goats, lambs, and cows. I watched for a while, listening to the judges’ comments about how animals could be improved with subsequent breeding, and how the children could present them better, their legs splayed out just so, their backs flat. It seemed a very strange business. In the midway, I watched a group of teen-aged girls

check out the games. I wonder what their lives are like, living in this sparsely settled rural area. They probably love the quiet and the open landscape, knowing everyone in their community and feeling very much part of it. Perhaps they like to go to the city once in a while for the novelty and the things to do, but they wouldn’t want to live any place as congested and cluttered as Lakeview or Klamath Falls, or as urban and liberal as Portland or Eugene.

Southern Idaho didn’t seem much different from eastern Oregon. I’d been in northern Idaho months before, and it was a world of steep mountains and lush dark green forests. Southern Idaho, on the other hand, continues open and bare. I stopped in Boise to go to the Y, and got to chatting with the girl at the desk when I brought out my New Jersey card. She told me about her trip to Boston the previous year. She’d been taken aback that the views were so limited, everywhere blocked by dense trees, close curving hills, or houses and office buildings. And she’d been taken aback at the density of settlement, at leaving the city but still being always in settled places instead of the wide open spaces that begin just outside of Boise. She was amused that I was so taken aback by the emptiness of her part of the country.

It sounds really trite, to say that I am amazed how much

one part of the US differs from another. I mean, of course it does! But seeing so much of it, in such a short time – the Olympic Peninsula, the smoke rising from Mt. Saint Helens, the blue of Crater Lake, the salt flats of Black Rock Desert, the empty landscape of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho – it seems hard to wrap my brain around.

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All text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.