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A singular space: In Oregon's big empty, life is full
With the base of Steens Mountain as his back yard, 4-year-old Scott Davies is fearless on the family trampoline. His mom, so used to southeast Oregon's big-sky range lands, said she really hadn't noticed how different it was from most other folks' back yards.
From a distance, this stretch of alkali flat looks featureless as the surface of a plain, white plate — flat, blank, lifeless.

But up close it is a maze of cracks from the baking heat of desert sun so bright your pupils shrink at the shock. All kinds of tiny creatures make their home here, even the giant predatory fairy shrimp, biding their time in so-called resting eggs nudged into the playa's dry cracks until the rare rains come. And the playa is not merely white, but touched with an opalescent shine, pearly as the inside of a shell.

Like the rest of this vast landscape that fills the bottom southeast corner of Oregon, the Alvord Desert is a blank spot on the map that's not really blank at all.

To those who live or love it here, the desert offers a disconnection from the Land of Too Many — people, voices, things, distractions — that allows a deeper connection. A silence that invites listening.
Cattle rumble into Stacy Davies' corral [318K MP3]
Stacy Davies, manager of the 500,000-acre Roaring Springs Ranch, and his horse Kid wait for his sons to bring in 400 head of cattle for sorting.
It's a long way between towns, between gas stations, ranches, schools, cattle, people.

Aridity is the reason.

Harney County, home to the Alvord, is the biggest county in Oregon — larger than six Eastern states — and also one of the driest, with just 10 inches of precipitation a year on average.

The county lies in Oregon's basin and range country, where the high desert stretches all the way south to Nevada.

Flat basins are picketed by isolated, north-south mountain ranges reaching as high as 9,771-foot Steens Mountain. Sloping gently to the summit on the west, it dives more than a mile on the east side to the ancient lakebed of the Alvord.

Sagebrush country covers more than 65 percent of the region. But wetlands, from shallow, saline lakes to large, permanent deepwater marshes, defy an easy dismissal of this place as "just desert."
At the Unity Country Store, customers are outnumbered by stuffed wildlife — all trophies of owner Bill Ross.
Space this vast eats time.

Kids travel as far as 45 miles one way to get to school. In one district, serving kids scattered over nearly 10,000 square miles, parents give up on buses altogether and pack their children off at age 14 to the high-desert hamlet of Crane, one of the only public boarding schools in the country.

Out here, the UPS guy averages 350 miles a day on his rounds, much of it over gravel roads, in a Ford diesel pickup with 10-ply Michelins.

"It's pretty hard to get me to go for a drive on the weekend," says Dean Draper, who's delivered many a rancher's package of parts to a broken-down tractor in a hay field.

It can take as much as 100 acres to support one cow, year 'round, on ground this lean and dry.


Fewer than one person per square mile lives in Harney County. Beef cattle outnumber the humans by more than 10 to 1. The phone book for two desert counties combined is thinner than some downtown Seattle wine lists.
Sammi Jo Stohler teaches her horse, Bo, short for Hobo, to play dead in a corral near the town of Unity. Sammi Jo will pretend to perform CPR on Bo, and up he'll jump. Dottie is the cattle dog, to whom Sammi Jo sings, "On her head there is a polka dot, she'll lick your hand and never stop."
Ask Bob Gray of Whidbey Island what he's doing baking his 61-year-old bones on the Alvord and he has an immediate answer:

"It's the solitude," he says. "At night, the coyotes howl and the wind blows free. You're alone. You can choose your interruptions.

"And the occasional person you do meet, if they choose to talk to you, they are going to be interesting, as opposed to being with masses of people moving by, none of whom will talk with you, or are afraid to talk to you."

There's also his dirt boat, a homemade, three-wheeled cart with a sail to catch the wind and take him ripping across the playa.

There aren't too many places left to tear around in without worrying about hitting anything, says Gray, nailing the desert's undeniable waa-hooo appeal. "Whatever blows your hair back."

Gray travels in a converted Bainbridge Island school bus outfitted to live up to his personal credo emblazoned on the back, Duro de Matar — "hard to kill."
On the playa of the Alvord Desert, Bob Gray of Whidbey Island turns too sharply and almost capsizes his dirt boat. About the playa Gray says, "you're alone. You can choose your interruptions."
He loads it with two spare tires, an extra can of gas, bottles of brake fluid, tool boxes and a diesel-truck-repair manual — testimony to the self-reliance required of traveling where a smart driver heeds his gas gauge like an oracle.

It's a long way from anywhere — farther from an interstate than anywhere else in the Lower 48. You've got to want to be here.

Those who call the desert home earn their place by adapting as cleverly as the ubiquitous sagebrush: It makes extra leaves in the wet of spring, sheds them in the heat of the summer, and waters itself at night with a tap root sunk deep into the earth, where the water abides.

"The land will not be lived in except in its own fashion," notes Western writer Mary Austin. Or, as Wallace Stegner advises, "You have to get over the color green."

•   •   •

THE THOMPSON family has run cattle in the desert country at the foot of Steens Mountain for five generations.
It's "open range" where cars, the few-and-far-between, have to watch out for cattle on Highway 205 in Harney County.
"It's hard work," says Shirley Thompson, 72. "But you have a freedom, you decide what you are going to do and when you are going to do it, and you don't have to answer to anyone but yourself."

The seasons, she says, aren't just something you look at through a window. You live with them, depend on them. Your work is determined by them.

In the summer, she helps run the family's 105-year-old hotel in Diamond, population 4.

In winter, the hotel is closed and the locals come for the warmth of nights spent playing pool and cards inside the 2-foot-thick walls of the old community ice house, insulated with sand.

Still on a party telephone line until five years ago, she's used to a grocery store that's 100 miles away, round trip. "You invent new recipes through substitution."
That's a lot of buckle for a 6-year-old, but Jeff Davies wears it proudly for winning the mutton-busting contest at the Harney County Rodeo two years ago.
Her son David, who helps run the 35,000-acre ranch and hotel, says living here enforces an isolation he doubts many could accept. "I think it would be very hard because of the things you don't have. You have to have grown up here."

But then there's the moon that rises fat and fast as if pulled by a string into a summer night sky, and the liquid glide of nighthawks through lavender skies plush with twilight.

The wind dies at dusk, leaving a silence that rushes in to fill this vast space, pack it tight, corner to corner, a silence so deep it is velvety, dimensional. It's so quiet you can hear the blood in your ears.

There's the comfort of living in a place where "You know everybody, the last names at the school are the same ones my dad went to school with, most of the families are third- and fifth-generation," David Thompson says.

Thompson's ancestors arrived by accident — they took what they hoped would be a short-cut on the Oregon Trail — but they stayed by sheer determination. They got so hungry they ate their garden seeds.

•   •   •

COFFIN BUTTE, Skull Creek, Rattlesnake Creek, Deadman Gulch, Last Chance Lakes, Defeat Butte, Disaster Peak: Place names here tell the story of this landscape from a distinctly white perspective.
Scott Davies, aka Scooter, can ride almost as well as many seasoned buckaroos, but he needs help getting aboard his horse, Homey. At the Harney County Rodeo a few weeks ago, Scott took the "all-around" title for 4- and 5-year-olds.
The aboriginal bands of the Burns Paiute tribe lived in such abundance here that tribal bands were named for their primary foods: the groundhog eaters, elk eaters and the wadatika, eaters of wada seeds, collected near the shores of Malheur Lake.

They wove salmon weirs from willow and made clothing from the hides of deer and skins of birds. They staged drives to capture rabbits by the thousands, eating their meat and making soft, warm blankets from their fur.

Aridity enforced migration: They wintered at desert hot springs, and the rest of the year followed a circuit drawn by roots, berries, salmon and game.

Sandals of sagebrush bark, found in a cave, show the tribe has made the desert home for at least 12,000 years.

"If you took a family from the city out there they wouldn't last but a couple of days," says tribal chairman Albert Teeman. "But if you knew what you were doing, you would be there through the generations."

White settlers proved a lethal threat, destroying the country with indiscriminate cattle grazing and forcibly displacing the tribe from its homeland. In the winter of 1879, only 209 of 809 Paiutes survived a march under armed guard all the way to Fort Simcoe in Yakima. As soon as they could, some journeyed on foot through the barren hills and swam the Columbia River, holding onto their horse's tails, to get back here.
Tony Hauth of Burns, Ore., plays horseshoes at a pit provided by a local restaurant as the heat of day slides away at sunset.
Amos First-Raised, 33, fish and wildlife director for the tribe, relishes a turn in the cowboy-and-Indian tale that has given some of their homeland back to his people.

He stands on a wind-raked hill overlooking former ranchland bought by the federal government for the tribe in 2000 as part of an effort to restore the landscape's native plants and animals.

"It feels good, it's ours," First-Raised says. "This is home. We know this country. There is nothing empty about it."

Ranchers who have learned to make a way here, too, have not always earned his sympathy. "They are the descendents of squatters," First-Raised says stiffly.

Yet some ranchers say they feel they have more in common with the Indians than the government that encouraged them to homestead here in the first place. "I'd give this land to the Indians before I'd sell it to the government," says Stacy Davies, manager of the 500,000-acre Roaring Springs Ranch west of Steens Mountain.
Just met and starry-eyed are Terry Harper and Jorgi Wasson, at the Grant County Fair in John Day, Ore. In the local vernacular, he's a buckaroo and she's a buckle bunny.
Davies helped broker a congressional compromise that resulted in removing cattle from part, but not all, of the mountain to protect it from overgrazing.

He and other ranchers opposed a federal plan to designate the area as a national monument, arguing in part that it would bring too many tourists. "It invades our privacy," Davies says. "We didn't want a theme park."

Just because Davies wants to be here doesn't mean he wants company. Some here relish the tire-shredding gravel roads and fact that Bob Gray's Duro de Matar-mobile can be the best accommodations for many a mile.

"I encourage people to visit once," Davies says, "but please don't come back."

Yet even way out here in the sage, with his leather chaps and spurs, Davies is linked to the tastes of the urban centers.

He's traveled to Bainbridge Island twice, for in-store demos to talk up his cattle — raised with no hormones or antibiotics beyond routine immunizations — for customers willing to pay for premium beef.
Davies on what brings people to the Big Empty [451K MP3]
The sorting of cattle completed, Stacy Davies gives son Jeff a pat on the head as they leave the corral at the Roaring Springs Ranch. The ranch covers some 500,000 acres.
But his cowboy hat is no costume; Davies works 6,000 cattle with his kids and fewer than a dozen full-time buckaroos.

Roarings Springs is a corporate ranch, owned by a Portland timber baron, but Davies, from a fourth-generation ranch family in Utah, says he runs this outfit not as a trophy tax write-off but a business in the black.

As the sun climbs above the rimrock, Davies parks his livestock trailer in the middle of the empty highway to unload five of his sons and their horses to round up cattle for market.

He boosts 4-year-old Scott, aka Scooter, onto the back of the boy's horse to chase down the dust cloud raised by his brothers Wes, 14, and Dallen, 12, trotting after nearly 400 angus deep in the sage.

Astride the big horse — it's full-sized — Scott kicks at the horse's barrel-round sides. It breaks into a trot and the preschooler is off in a cloud of dust, down the highway to catch up with his brothers.

Davies rides tall over the cattle as the huffing, bawling animals stream into the corral. He sorts them by quietly turning his horse to guide the cows in the direction he wants them to go: "C'mon ladies. C'mon little black cow. C'mon little white face."
Jeff, 6, takes a break from watching by the fence to show off his belt buckle, his prize from the local fair, for mutton busting: riding a woolly sheep bareback. "I won it myself."

With the last of the cattle penned for market, Davies and the kids head back to the ranch house where Elaine Davies serves beef stew, grilled-cheese sandwiches, homemade rolls, pink lemonade and brownies — still warm — to the boys first, then the adults.

Far from frightening, this place three hours from the nearest doctor to her is the safest she knows. "It scares us to spend the night in Portland or Seattle," Elaine says. "How do you sleep at night with all those people right around you? Here I can see everyone, coming and going. I can count them. I've never felt for one second empty, bored or lonely.

"What do I love about it? The quiet, the freedom the kids have. You can raise strong, healthy kids that work hard. They would tear apart a town, burn things down. Here they build a fort, or roll a rock down a hill."

The Davies are amazed — and sometimes annoyed — by the tourists who regularly arrive at their door out of gas or with tires flattened by gravel roads so rough that soda cans bounce around in a cooler enough to wear their paint off.

"We always wonder, didn't they look at the map?" Elaine says. The empty spot on the map, that is.

"Maybe that's why they call it the Big Empty," says Stacy. "Empty gas tanks. Empty tires."

•   •   •

THE FOLKS TENDING to the bewildered public wandering around out here seem to do so with a certain detached bemusement.
Near the town of Diamond, the mailbox to the Thompson Ranch has a patriotic flavor.
"I'd rather turn it into a barn," says Cindy Stohler, 41, who runs a seven-room motel next door to their family's country store in Unity, population 131. The motel is empty now, and that suits Stohler fine. "I can build fences and buck hay, and I'd rather do that than make beds and sweep floors."

Over at the store, the head count on the taxidermy is higher than the customers, who, going by the inventory, apparently lean heavily to the hook and bullet set.

Styrofoam containers full of worms and chunks of Velveeta for bait in the cooler; solid-point bullets and camouflage cream in hunter green, earth brown and charcoal gray on the shelves.

Life here is not too busy for visiting: A chair up by the front counter and a bench outside in the shade invite sitting a bit.

Cindy and her daughter, Sammi Jo, are glad to show off Joey, the 3-month-old antelope they're raising in their front yard, along with their three donkeys, seven mules, 14 horses and nine dogs including Dottie, the cattle dog, to whom Sammi Jo sings: "On her head there is a polka dot, she'll lick your hand and never stop."

Cindy fires up the all-terrain vehicle and the two snort off into the sage to round up their herd of horses and mules. They are bred by Cindy to be what she calls honest horses: "It's the difference between a horse that will wait for you to make a mistake and one that will help you out."

With a piercing whistle she brings them running from deep back in the sage. "Kids, critters, husbands, it works on them all," Cindy says, hands on her hips, horses nuzzling her neck. "If I want something, I just whistle and they all come, and I take my pick."

Sammi Jo — 19 now, and riding since she was in her mother's womb — leaps bareback astride one of the horses, easy as walking up a stair.

She knows just where to snug her knees behind the horse's front legs, rides bareback in the sage by the moon, sails over 3-foot high jumps, straw-colored hair flying in the hot desert wind.

She's teaching her horse to roll over and let her sit on his belly, his front hooves resting gently in the palms of her hands.

"I helped deliver this horse," Sammi Jo says of Bo, the big, gentle roan. "He's everyone's horse. I'm just his person."

The nearest mall is a half-day's drive away, a fact that doesn't come up in this teenager's description of her life in the desert. "What mall?" she answers when asked.


"Who would want guys when you have horses that are so willing to be friendly and talk with you?" she says.

She'd rather discuss her latest triumph: riding Rowdee, her 4-year-old stallion, in Unity's annual Bull Run parade, carrying the American flag.

Bareback, she says, "no bridle or nothing."

Lynda V. Mapes is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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