September 01, 2003

Oregon's Outback

When people think of my state of Oregon they think of green. And not just those who donít live here. Most Oregonians live to the west of the Cascade mountains in the wet, lush, dripping, fogged-in valley between the snowy peaks and the sea. Everywhere you look is creaking timber tall enough to tear the bottoms out of the clouds. Wisps of fog roll off the hills like smoke down the sides of an ashtray. The grass is a vibrant psychedelic green even in Winter. Most of our towns are little more than encampments in the woods.

There is another Oregon, too. Like a crazy aunt shunted away in the attic, the Eastern Oregon desert is out of sight, out of mind, and mostly out of the way. Many Oregonians donít even realize itís there. They go to the mountains to ski, or maybe to go fishing. If they cross they donít venture far. Because if you climb the spine of the Cascades and keep on driving east, you will leave the Pacific Northwest. Youíve only crossed to the center of Oregon, but youíve entered whatís known as the West.

Yes, the West is east of Seattle and Portland. And it is desolate.

I took a friend through the empty Oregon Outback last September, and he didnít like it so much. Thereís nothing out here, he said, and he was right.

There is nothing out there. Thatís what I like about it.

You donít go to the Empty Quarter because of whatís there. You because of what isnít.

There is no traffic, no smog, no people, no phones, no office towers, no red lights, no light pollution at night. There are no forests to block your view of the mountains, the plains, and the stars. Nor is there much of anything else.

The cold in Winter burns. The sun in the summertime punishes. The land has been split by God with a sword, and pounded for centuries with hammers.

Oregon would not be whole if it were not there.







Photos by Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 1, 2003 11:09 PM

I've been in Portland seven years now and I haven't seen these places yet. I am a moron. Moron.

Thanks for the pictures, they are an inspiration.

Posted by: lewy14 at September 2, 2003 12:23 AM

Hey, I thought Oregon was all green until I started making regular business flights from San Diego to Portland and realized that we were flying over Oregon :)

As someone who moved to Ca. from Virginia it was a little difficult to get used to the West. I always thought of the desert as fantastic, but too harsh to be beautiful. A recent trip to Joshua tree changed my mind however, that place is beautiful (although admittedly not as harsh).

Posted by: Van Gale at September 2, 2003 02:52 AM

I was in the Bend/Redmond area last September for a convention at the Eagle Crest Resort. I took some very memorable hikes and photos along the Deschutes River. I was stunned and amazed by the high desert area.

Posted by: Randy Paul at September 2, 2003 07:31 AM


Posted by: ken at September 2, 2003 09:40 AM

My fondest memories of Eastern Oregon are defintely seeing the Wallowa mountains, the top of Hell's Canyon at Hat Point and Lake Abert and the Abert Rim.

I've been through rural parts of nearly every state in the Western U.S., but none has struck me as more desolate and beautiful as Eastern Oregon. You've got a wonderful unspoiled wilderness right in your own backyard. Treasure it always.

Posted by: John Ross Hunt at September 2, 2003 11:30 AM

I grew up in Southwestern Oregon (Roseburg), but my parents really had wanted to live in Bend. My paternal ancestors came from Klamath Falls. We spent a lot of time in Eastern and Central Oregon as I grew up, and some of my best memories are from out there.

Kind of makes me regret moving to Philadelphia.

Posted by: Nathan Hamm at September 2, 2003 11:50 AM


I like Lake Abert, too. That area is spookily like the Bolivian highlands and the Chilean altiplano. And no one ever goes there. It is absolutely empty and silent.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 2, 2003 11:56 AM

Beautiful. Michael, have you ever gone to Big Bend in the Texas Chihuahua desert? You would love it.

Posted by: Yehudit at September 2, 2003 12:34 PM

I have to put eastern oregon on my list of places to see. Thanks for the pictures, they are great.

Posted by: Starhawk at September 2, 2003 12:47 PM


The only time I was ever in Texas was when I was conceived on a military base in Kileen, and when I stopped in the Dallas airport on the way to Central America.


If you have not yet seen Western Oregon, don't miss it. I'll post some pictures of my own side of the state one of these days. It is hearbreakingly lovely here.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 2, 2003 01:32 PM

I would love to, it just takes so dang long just to get out of Texas.
If all you saw is the Dallas airport you could pick almost any part of the state and do better.

Posted by: Starhawk at September 2, 2003 02:00 PM

Beautiful photos. I've crossed Eastern Oregon for years having spent a career in the military and spending the majority of that time east of the family (folks in Grants Pass, relatives from San Francisco to Bellingham WA, all west of the Cascades).

The most beautiful and maybe scariest trip was a couple years ago driving home after retiring...west from Colorado Springs over Thansgiving in a neverending series of snow storms. Driving north, then west from Winnemucca NV to Lakeview OR in single digits and snowing is stunningly beautiful, and is emptier territory than central Nevada. Didn't see a vehicle until near the tiny ski area near Lakeview, but had to stop for wild horses and unfortunately ran over a number of rabbits (not hares) that figured running on the road was easier than trampling the fresh snow. Driving down the cliff into the Warner Valley on black ice and a little bit of sand was death defying and breathtaking all at once.

Don't think I'll be dumb enough to do that again, but I'm sure glad I've done that icy drive.

Posted by: Gordie at September 2, 2003 02:01 PM

Great pics. Not so different from the high desert near Barstow where my mother lives, and my Slovak wife & 3 kids had a great time a couple years ago. Glad you're putting in more pics.

Posted by: Tom Grey at September 2, 2003 02:43 PM

My son Nathan posted above, one of those trips was a boys only (me and 3 boys) to the Steens Mountains. Mostly on dirt roads we traveled ~1000 miles in 4 days (65 on one of those little spares). Saw coyotes, pronghorn, feral horses and a few people. Nice pictures!

Posted by: Mark Hamm at September 2, 2003 03:16 PM

I love the Oregon Desert. I love it more than Portland, actually. But unlike you, I don't see it as empty . . . I went out there with a geographer a few years back, and I've been writing about the landscape ever since, trying to figure out why it haunts me, why I can't stop thinking about it. Why it pulls me in.

Thanks for the photos.


Posted by: karrie at September 2, 2003 05:15 PM


The desert isn't completely empty. But it has an empty quality to it, and that is one of the things that pulls me in. It is hard for the desert to hide.

It is simple and sere. It is old, and it inspires in me thoughts of history and time. You can see how the desert has aged. Even the old growth forests are young by comparison.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at September 2, 2003 05:26 PM

Oh, I think it's anything but simple or sincere. But then, half of landscape is in the intersection of imagination and vision. I agree - there is a sense of history, but for me, no sense of time. Or at least, no sense of time as we have often imagined it, i.e. as something that moves forward, easily measured and divided. One of the things I've been writing about is the desert's resistance to our structures - of time, of history, of self and culture. But perhaps I'll post some of that to my blog. Or just keep working on the essay, which never seems to end. :)

I didn't think you meant "empty" literally . . .

Posted by: karrie at September 2, 2003 05:39 PM

The Army post in Killeen is Ft. Hood, and now you live in the shadow of Mt. Hood. Karma or coincidence?

Posted by: Richard Bennett at September 2, 2003 05:58 PM

Big Bend. Just to whet your appetite. :-)

Posted by: Yehudit at September 3, 2003 03:14 PM

You probably know about this, but just in case you don't, check out Pendleton. My dad played music at the Cowboy Poet's Roundup there one time back in the early 90's and took me along. They have an underground tour that's even better than Seattle's, and I love the Seattle underground tour. It won't do much for your emptiness jones, but there is some really interesting history there. Also check out the bordello tour.

Posted by: Cedar Bristol at September 7, 2003 12:24 PM

Yeah, John Day, Wagontire, Malheur River, Glass mountain. Sleeping under the stars, shooting stars, with coyotes singing and lightning going off over the horizon. Sagebrush greener than any lawn. And the smell, oh yes, the smell.

Posted by: Thales at September 8, 2003 08:31 PM

Two definite contrasts between Western and Eastern Oregon. The real Oregon can still be found east of the Cascades in places like North Lake County...go there you'll enjoy it very much. There's a lot to see in every part of Eastern Oregon, but I especially like Lake County in Central Oregon and areas south. Look up French Glen, Christmas Valley, Lake County, Lakeview, The Steens, etc. and you're sure to get some good info off the web. There are many treasures to be found in the eastern portion of the state.

Posted by: Scott at March 21, 2004 04:12 PM


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