September 22, 2019, Day 18
Harney-Malheur County Line to Dry Creek (west of Little Windy Pass), ~23.0 miles, ~259.6 miles total
First day of autumn. Yabano as the fall season is known in Northern Paiute. My guidebooks for the region mention that these mountains are home to hundreds of sites of significance to the Paiute; some having withstood a thousand years of weathering as well as 160 years of intentional disturbance. I think about the people who have lived here in this part of the Basin and Range since time immemorial. Every rock outcrop we pass, I wonder, and sometimes circle, searching, hoping to find Coyote Writings, etsatubono, petroglyphs carved into the rocks. I wish to look out at this landscape with more understanding; with wisdom grounded in traditional knowledge that goes beyond the science of ecology – though often they compliment each other.
My eyes are untrained, and so I wonder if everything is sacred. If everywhere there are signs of the significance of these trees, these streams, plant peoples, animal peoples, rocks, mountains. I especially think about these relationships, signs and knowledge as we walk on this day that marks the start of fall. The start of hunting season, the end of berry gathering, and winter’s storytelling time nearing.
For the last week and a hundred miles, we’ve been feeling autumn. Chillier mornings, a coolness in the afternoon when summer’s heat would otherwise build, frost diamonds sparkling in moonlight. We woke up to ice crystal this cold, autumn morning on the edge of the Trout Creek Mountains.
Frosted tent. Numb fingers packing up. Breath fogging our headlamps. We were moving out of our beautiful camp just before sunrise, ascending a gentle jeep road into the mountains.
And what a magnificent sunrise! What a gift for this equinox. Day that is half light and half dark. Hillside aglow in pink gold illuminating tall grasses, silver silhouettes of burned mahogany, and radiant mahogany in full stature. Bird song chorusing out of bunchgrass and rabbitbrush thickets. Welcome autumn!
Hiking up to the 8,000 foot ridge of the Trout Creek Mountains we had clear views of Steens Mountain and peekaboo views of the Alvord Playa and Pueblo Mountains. The Trout Creek Mountains we walk across are a broad plateau of short sagebrush and bunchgrasses, expansive in composition and views.
While walking the road we’d flush grouse more than a hundred feet away. The sounds of their awkward chicken flight starling us and delighting us. These birds are pretty amazing, they’re adapted to live in this cold, hot, dry, wind-scoured, snowy world. Go sage grouse, we wish you well!
Cold ridge walking. Patches of snow. A few nods and waves from hunters driving loaded rigs and trailers up the road, they are headed into the hills to set up their camps. From the looks of their loads, they are going to be living well up here! Opening day is less than a week away (September 28, also National Hunting Day). My best to the hunters and to the deer. As for hiking and traveling cross country during hunting season, I’m glad we have blaze orange accessories and wear bright colors; we’ll do our best to avoid being mistaken for ungulates.
It was mostly an easy, pretty walking day. Plenty of opportunity to admire the early autumn colors: golden-green aspen, ruby red rose hips, orange and red dappled snowberry, last of season red paintbrush, plump shiny black chokecherries, golden rabbitbrush. A beautiful fall day of good hiking. The afternoon was even warm enough for us to shed our insulating layers.
But the character of the day and my perceptions of it changed mid-to-late afternoon as we dropped down No Name Creek toward Windy Point. Some suspicious looking clouds were replacing the cheery blue skies. An updated forecast (obtained when we could last see Steens) indicated there was now a possibility of rain and a thunderstorm this evening. Oh bother. My peace of mind eroded away as we kept walking closer to the storm clouds and darkening sky. The sense of exposure I’d first felt on the rainy afternoon in the Owyhee Uplands returned.
Somehow, thunderstorms make me feel trapped, almost claustrophobic because I know we have no way of escaping to the safety of a car or grounded building (as safety recommendations suggest). We hustled up and over Windy Pass and descended an old rough jeep road. Encountering a rattlesnake along the way – dodging snakes and hurrying to get to low ground before a thunderstorm is another new ODT experience.
By the time we got to Little Windy Pass dark blue storm clouds were building in the southwest and moving in our direction. The Pueblos looked ominous ahead of us. Our only option was to get lower. We descended off the ridge into Dry Creek to get out of sight of the house and farm at the base of Cottonwood-Fields Road (it felt kinda like coming down the PCT from the top of Mount San Jacinto to the housing development along Snow Creek).
We set up our tent in the rain. And then I cowered inside. Fear. Tears. A build up of accumulated events beyond this trip and previous close calls swirling in my mind. Just too much. Even if part of me could reason objectively that the likelihood of us getting struck by lightning was low… the emotional weight of fear was too much. I must’ve apologized to Gabriel a hundred times… but I just can’t enjoy hiking when I’m afraid we’ll be going up some ridge with a storm approaching. For me this feels like skiing across avalanche terrain when we know conditions warrant a moderate to considerable avy forecast. We shouldn’t be doing this. We shouldn’t be here. There are plenty of other places we love to be and that we can be manage our exposure to conditions. For all that we love to do, my risk tolerance is low.
So much for spending yabano in the high desert of eastern Oregon. For the first time, we’re getting off trail before we finish a thru-hike.
It rains 9 out 18 days on the ODT.