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Great Basin is the West at its wild, wild best

Modern life loses its hustle in this scenic chunk of Oregon, where the humans are few and the wildlife free. One family rediscovers quietude and moments of awe.

September 24, 2006|Eric Lucas | Special to The Times

Steens Mountain, Ore. — "INTERESTING," says my stepdaughter Kirsten as she peers at the sight before us and adopts the universal adolescent expression -- one eyebrow raised -- that indicates something is intriguing but not, well, cosmic.

To me, it is cosmic. We're atop 9,700-foot Steens Mountain, in far south-central Oregon, peering 6,000 feet straight down into the Alvord Desert. More than 100 miles east are the lilac rims of Idaho's Owyhee Mountains, 100 miles south, the snowy stipples of the Pueblo range in Nevada. At our feet is the craggy eastern face of Steens, a 30-mile-long massif that is one of the biggest fault-block upthrusts on the continent. It's a snow-scraper in winter, but in spring and summer the mountain spills freshets traced by green lines of willows that probe the edge of the Alvord's sparkling salt pan.

It's one of the most spectacular vistas in the United States, and I've brought Kirsten here to expose her to some of the grandeur of the West. She's 12, and the preteen code of conduct demands diffidence to most adult experiences -- "It's nice," she says -- but I have a plan.

We're on family safari in the Great Basin, the closest thing America has to the African veldt. Besides Kirsten, I've brought my wife, Leslie, and our Finnish exchange student, Henna Saarinen, on a four-day journey into my favorite part of the West.

We'll peer from mountaintops, up at dark buttes and down into deep chasms. We'll mark raptors above and try, as we drive on dirt roads, to match the sprint of pronghorns. We'll camp beneath rustling willows along tumbling creeks amid a sagebrush sea. And we'll search for one sight that Kirsten holds dear in her imagination.

I have a deeper purpose too. I'm on pilgrimage to a place I treasure for more than its scenic magnificence. Here, the sheer immensity of the land and sky erase modern life's compression and haste. Here, you can lie back at night in a hot spring in a breezy meadow and watch night birds dash across the moon. Thunderstorms rage in the distance. Hawks keen, and harriers flash.

And there's a chance on the road that you'll be stopped flat as cattle mosey by, driven by half a dozen members of a ranching family, who raise their hats amiably as they trot past on horseback.

My benediction for this trip is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship."

But the family itinerary is supplied by John Muir: "Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star."

And walk we do, many short strolls into the sights, scents and sounds of the land. But as wild and free as the Great Basin is, one of the most practical features of a family trip here is that you can drive the best parts. That includes a fine gravel road to the top of Steens.

At the summit, we watch a pair of golden eagles soar as high as hope. On the way down, we admire a dozen shades of Indian paintbrush, from straw yellow to vermilion. We try to spot century-old Basque carvings in the trunks of 3-century-old aspens.

After driving the 59-mile Steens Mountain loop (creeping along the 1,000-foot drop-off of Big Indian Creek Gorge), we pull in for the night in Frenchglen, Ore., a bucolic vale at the west verge of Steens Mountain. There's no Internet cafe, the gas station takes only cash, and the whole town consists of 10 buildings.

The Frenchglen Hotel is a pioneer-era roadhouse operating today as it has for eight decades. Then it welcomed stagecoaches; today at the American foursquare-style building, which has been preserved by Oregon State Parks as a historic site, guests arrive by car, mostly for the 6:30 p.m. communal ranch-style supper. Though the platters of pot roast, potatoes and rolls may seem endless, there's some danger that latecomers will miss out. Especially under the tutelage of the servers, who encourage gustatory abandon.

"More meat?" one asks. "The more you eat, the more pie you can have later." No sense pondering the logic of that; I grab the serving spoon.


Thriving in the desert

THE next day, we're in Robinson Draw in Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, an hour southwest of Frenchglen. We had come up the draw to spread a blanket on plush grass and picnic in an aspen grove by a bubbling rill.

After lunch, with a prelude supplied by songbirds and aspen leaves, we hike up a ways, just to see what's to see, and it turns out to be a Western tanager, the flashiest bird in the West. Its scarlet and golden feathers catch the sunlight like neon in the green lattice of the trees. Sitting still for 10 minutes, I count a dozen types of birds in this grove.

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