My cottage on the western edge of the Great Basin fills with a 5 a.m. sunrise, a flood of orange light I can sip from my bed. Awakening, I remember that I heard a coyote during my sleep—a serenade from the underworld. Trickster Coyote gliding into the slipstream between the daylight touchstones and darkened dives.
It’s my first morning in high desert country, where rangeland and dust and sagebrush and scrub define the landscape of this least-populated county in Oregon. I’m here at an artists’ colony to explore, write, and breathe.
I came unaware of any such thing as an “Oregon Outback,” having pictured Oregon as green, wet, and forested—top to bottom, left to right. As the sun progresses higher, the desert glare outside my cabin holds me gobsmacked. Here the trees grow small but for tough old junipers. There’s green, yes, but also shades of sand and ocher. Behind the road is a rising steep called Winter Ridge, where toothpick stands of dead forest evoke a fire ten years prior. A wide open sky holds air dry enough to wick moisture from skin, earth, towels on the line—and the lake.
That lake. Summer Lake, here called “the playa” for its ephemeral nature, shimmers blue in the distance. Playa brings to mind Spanish classes in which we learned the word for mountain, the word for city, the word for beach—playa is and always will equate to beach in my mind. But I am to learn that in English, its sense is quite different: “an area of flat, dried-up land, esp. a desert basin from which water evaporates quickly.”
White salt flats, cracked earth stretching like an infinitely tiled dance floor, wind blowing dust across the receding water. That’s this playa.
There’s a more sinister reason for the playa’s withdrawal: it isn’t just natural evaporation. Farmers growing hay for export to China use the water—alkaline as it is—for irrigation. The hay, prized for its high protein content because of local weather extremes, brings premium prices on the market.
By summer’s end the lake could be all but dry, but it is June now, and the water has just begun to recede from the seasonal rains that fed it, that trickled down Winter Ridge in replenishment. Some five miles across at high water, the lake stretches for fifteen miles next to State Road 31.
I wonder what the local cattle eat, while the county’s hay is sold to the highest bidder. But: not my business. Coming from the hazy Midwest, I feel I could fall into the expansive view; I want to swim that blue blue sky.
Continued in Confrontation 119, Spring 2016.