Clouds roll out in cylinders, grey-bottomed and scalloped to the horizon. Rain and hail pelt the car in staccato rhythm west of Vale, Oregon where Highway 20 enters the canyon of the Malheur River. Spring runoff fills a streambed that will be low and rocky in the summer. Water, liquid gold in this land, is named again at Stinkingwater Creek and again as I climb through the sage hills over Drinkwater pass. Here alongside the road is a stone fountain base and a highway sign that reads “Water”. Fifty years ago this provided a fresh place to stop and fill a canteen and was a godsend to cars that overheated in the summer. Old ideas in an old land, where a handful of Herefords graze rocky hillsides. And where leftover towns camp by the side of the road. Clusters of rusting trailer houses tucked behind an old false front that advertises it all. Café, gas, gift shop, motel, and beer. An Oasis.
In lonely gusting canyons where a plow might have loosened a few acres of soil, dead and dying Lombardy poplars mark old homesteads. Ghost houses with rattling battens stare with broken windows, blank eye sockets scooping up the wind. Malheur….French for “misfortune”.
Today life is returning in migrations that are as much a pattern as the river itself. There are White Pelicans, Canada Geese, mallards, pintail, teal, and hooded mergansers. A locust tree is showing signs of bud break. An abandoned bullock oriel’s nest swings from its bare limbs, a lone sac streaming thin grasses advertising a potential home site. It’s still early for the songbirds. There is snow on the ridges and the highway signs still require chains and traction tires. Mine are back home in the garage.