The Oregon Outback

We're somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Not the cliched "middle of nowhere" that we joke about when driving through a one-light Michigan farm town with a Dairy Queen and a chinese buffet and a gas station with a Subway. In this dead-nuts true middle of nowhere, cell phone coverage ended long ago and days can pass before other people are seen. We can only be in one place: southeast Oregon, nestled in the corner between the northern border of Nevada and the western edge of Idaho.

Located south of the high desert town of Burns, the Harney Basin is a desolate and uninhibited wasteland, comprised of millions of acres of sagebrush-covered ridges and dry alkali lake beds. Old wagon and cattle trails criss-cross the barren landscape like the joined strands of a spiderweb. If someone wanted to disappear, really disappear, there is no easier place to get dangerously lost than the span of earth where the place names on the map ("Wagontire", "Blitzen", "The Narrows") are seperated by nearly one hundred miles.

Signs of life are few and far between. The silhouette of a raven in the cloudless sky. Jack rabbit tracks skip across dirt roads covered with a layer of talcum powder dust. Abandoned ranches, unoccupied for who-knows-how-long, sit forlorn and empty next to dry water troughs. We'd been through here before and once ran into a cattle wrangler named Jerry. He was picking the feathers from an egg-laying chicken he found at one of the abandoned homesteads. He built a fire of sagebrush twigs and tossed the chicken into the burning brush. After several minutes, Jerry kicked the fire apart and pulled out the bird, burnt to a crisp. He bit into the charcoal-black skin and red drops of blood dripped down his handle-bar mustache. Burnt to ash on the outside, raw on the inside, Jerry didn't flinch and ate the whole chicken, stopping only to get on all fours and slurp a drink of water from a mud puddle.

Southeast Oregon is a place where cattle outnumber people 200 to 1, where only one radio station (country, of course) comes in clear on the radio dial ("KZZR AM, the voice of no choice!"), where the cowboy west still exists, minus all Hollywood romantic illusions. And at night, in a black sky completely free of light pollution, thousands of stars shimmer brilliantly over the barren desert lanscape.

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