Bend: Part 1

Volcanoes and dry landscapes drew me to Central Oregon during my recent vacation. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent my adult life residing in temperate and rainy climates. Most of us need a change of scenery once in a while, right? I’ve been intent on exploring the vast part of Oregon that shows up in uniform blocks of tan and green on the map. Few towns, lots of federally owned land, and the intriguing geomorphology of steep canyons and volcanic buttes.

So I rented a car and drove to Bend on a Monday morning.  I followed the route of Portland’s bus line no. 9 (Powell) to its end, somewhere in Gresham, but forgot to take notice of where the final bus stop was located. I guess I’m a little bit fascinated by edges and boundaries. I drove through Sandy and continued to a rest stop at the base of Mt. Hood. The mountain’s enormity was masked by clouds, so I felt that I couldn’t fully appreciate where I was at that moment. Nevertheless, I was thrilled by the freezing air and perennial blankets of snow—such a contrast with the city I’d just left. Mt. Hood is a place I’d like to return to for exploration. Nobody ever wants to feel small and insignificant in the human world, but feeling small next to features of the natural landscape is truly awesome. The physical reality of Earth mutes the harsh noises and fluctuations of civilized life.

Beyond the mountain, I was gradually dropped into flat and scrubby terrain. On long and empty stretches of road, I tried to envision the true desert that lies in Eastern Oregon. I wouldn’t be going quite that far on this trip, although I’d like to visit the desert at some point. I wanted to go just far enough to see red mounds of cinder and chunks of igenous rock. Three hours of driving landed me in Bend not long after lunchtime. I took care of food- and motel-related business, then spent some time viewing the city both at ground level and from the summit of Pilot Butte. I had hoped to hike to the summit, but didn’t notice a parking area or trailhead at the bottom. Instead I spiraled to the top in my car, and hiked a short distance down from there. The soil was as red as brick, and the porous rocks as light as feathers.

View of Bend from Pilot Butte

View of Bend from Pilot Butte

Clouds, varying from white to intense gray, were driven overhead by the wind. I couldn’t tell whether it was going to rain. A local guide had told me about the unusually wet weather they’d been experiencing lately. The clouds made me nervous, as I was planning to take a canoe trip that night, but they added an extra dimension to my panoramic view from the 500-foot butte. All around me, shadows that expected to lie flat on the plains were suddenly angled by cinder cones rising from the ground. An expanse of threatening gray clouds approached from the south, and fluffy white ones drew some attention away from the eastern slopes of the Cascades. If I’d had enough time, I might have stayed at that vista point long enough to watch the sunset (or at least returned after dinner).

Mount Bachelor

Mount Bachelor

As it turned out, my best view of the sunset that night came in the form of alpenglow on Mt. Bachelor’s northwestern slope—just after the sun had actually dropped away from the horizon. I was in a van, heading toward Sparks Lake, with two tour guides and five women visiting from Kansas. The Kansans saved me from missing out on this starlight canoe tour; if they hadn’t signed up at the last minute, the trip would have been canceled due to a low enrollment of one (me). I had adjusted to the idea of paddling in daylight instead, but I don’t think it would have been as special. There was still a bit of pinkish light in the sky when we arrived at the lakeshore. The lake, newly thawed, was the color of aquamarine. Our guide told us that it was less than a dozen feet deep in most places.

While he unloaded the boats, I looked around in awe for a few minutes until the mosquitoes started biting. The group was rounded up for a brief safety lesson before beginning our leisurely paddle. I shared a boat with Liz, who served as the engine while I provided a rudder by dragging my paddle through the water. We got our method down pretty quickly. Jack, the guide, gathered us up in our canoes for some natural history lessons but gave us plenty of time to enjoy the quietude of this amazing spot in the Cascades. He drew us toward a part of the lakeshore where we could hear water rushing away as if it were falling from a culvert. This was the lake being drained by fractures in the surrounding volcanic rock, causing its water level to sink gradually throughout the summer. Volcanic landscapes are full of wonders like that.

Bats and frogs starting coming out as the sky darkened. Our two sixteen-year-old girls from Kansas weren’t fond of either the bats or the dark woods surrounding the lake. I began to be afraid of the woods, too, at a certain point during the night. After it was fully dark, we grounded the boats on a distant shore so we could build a fire and drink hot chocolate. Jack told a campfire story about a man who worked at a ski lodge in the area some years ago and was menaced by a rifle-toting snowmobile rider on a cold, isolated winter’s day. I’ll give Jack kudos for great storytelling, but I wasn’t ready to hear the maybe-partially-true tale of a man about to be murdered in the snowy Cascades. The story had an amusing twist at the end, not involving death, but I was spooked and ready to get back on the water. The sixteen-year-olds weren’t. They were truly afraid of the darkness and of imaginary creatures lurking in the water. Since one of them refused to paddle anymore she got to sit in a boat with Jack, who tried to allay their fears and get on with the tour.

It had gotten very cold and almost perfectly dark. During the first half of our journey we’d watched the first few stars and planets break through the cover of a clear sky; now there were infinite celestial objects to look at. It was completely dazzling, and so wonderful that I wished I could bundle up and stay out there all night. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever seen the night sky in wilderness. Whenever I gaze at stars, I feel baffled by the idea of the universe and lucky to be on this planet during its tenous existence. I was especially grateful to be out on the lake that night, straining to see constellations and being surprised by the occasional bat swooping near the water. Aside from a flickering campfire across the lake, there were no sights or sounds of civilization. The noisiest things around were chirping frogs and, in spots, the sound of water constantly being drained from the lake.

There was a rock formation, known as the Ghost Ship, protruding from the water. We paddled slowly next to it on our way back and turned on our headlamps to see its rough gray surface. I reached out and touched it for a moment before our boat slipped away.

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