Great Basin

Dust Storms at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Dust Storm over Mud Lake in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Malheur and the

Golden Age of Travel

Observations from Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just after the end of the Bundy occupation.

The dust has just settled from the surreal militant occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but for me, there’s trouble ahead. Three juvenile cows are barreling down the highway, and they’re headed straight at me.  

Being that this is Southeast Oregon, one of the least populated regions of the United States, there is zero chance of anybody behind me. I simply slam on the brakes in the middle of the highway.  The calves trot by.  They are being chased by a man in a tractor, who tips the brim of his hat my way as he passes in hot pursuit.  He’s the last man I’ll see today.

U.S. wildlife refuges are very different from national parks or monuments, in that they are designed first and foremost for the restoration of wildlife or their habitats.  Human visitors are an afterthought.  When the media descended on the Malheur occupation story this winter, the refuge was regularly described as a place to see birds, or a place for outdoor recreation, which isn’t true. Often, most of these refuges are mostly inaccessible to humans. Their designated purpose is preservation.  

Malheur sits in the middle of the Harney Basin, a closed drainage basin with mountain ranges on every side.  It’s the wetlands formed by the snowmelt of these mountains.  Think of it as the deep part of an empty pool, where rainwater collects after an afternoon shower.

Today, I’m headed west from Crane through the middle of the refuge, using the Sodhouse Lane road; dry, open sagebrush steppe.  For much of the route, the only real geographic marker is the visitor center firetower, standing atop an unremarkable hill, the international icon of the occupation.

I had passed by the visitor center the day before.  Then, FBI agents and rangers were scouring the property.  Orange flags had been placed all over the visitor center area, indicating damage caused by the militia group.

Kestrel at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

American Kestrel on Ruh-Red Road near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

But today, nobody appears to be here at all.  Malheur is completely empty.  Judging by the maps, I expect to see a lake to the north of me.  But where Malheur Lake is supposed to be, I see only a dry basin, swirling dust.

As I head west towards Narrows, Oregon, that swirling dust begins to transform into something much larger, much more ominous.  It’s a dust storm, rising up from dried-out Mud Lake in a gale of dry wind.  

Normally, this time of year, the lakes fill up with seasonal rainwater.  The village of Narrows becomes just that: a narrow space tucked between two large bodies of water.  But for three years, there’s been little snow in the mountains, and record-breaking warm temperatures have melted the snowpack far too early.  No water is visible from Narrows. And while this year’s drought is considered a moderate one, it’s the compounding factor of three long years with little snowpack.

From Narrows, I continue to head west onto South Harney Road.  By now, the dust storm has a violent quality to it; sand pings against the Jeep and visibility drops to meters.  

As I head west beyond the handful of small ranch homes and yards of ranch equipment parts, the road turns to dried mud.  I can see that the last trucks to visit this road had huge tires, and had struggled through thick mud.  Now, the mud is all dried up, freezing the tire tracks into foot-tall driving obstacles.  

When I’ve driven ten miles west on South Harney Road, I ponder how long it might have been since those tire-tracks were made; were they from before the occupation?  All of this land has been closed off to the public since January., It’s a strange feeling to know I am likely the first person to drive this lonely road in months.

At about seventeen miles in on the road, I can see Harney Lake for the first time.  This, the third of the three large lakes of Malheur.  Like Mono Lake, it’s a simple alkali ecosystem consisting almost entirely of alkali flies. By now, approaching sunset, the dust storm recedes and the landscape becomes completely still.  From my viewpoint up on a bluff, the lake is spectacular, and in the evening sun, it shimmers.

I grab my cooler and pull it up to the top of the Jeep, and set my small lawn chair up there as well.  I grew up in the 1970’s with a family that was health-conscious enough to avoid mainstream peanut butter.   Always in our fridge, it was the natural stuff, oily on the top, inconsistent texture, questionable color.  I married a wife who had the same love for natural peanut butter, and these days, it’s even healthier - meaning, grayer, more oily and even more inconsistent.  But out here, I am king, and I fix a peanut butter sandwich made with Skippy brand peanut butter and Smuckers’ grape jelly.  This simple act, of being able to find pure solitude, in a place you know nobody has been, to witness complete silence and to see a sun set over a lake seen by nobody else, is one of the most beautiful reasons to travel.  Only days ago, this road and much of this entire region, was inaccessible to any traveler.

Kestrel at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Melting ice from the Steens Mountains fuels Alvord Lake in the Alvord Desert. The Pueblo Mountains rise from the playas in the distance.

There is this constant chatter these days about how travel itself is in a state of decline.  It’s always about a nostalgia for days when travel was pleasant, customer service was classy, the airport security was friendly, frontiers were open, and steamer trunks were bound in leather and gold.

Others will accurately point out that the dolden age of travel, meaning either the age of train and steamship travel at the turn of last century, or the age of early commercial aviation travel in the fifties and sixties, wasn’t all that great.  The iconic imagery of stepping out onto a fresh-air tarmac, or having a pleasant tea on a train ride through the mountains, is largely just that - a postcard image.  But those who make the case that the golden age of travel was a myth will then refute the point by arguing that the golden age of travel is actually today.

In such an argument, Joe Sharkey says in the New York Time, “If you wish and are a person of means, you can fly first-class round trip in luxury between Los Angeles and Dubai on an Emirates Airline A380 superjumbo jet. You will enjoy superb food and drink and be cosseted in a private compartment with a sliding door, a lie-flat seat with mattress, a vanity, a personal minibar and flat-screen television set, and a luxury bathroom down the aisle where you can take a shower.”

But this is wrong too, because a golden age of travel is never defined by which age has the most airplanes with luxurious breakfast plates for the ultra-wealthy.  By this measure, a King’s litter from antiquity would easily outdo a first-class ticket on a Middle-eastern airline.  The golden age of travel is the age in which travel is most free and open.  When the world is at the fingertips of its travelers.  

A golden age has to be defined as a past age, so I suspect that today’s age; perhaps the next thirty years, will be seen in the future as the genuine golden age of travel.  The true age when travel was most open, most peaceful, and most happy.

The events at Malheur this year will help support this view.

Jane will forgive me for my Skippy peanut butter, but she had one strict warning for me before I left for Malheur.  “Don’t talk to anybody about the occupation!” she said.  “There is a lot of anger out there still.  It’s not settled.”

I’m doing the best I can to heed her advice, but the truth is, nobody’s around to talk to anyway.

The next morning, I drive to the nearest gas station; a smallish place with cracked paint, sun-weathered signs and a repair shop out back.  “Wondering where your air hose is,” I say to the six men of different ages sitting on benches near the cashier.

“Oh, we don’t work here,” one of the men says, sipping his coffee and giggling.  He is wearing overalls and a beige work-shirt.  “We don’t know where they are.  If you need an air hose, best go to one of the big gas stations in Burns.”

Site of the Bundy Occupation

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Fire Tower.

I thank the men, and decide to grab a coffee before I leave.  As I pour my coffee, one of the men asks how my trip is going, and I tell them about how dry Malheur is, and how I’ve been spending more time on the roads between Burns and the refuge, where there had been lots of migrating wading birds. I mention the Black-necked Stilts, the American Avocets, the Willets and the White-faced Ibises.

Something about the juxtaposition of bringing up the birds and the irrigated fields south of Burns made the men want to talk about the occupation.  While I sip my coffee, one of them says to the others, “Last week was the bird festival.  More people came than ever before.”

Another says, “They wanted to see what the fuss was all about.”

“Apparently it was the biggest tourism weekend in Burns history.”

After a few minutes of everybody sharing opinions, one of the men says, “You know why Malheur is owned by the federal government in the first place?”

“Teddy Roosevelt wanted to protect egrets from plume hunters,” I reply, pleased with having done my homework.

“Sure, that’s true.  But that’s not the whole story.   In Roosevelt’s time, Malheur was just the lake.  But after that, ranchers were irrigating and squatting all over the place.  They used up all the water.  They basically killed the whole place.  Malheur was like a dust bowl.  We pretty much know this fact in Harney County, but those men who stormed the refuge, they weren’t from here.  They were from Arizona and Nevada.  They had no idea what they were fighting against.”

Later, he says, “We have our beefs with the Bureau of Land Management, we have our beefs with the federal government.  We have our beefs with environmentalists.  But that’s how it’s supposed to be.  The fact is, there are jobs in Burns and there is water in Malheur because we learned how to collaborate with the government.  Without the refuge system, everybody was just suing everybody over their right to water that didn’t even exist anymore.”

I say goodbye to the men at the gas station, surprised by their forthrightness and outright giddiness over the subject of the occupation.  I have been following the story of the Bundy family, who have been at the center of several protests over rancher’s rights since the nineties.  In my view, the story of the Bundys has mirrored a growing hatred for conservation politics that has risen to an almost religious fervor among right-wing blogs and cable news networks, where it has swivelled into such a strange place that there is now a movement that wants to do away with all public parks in the country.

The Bundy family and their anti-public lands views have been popularized by Fox News, where these days, there is an almost constant violent undertone about public land management.  I have no doubt that the out-of-state occupiers didn’t really understand the ranching issues of Southeastern Oregon.  They barged in and threatened violence, and ultimately went to jail (and in one case died) first and foremost because they were victims of those violent and nonsensical whispers they hear from the television, the internet and the radio.  They were led here by somebody else’s agenda.

The militants bungled their occupation so badly that they managed to do exactly the opposite of what they intended.  By occupying the Malheur refuge, the militants unwittingly made the country, and the world, aware of the value of public land in the American west.

Today, I plan to drive north to south through the middle of the refuge on the just-opened Center Patrol Road.  This road will give me access to miles of solitude, miles of sunny, marshy, beautiful Earth.  The refuge wasn’t made for me, it is made to protect wildlife and habitat, but nevetheless, the fact that land is being preserved at record rates here in the American west, and in fact, around the world, makes the case that today is the start to the golden age of travel.  

Travel is about being able to go places.  It’s about access.  The fact is, a side effect of the need to preserve and protect more land around the world means more of it is becomes accessible.

Today, travel is cheaper than ever before, and it’s easier for more types of people - women, young travelers, old travelers, minority travelers - to visit more of the planet than ever before. Only twenty years ago, the idea of a young woman, for example, traveling solo in a distant land, was novel and frowned upon.  In what way does better airline food beat that?

And despite the isolated pockets of sensational violence we see in the news, today is the least violent era in world history.  It is also the most prosperous, which means that places that were once inaccessible because of their poverty, are now open, safe, bustling with hotels and cafes.

There are anti-environmental movements around the world, who don’t believe in the value of conserving land or protecting species.  Often, they look like the Malheur occupants - fervently religious and puppeteered by someone else’s message.  But through their own incoherence, they are losing, and more land around the world is becoming both protected and accessible to travelers.

If there were no public land in Eastern Oregon, if it were all just ranchlands, as envisioned by the Bundys, why would we go?

The golden age of travel is not about leg room on a plane, it’s about access to the world.  And today, driving in a vast, sunny, open public refuge, I am a happy traveler, riding through my land.