Great Basin

Dead End

The Owyhee Puzzle

The next day, we are in Payette, Idaho.  We ask some police officers about where we might find the ranger station in the Owyhee area. 

They shrug at the word Owyhee.  When we explain, they look at each other.  One says, "Some day I'll get to that part of the country."

Payette borders Ontario, which is the only sizable town in Southeastern Oregon.  This fourth of the state, covering an area larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined, is home to 34,000 people. 

We need to stock up on some food in Ontario.  The town features a Home Depot, a K-Mart, some strip hotels, a McDonalds, all hugging the road. 

Ontario looks like the rest of downtown rural America - meaning, it whored away its charm and culture.  Our choices for groceries are two: Wal-Mart or K-Mart.

We choose Wal-Mart; this may be my second or third time inside a Wal-Mart, and I am stunned by what I see inside.  The building is so large that it is difficult to see from one end to the other.  The people inside, surely farmers and ranchers, seem so different from the people I remember from rural America just twenty-five years ago.  The farmers I remember from my youth were active people who had varied hobbies and interests, and passion for big land and open spaces, and small town life. 

Whatever has happened to these small towns should be unfathomable - The women and children are extremely pale; which implies they are victim to a national trend of decreasing time outdoors, addictions to cable television and computers.  Meth use in rural Oregon nearly triples the rates in urban Oregon – the state has the worst meth problem in the country, but it particularly victimizes cities like Ontario.

Rural America is grossly over-subsidized, and while these types of places produce so many libertarians, it is ironic that rural America is propped up through welfare and expansive agriculture subsidies by urban America.  Wal-Mart itself has received over one billion dollars in subsidies from the U.S. government, to finance its expansion into more small-town American markets.  Certainly, there is some benefit to lower prices for small rural communities - but not enough of a benefit to justify such a barrier to entrepreneurship and diverse, often local supply chains.

At the check-out counter, I look at the shopping carts.  Hey, I love a good meal of mountain dew and Doritos as much as the next guy.  But these shopping carts are filled with purple soda, donuts and ice cream.  The absurdity of it all is overwhelming, the evidence is in the waistlines.  In Ontario, children of age ten or eleven have waistlines of linebackers.

I do not look down on this America; I struggle with the same such addictions and temptations.  But I do find it the most puzzling consistency throughout the rural America I've seen.  These places, whose people are most often associated with the religious and political calls for traditional rural or religious values, are the ones most embracing a brave new world - a lifestyle inconceivably modern and industrial and pre-packaged even to the urban people who they blame for promoting it.

We leave Ontario quickly, driving southwest into the dry Owyhee region.

The word ‘Owyhee’ is the original British name for what today we call ‘Hawaii.’  Captain James Cook, when traveling in the Sandwich Islands, found a people there which he called ‘the Owyhees.’  Traders in the western United States and Canada referred to Hawaiians as 'Owyhees' throughout the 19th century. 

Three Sandwich Islands' natives joined an expeditionary group in this part of Oregon in the early 1800’s.  They split from the main group in order to cover more ground, but were never heard from or found. 

Ever since then, traders began naming the area after them, and eventually, the name stuck.  Out in the Pacific, the name Owyhee was lost only when missionaries translated the word ‘Owyhee’ back into the native language, in which it came out as ‘Hawaii.’

Quickly, the agricultural land surrounding Ontario dissipates, in time flat has turned to deep canyons and endless grasslands.  A gravel road plows through miles of open BLM land.  We turn toward a road that leads slowly to a place called Leslie Gulch, a deep canyon filled with towering spires of volcanic tuff.  Leslie Gulch ends up spilling into Lake Owyhee, a swollen and dammed section of the Owyhee River.

We lay our sleeping bags out at the campground at the end of the canyon, which slides into Owyhee Lake; a swollen dammed portion of the river. 

Some families have set up camp here as well.  They are, for the most part, what we call 'bassmasters', because they are here in pursuit of that all-American fish, which is stocked in Lake Owyhee.