Smith Rock and the
Oregon High Desert
Notes on the Central Oregon High Desert, and the Monkey Face of Smith Rock.
Updated June 27, 2014
It was an honor, I suppose, to be drinking Johnny Walker with a military official on Alaska Airlines' red-eye flight to Portland. "After fourteen flights in ten days," the top technology officer for the Army said as a way of introduction, "you'd figure I'd get upgraded to first-class." I explained to him the benefits of coach class. "I'll take crying babies over internet executives any day," I said, and I explained to him the story of the youthful Brazilian woman who sat next to me on a flight to Frankfurt ten years ago.
"She was this really rare type of person, engaging, filled with stories. But that was all before the plane took off," I said. "The stewardess told me that coach was full, and something to do with my air-miles, I was welcome to sit in first-class."
"It wasn't really a welcome. The stewardess insisted. I was devastated. And the kicker is that up there in first class, I was sitting next to this guy that stunk like he was pickled in liquor and cologne.
He was awful, a lawyer I think. He spat when he talked"
"Well I guess the experience can go either way?"
"I don't think so. Call me jaded, but I've never had a good experience in first class. Sour grapes. People get obsessed with flying first-class. But it's a waste of money, even for rich people."
When I told him that I loved flying in airplanes, he twitched his moustache. "I get to meet people like you. And I get to catch up on reading."
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I'm going to Monkey Face, I think. Wherever my brother takes me."
"Where is Monkey Face?"
"In the desert. Did you know that most of Oregon is a desert?"
"But why is it called Monkey Face?"
"I don't really know. Because it's a giant rock that looks like a monkey god."
The officer was uninterested. He wanted to talk about war. "I can't really tell you this," he said, before going on about war technology.
I said, "did you know there are only two places in the world that have a monkey god?"
"Two more Johnny Walkers," the officer said to the stewardess.
"In India, the Hindus call their monkey god 'Hanuman.' But actually, before the city was abandoned, there was a actually an entire city that worshipped monkeys in Honduras. It was called the White City, but some people call it the Lost City of the Monkey God.'
"Why the lost city?" he asked.
"Because nobody can find it."
"So it doesn't exist."
"Absolutely," I said. An American explorer found it in the twenties, and took pictures. Nobody has the coordinates, and the Mosquito Coast forest is too dense to walk through.
"Technology can take care of that. Fly a plane over it," he said.
"Its been tried. Discovery Channel is looking for it as we speak."
"So it doesn't exist," he said.
"It's well documented in Mayan tradition. But everybody has it wrong. There is only one way to find it."
The officer said, "She's a cutey, isn't she?" asking the waitress for two more Johnny Walker's.
"She's too young for you," I whispered.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Twenty-One," she said.
"See," I said.
"So how do you find it?"
"Well it's the white city. White stone. Where do you find white stone?"
"How do I know," he said.
"Neither do I. But I would suspect you look for a river with calcium deposits."
"If it existed, the army would have found it."
"Actually, it's referenced on army topo maps of Honduras. But they are off by at least 200 miles. There are hundreds of undiscovered ruins in Mosquitia. The army just botched up their maps," I said.
The officer turned to the stewardess. "Honey, you haven't been a stewardess for very long, have you?"
I felt sorry for her, so I asked him about his favorite subject, "Why haven't you guys been able to take out Saddam?"
"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." That was the fourth time he had said that to me. "We can't even talk about assassination in the army."
When the plane landed, the officer said, "Have fun looking for your Monkey God," and turned to the Stewardess.
Brother Hans was waiting at the airport, talking the whole time about Monkey Face, trees and religion. We bent out for the east, over Mount Hood and through Bend, a rare kind of town with a vibe, and a style.
In the morning, we drove east, with coffee and the snow. I was peering out the window, thinking, watching the lines of fog funnel through the gulches.
Eastern Oregon is a blank slate. Physically this observation is redundant, because the northern border of the great basin desert, which extends from here to Idaho and southern Nevada, is both scarcely populated and scantily vegetated. There are few, if any popular monuments either natural or constructed.
The north Great Basin's slate, however, is its lack of place in American vernacular and mythologizing about place. Few outside of hunting, farming and fishing circles comprehend eastern Oregon for what it really is...not an extension of the Pacific Northwest's foggy drizzle, but a unique and expansive subcategory of North America.
We crossed out of Cascadia into a sheet of broad, high flat ranges of scrub, pinyon, juniper, double-wides and farm ranges. The snow-spotted high plains are punctuated only by occasional deep ravines, or broad rivers like the north-flowing Deschutes, or the appropriately named Crooked, which bends about an outcropping of rock in a one hundred and eighty degree arc.
This outcropping is called Smith Rock. Being a distinct mound of lopsided juts and sheer faces, it's appearance against the flat of Eastern Oregon is almost religious. Eastern Oregon is not exotic, it is simple beauty, nothing more.
"Matsu's garden whispers at you, never shouts; it leads you down a path hoping for more, as if everything is seen, not hidden. There's a quiet beauty here I only hope I can capture on canvas."
- Gail Tsukiyama, The Samurai's Garden
Brother Hans pulled out of his truck all those things that us Angeleno's find foreign. Gloves, Scandinavian sweaters, hats, ropes, pulleys, scarves, wool socks. We walked for some time, not talking. Up the Smith Rock in the fog, past the Junipers and the ground cover. Up into the lichen and snow. Hans threw a rope over a cliff and put me in a harness. Told me to jump. He followed behind and we continued in the snow; up a narrow path on a slope. This, I thought, was life. Walking is underrated these days.
When we reached the peak of Smith Rock at nightfall, we could see it. A giant column of stone thrusting from the mountain. Monkey Face. The image of the monkey god; the stern gorilla, with his heavy brow and deep gaze. Monkey Face is just a natural formation, but it looked heroic, like it was carved by man.
I was out of breath, but brother Hans didn't seem to have lifted a finger.
I thought about Hanuman, who is worshipped in every Hindu temple in India. Abraham, Mohammed, Buddha, they are all great guys and all, but watching brother Hans with his rope strapped to his back, I wondered if we, as the male species - the modern American male, could learn something from Hanuman. He is the god of agility and dexterity. He is the only bachelor gentleman god. I thought about the American male; growing fat and pasty; obsessed with television and watching other men sweat and throw balls around. Hanuman wouldn't want gossipy brutishness. He believed strongly in women. He believed that man was a sportsman, and a hunter and that his job was to serve woman.
Sometimes at work, the women come to me for advice on their man. They explain a complicated tale; a densely woven tapestry of regret, sorrow and confusion. My only advice is this. Think of man as monkey. We are no more complicated than that. We are simple, we do not think as much as you do. Once you can see your man as a monkey, you will understand him. I think Hanuman would agree with me.