Great Basin

Old barn in Central Oregon
Antique barns are common in Central Oregon.

Smith Rock and the
Oregon High Desert

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.