The waitress recently moved here from Florida, and beams with pride about her new home; a place of exquisite beauty, and a simple life. She explains that taking the unpaved road up to the prairie means it’s essential to let someone know you’ll be on the road. “If you don’t come back, they do go looking for you.” About the morel mushrooms on the road, she explains, “Some people just go mushroom hunting from their car. They stick their heads out the window and look for them that way!”
From Imnaha, we leave for the road leading to the Zumwalt Prairie. Hans has been to this far corner of Oregon a handful of times, as a forest ranger, a backcountry skier, a backpacker and a whitewater river runner. But going with his older brother means lots of long hours on the road eating sunflower seeds and stopping for dragonflies.
The road, which winds through a canyon lined with grasses and dense thickets of pines, is rocky at first, but after an hour of driving slowly, we gain elevation, the trees and rocks disappear, and soon we are on bare grasslands, which sway in the breeze under giant cumulonimbus clouds.
This is the fabled Zumwalt Prairie, one of the last somewhat-intact prairies, and the last piece of a unique ecosystem that once stretched as far as Montana and Canada. Since true prairies are North American ecosystems, we usually equate them with grassland and shrubland biomes of the Great Plains. The truth is, those prairies are gone; they exist mostly as restored habitats in the spaces between big farms.