The Owyhee Puzzle
In the Owyhee Desert region of Southeastern Oregon, we find a mysterious native site and a stone tool in the cliffs above the Owyhee River
Just after moving to Portland a year ago, my younger brother Hans and I were running in one of the city's forested parks. It was a bright, sunny day. A day kind of like today. The sort of day with cricket sounds and cottonwood seeds in the air.
The trails were small single track dirt trails. We were still learning the trail system of Tryon State Park, but we knew that this relatively untrampled trail couldn't be an authorized sort of park trail.
For curiosity, we took it, and catching our breath we paused in a bright meadow. For a few moments, we wondered where we were, this meadow, overgrown by thorny blackberries. Then some goats, fenced in. And a pair of old houses. It was clear that we had left the park.
"Welcome," a voice. And then it's like they just popped out of the meadow; two young ladies with a baby on the top of one of their heads. Barefoot, they approached us as we refused their welcome. And again. "Welcome to the farm!"
This land, this handful of acres, they explained, is slated to become an upscale condominium development. Somehow, Jenny and Brenna and the other Tryon Life Community farm members had a purchase option to sit on this land until the end of the year. If they could raise $1.6 million by January, they could purchase the land.
Their idea is to build a small community farm - the sort of place to teach people how to grow organic, how to save energy, how to get back to the Earth.
The idea, they explain, is to create a model of modern urban sustainable living. To Portlanders, this kind of talk is not unfamiliar. Americans consider Portland their greenest city. And Portlanders take the tag seriously; just this year the city earned notoriety for surpassing the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. Additionally, the city is the only one in the U.S. to actively and somewhat successfully fight sprawl.
The Tryon Farm story was exciting to me, because of how closely it resembled Great Guana Cay’s fight in the Bahamas. I agreed to interview and photograph their campaign to win the seven acres. Hans agreed to volunteer at the farm that summer, chopping invasive blackberries for them, which had encroached on their meadow.
He would come to my place, ask to borrow the machete for his volunteer work at the farm. In the evening, he would return with the scars and blood of blackberry thorns up and down his arms and legs. Why he returned my seven dollar machete to me every evening, at the expense of another half-hour of his time, was at the time unknown to me.
But Hans was expecting that I needed my machete back. I was supposed to be chopping my own invasive blackberries. It was the beginning of my Oregon education.
Grandmother and grandfather emigrated from Norway and made their way to Oregon. My mother was five years old, and her younger sister just one. My grandfather was a hunter and a fisherman, and he took the family out every weekend across the Cascades and into the Oregon desert. Grandfather was entranced by Native American culture. At Grandmother's home in Minnesota farm country; you can understand Grandfather a bit, just by his books on Native Americans, the Mayans, the Foxfire Series.
Almost everyone in my family has lived in Oregon at one point in their life. Mom and her sister were majorettes in the Portland school system; for six months the two of them traveled in Norway as celebrities; the first duo to introduce baton twirling to the country. Big brother went to college here; his first week he nearly burned the dorm down and made the front page of the paper. Hans started a band, joined the Forest Service, and adopted Oregon. At one point, he pronounced that he had little need to ever travel outside of the state.
Hans, like big brother Andre, grew up with admiration of Grandfather's life; for his hunting days in Oregon, for the way he could use every part of the animals he killed, for his Indian crafts, and his dream to make his farm a self-sustaining entity.
Perhaps then, it’s ironic that Hans is leaving Oregon.
We want to get out on the road and do some fishing before he leaves the state. We want to get to the southeastern corner of Oregon, maybe cast some flies and catch some trout in the state's great unknown desert.
When I drop by Hans' place, I expect him to toss a couple duffle bags in the back. But, it's only a matter of seconds that my truck is being rearranged, to make room for his chairs, his table, his luxury double stove. "We're leaving this behind," he says, handing off my gear to his girlfriend.
After meeting the folks of Tryon Farm that summer, Hans asked me where I wanted to go in Oregon; he'd make it happen.
So we paddled down the Tualatin River; a meandering river that lulls through the Willamette Valley and Portland exurbia. Then, down the upper part of the Willamette River, which flows north and dumps into the Columbia River in Portland.
Seeing Oregon by canoe and kayak had an impact on me; because it matched the kinds of things Jenny and Brenna were trying to teach the city with their organic farm.
We paddled down those rivers picking blackberries and salmonberries from the river's edge; talking about fishing and which mushrooms were edible. We talked about agricultural runoff, and how to identify a mint plant. We talked about the possibility of eating from the river; about the clubs that specialized in exploiting fruits that fall onto public property. We talked about the Himalayan blackberry; an invasive blackberry species that does so well in the Portland and Willamette Valley areas that it has literally begun to choke out vast natural areas.
Today, we are heading east, Interstate 84 along the Columbia, past The Dalles, overnight in Pendleton, up the Blue Mountains, south along the Idaho border. Oregon is a big state, but one part of it exists almost universally outside of the American's collective consciousness. It's as if nobody has ever thought about this one part of Oregon. But this part - the southeastern quarter, is both enormous and fantastical.
I mention to Hans about my recent debates with Christian Fundamentalists over topics like creationism. It is a great subject for the road; filled with good subplots and laughs.
The modern definition of a fundamentalist is roughly someone who believes in the inerrancy of their religious texts. In this sense, the Americas are filled with religious fundamentalists. Jamaican icon Bob Marley died because he refused a toe amputation to treat skin cancer. The reason: Rastafarians believed in a literal interpretation of certain parts of the bible; they lived in accordance with their interpretation of the dietary and cultural laws of the Old Testament. Kellogg's corn flakes were created because Seventh Day Adventists needed a breakfast meat substitute. Like Rastafarians, the Adventists took a literal view of certain parts of the Old Testament, especially Leviticus.
In many rural counties, the Amish and the Mennonites live life by a strict religious code inspired by a literalist look at the scriptures.
The word 'fundamentalist' these days gets people thinking about hijackers and terrorists. Few Americans mention that this country has the highest rate of fundamentalism in the world: Forty-three percent of us practice Protestant evangelism, which implies a fundamental and literal belief in the words of the New Testament.
Fundamentalism is a modern invention of humanity; and its origins - whether in American Protestantism, Israeli Judaism or Arab Islam - come from a reaction and distaste for the complexity and apparent ills of the modern world.
On the Washington side of the Columbia River, we see a series of white slabs sticking out of the hillside. "That's a complete replica of Stone-henge," Hans says. "They reconstructed it as part of a World War I memorial." He explains that the builder of the site, a Quaker by the name of Sam Hill, constructed it, “as he thought Stonehenge looked when it was built.”
And later, he points toward the river, this time at a big complex called the Umatilla Chemical Depot, filled with projectiles, land mines, spray tanks, bombs with mustard gas and other blister agents. "That's the biggest storehouse for U.S. chemical weapons in the country," he says, "that’s where they bring it all to be destroyed.”
I tell Hans about how selective fundamentalists can be about their own fundamentalism. Their lives are often truly modern - they drive big cars, their diets are filled with chemicals, they type away at computers and consume their medical prescriptions.
Jokingly, I mention that if I were to become a fundamentalist, I would want to learn precisely what the scriptures required of me if I took its every word literally. I would also seek to learn about the surrounding circumstances of the age of the Bible. Since I am a student of biblical archaeology, I have built up a long-standing belief that Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists could benefit from Middle Eastern archaeological finds; because their traditionalism would be reinforced by physical evidence of ancient practices and lifestyles.
I told him, also, that it would be prudent as a fundamentalist in a place like Oregon, so different from the Middle East, to adapt the scriptures for the geography and culture of the Pacific Northwest.
"If you go back to the time of the Bible, living in the Pacific Northwest," I tell him, "say like six thousand years ago to three hundred A.D., it would be all Indians!"
Hans says, "Those rabbis, making all those laws in the Old Testament, there were reasons for them. They had very specific laws for very specific reasons. I bet if we looked at the Indians of Oregon from the same time, their cultures would end up making similar cultural laws about food and customs."
”That’s why it’s forbidden to eat pelicans!” I said.
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.
I wake up a few hours before sunrise and take a walk down to the boat ramp, and then onto a deer trail along the Owyhee River. Fish are jumping like mad.
I spend a couple hours following the deer trail along the river bank. Completely wild, the early morning along the Owyhee is filled with life; chukars, a type of introduced partridge from Central Asia, scream from the hills above. Hawks soar above me, and I can see large mammals traversing the hills above.
When I return to the boat launch, the first of the bass fishermen has backed his Skeeter Brand bass fishing boat into the water. I decide to watch them from above.
The man's hair is what we call 'all business in the front, party in the back.' He is in his forties, blonde mustache. T-shirt advertises a brand of fishing reel. His wife and two young children, and black lab, are manning the boat trailer, seeing him off.
His boat - shiny, filled with gear, slides off the trailer, and out into the open water. But when he turns the key, his engine farts and hollers. After fiddling with the engine, he turns angry. "Oh wouldn't you know it, it’s the goddamned spark plugs."
His boat floating deeper into the river, he yells at his wife, "Well don't just stand there, get me some spark plugs!"
His wife dutifully scrambles into the back of the Suburban, frantically searching.
Bass fishing used to exist merely as a lazy late summer pastime in America's deep south. Oh, how things have changed. In my lifetime, bass fishing has become a massive commercial sport. Twenty million Americans fish for Micropterus, of the black bass genus. The yearly Bassmasterstournament is a second Superbowl to millions.
"Ah hah!" she yells. The dog is barking frantically. She holds something up, and starts to wade out into the water. I can only imagine how cold that water is. She gets her shorts, and then shirt, wet, as she holds the spark plugs up and hands them off to her husband.
He makes some adjustments with his new sparkplugs, fires up the engine. He waves to his family, and the dog barking, he speeds off into the lake, looking proud.
By the time his wife gets out of the water, a number of trucks and trailers are lined up, waiting for the boat ramp to clear.
Our hopes of doing some fishing ourselves has vanished; the trout streams in this area are washed out by heavy snowmelt water. So instead we opt to spend the hotter parts of the day practicing our casts.
In the afternoon, we leave the truck on the side of the dirt road, cross the Leslie Gulch creek, and up.
Hans says he prefers walking this way - overland, rather than on trails. It's the truest notion of going your own way.
Here, the hills are grassy, but steep and composed of loose soil and gravel. The higher we walk, the steeper. Hans scales the hill like a goat. I opt to hug the ridge, where the gravel is looser, because we are scouting for a tripod perch.
The gravel starts sliding under my feet - what's worse, I have my tripod and Toyo slung over my shoulder, so I only have one arm to use. I look down and fuck, fuck, fuck, it's a quarter mile straight down. How did we get this high! I take a step, and I slide. Again, and I slide.
The fright gives me a burst of energy, so I begin to dart up the gravely ridge. I decide I need to just keep moving, to keep from slipping down.
"Just get to the rock," Hans yells from above.
But I'm already moving faster up bare rock than I ever have. And I keep moving until we reach a sort of solid promontory jutting out into the sea of grass and gravel.
Still stricken with the frights, I just stare blankly out at the view of Leslie Gulch; steep and riddled with thousands of red spire rocks and golden cliffs.
I had noticed the unusual colored stones underneath our feet. But Hans bothered to pick one up. "Well I'll be," he said, blowing at the stone.
He didn't even need to say it, because I know what he is about to say. He puts it in his hand. "It fits perfectly," he says, stabbing at the air with a shiny beige rock in his hand.
"Could have been naturally?" I say, taking it from him. "No," he says, pointing out meticulously crafted etches in the stone; the way the stone was carved to fit a left hand. "It's a scraper tool."
I pick another one up off the promontory; this one was even more obvious. "Look at this," I pointed Hans to a round bowl cut out of the promontory rock.
The fact that these items are just sitting here on bare rock implies that we are the first non-Indians to set foot here. It is an amazing revelation; and a testament to the remoteness of the Owyhee.
We examine the mortor. "Holy crap!" I say. "This was an Indian hunting perch. It makes perfect sense." From here, a hunter could see for miles; in gullies and along the creek, out toward the Owyhee River, and up a myriad canyons, waiting for an elk, deer or a coyote.
There is nothing extraordinary about finding Native American antiquities in Oregon. Arrowheads and other stone tools are still found. But to find such a thing on your own, even if you are one among thousands to do so, is an immeasurable joy and education; because to experience it for yourself is to set yourself on a quest of deduction and discovery.
Once you have found such a treasure, you are naturally compelled to unravel its puzzle: who used this tool, when, how and why?
Because Hans, my Oregon guide, is soon to leave the state, the void puts me in charge, for a year, until he returns. Almost immediately, I remember my family’s legacy in Oregon. I figure this year as the family’s Oregon representative, I ought to do something to live up to our own Oregon legacy. I am going to take this old obsidian stone tool, use it to unravel the Owyhee puzzle.
This story continues in the Alvord Desert.