Great Basin

Silver Lake Cafe, near Summer Lake, Oregon

Magicians, Travel Writers and Summer Lake

Notes on travel writing in the age of travel blogs,
from Oregon's Southern desert region.

These notes continue from the Tuolomne Meadows.

Nobody's in the cafe except an old fat man, who's asleep on the bar stool. This cafe - it's somewhere north of Northeastern California; along the westernmost portion of the Great Basin desert.  Technically, I'm in Oregon, but the wet emerald kingdom of the Northwest doesn't apply here.  Like most of Oregon, the Southeastern basin and range is dry, its vegetation comes in golden and amber hues, its landscapes all deep gullies and dry lakes, its people few and far between.  Southeastern Oregon is almost the size of New England, yet holds only 40,000 people.

 I sit down.  No waitress to be found, but the sleeping man's tea is steaming, so we know somebody's in the kitchen.

When the old man starts to snore, I wonder how he doesn't fall off that little bar stool?

Some time later, the waitress bursts through the bar-doors, looking overworked.  Overworked?  As if from years of experience she intuitively knew what implied mood elicited tips..

"Look at my arm."  This is what I tell the waitress, after having contemplated my arm for the last twenty minutes in complete silence. I show her the thousand dots.  The little incisions. 

Skies over Summer Lake

Dried mud and flats under a surreal sky. Summer Lake, Oregon

"Mosquito bites," I tell her.  By the looks of her, she's been waitressing long enough to humor herself with anything.  I tell her that in order to see them, she has to take a closer look.

"Jesus," she says. 
"Watch your language, Missy"  That voice comes from a part of the cafe no one bothered to notice. 

Both the waitress and I are startled.  The man lowers his newspaper, revealing himself.

The way a Mosquito works when she's biting you is a thin, razor-like probiscis enters your skin, injecting you with saliva filled with enzymes and anticoagulants.   I grew up in Minnesota, where they joke its the state bird.  When you get the bites as a Minnesota kid,  they swell on your light, buttery skin, and you scratch them until they bleed.  The more bites you get, the happier you are, because time and many bites makes you totally immune to the bite. Over time, the only effect is a small red dot, nearly invisible. All those bites, my arm is now a constellation.            

The heat this August week has kept most everybody holed up inside.  This route has placed me in that narrow corridor of heat-locking Great Basin that borders places like Death Valley.  This week, it's a hundred and five all the way from Mojave to Washington State. 

The heat keeps everybody indoors, so my contact with people is limited to gas station attendents, occasionally a waitress. This northern-route conversation began with the thought of an email I received before I left for Oregon.  Not a serious one, nor one from anybody I know by face.  Rather, it was an accusation from the old opinions editor of an East Coast newspaper.  We know each other only through the email; we're part of an e-mail discussion group that chews on current events issues. 

Jim had revealed his disdain for what I call travel writing.  Hunter S. Thompson called it, 'Gonzo Journalism.'  When our current events conversation turned to Thompson's suicide, he wrote, "I spent nearly all of my newspaper career playing it as straight as humanly possible, and then, when I got to write a politically oriented opinion column, I was in hog heaven 'cause I had a place for all those unused adjectives and adverbs I'd stored up in all those straight years. Every time I'd read some of Hunter Thompson's Gonzo crap, I'd recall my few wasted evenings trying to relate at the College of Complexes, the '60s Beatnik saloon on Chicago's North Clark Street. I understand it's still there. Ah, misery."

Because I don't read newspapers or watch TV news, I don't have the same ability to comment on each detail of current events as others in our discussion group. Rather, I refer events to my own experience. If its about taxes, or war, or hurricanes, by default, my opinion and response has to be drawn from my observations.

Summer Lake

Dried mud on Summer Lake.

Because these observations are my own, they are in some regards infallible. My experience in a youth church group, or how my dog died, or what its like to live in a trailer park - all of these things make my contribution to the current events discussion more real, and less subject to the football-crowd responses of people who have fallen into political camps, and base their responses entirely on layers and layers of media.

I used my personal experience to elucidate my view on some current event. Jim was transparently angry, calling everything I write a series of 'whoppers.' I thought, how appropriate for the political journalist. A travel writer cannot defend himself against a big-name journalist if the journalist simply dismisses his personal experiences as pure fabrications. In that single remark, the journalist was able to dismiss me completely, without having to comment on the content or even seriously chew on the possibility that those were my genuine experiences.

Once a personal story loses its credibility and becomes accused of being fictionalized, it loses all of its value. An opinions journalist has no such credibility to uphold. The experiences he recounts are never his own, they are what's reported in the paper. He lives in an isolated and safe world, behind a desk.

It was after this exchange of words that I began to think about the value of the personal account.  The opinions journalist, is, like us, a subjective person, but they cloak it with the veil of objectivism.  As journalists, their newspaper, rather than their gumption and consistency, provides the baseline for their credibility.  Journalists are offered their reputations on the platter of their host publication.

It is no wonder that Jim disdained so much the personal account - the unsubstantiated story whose personal opinion comes from personal experience.  I took the condemnation of Thompson as a condemnation of myself, and my preference for explaining things from street level.

American Avocet

American Avocet on Summer Lake in Oregon.

Thinking about all this, I had to ask myself the question. How does a travel writer develop his reputation for his one virtue - his credibility?

By now, the waitress is taking the order of the man in the corner.  The older man is still asleep.

She says, "You know, I didn't know you were married to Sue until Mandy told me!"

He says, "I know, it all happened so fast, I don't believe it myself."

She says, "So how are things going...between you two?"

He says, "Oh good, good."  She offered to pour him some coffee.  But soon, she pulled up a chair next to him, the coffee pot kind of dangling like a cigarette.

"I haven't seen her in three days."

Then he said, "Its the rat race.  Klamath Falls sucks you in."

Klamath Falls is one of the larger cities in Southern Oregon, but its still a tiny city. I thought - this little cafe, it speaks for all of the Oregon Outback. So distant from the modern American coast, that even Klamath Falls is distant.  
She knew something I didn't, and said, "things gonna be alright between you two?"
He said, "she doesn't like the mining guys. She doesn't trust them."

I leave out the creaky aluminum door, the old man on the bar stool still sleeping, a sun ray from the small ceiling window hitting his face.  I drive north some more, and then I'm in some town called Paisley.  They're about to celebrate a Mosquito Festival.  In a few weeks, they'll crown a young pretty girl, 'Miss Quito.  It's like a harvest festival, but rather praying for rain, the town pimps its young teens to help pay for mosquito control.

American Avocet

American White Pelicans over Summer Lake, Oregon

Driving all this time, I  wonder about Jim's contention, and if maybe he is right.  Travel writers are people who write about themselves.  Alone, it's easy for us fabricate or enhance our experience.  Travel writers have gotten away with exaggeraton throughout history; it is often only time that reveals a writer's guilty taking advantage of his reader's trust.  Seamen in the age of exploration were often travel-writers; their accounts were popular works of their day, and for some it was their book, not the voyage itself, that paid their bills.  What they wrote, we now know, were largely fabrications. 

Bruce Chatwin, one of contemporary travel writing's most cherished writers, is now known to have fabricated details of his travel.  When confronted, he explained to his critics that readers expected some level of exaggeration from their authors.

But, unlike a David Sedaris work, where readers pretty much know the stories are partly fictional, Chatwin's hero was himself, and people knew these were non-fictional accounts in which Chatwin himself was considered the hero.

Summer Lake

Cattails on Summer Lake

I walked out from my wife's car, to the inn on the lake, and asked if I could cross their grounds in order to see the lake.  The manager & chef was more than accomodating, helping me to find my bearings. 

I had been driving for so many hours, that the simple act of walking was like two glasses of wine.  With my camera on my back, I followed their trails until the trails grew tiresome - just more roads, like the last ten hours.  As soon as I left these trails, I encountered an experience which is difficult to relate.  I immediately realized that my whole life, I have underappreciated the grasses.

In the pink evening sun, these foxtail barleys and reedgrasses and velvetgrasses appear as exotic as bromeliads and anthuriums.  As fall is arriving soon, the grasses have projected their stalks upwards.

I forget - grass made human civilization happen.  That was about twelve-thousand and some five hundred years ago.  Our middle-east was aware and experimenting with farming wheat and barley.  But a coming drought - a thousand year cold-spell - forced these Middle Easterners to concentrate on this farming.

As I near the lake, the grasses fade: saline lakes are nearly dead zones.  Only specialized species are adapted to live here; a few flies, a few shrimps and a few shorebirds. 

I walk out another half mile: the dry of summer is shrinking the size of the lake, so I am walking in twelve inches of cookie-dough mud.  My shoes are canyoneering shoes; so the lacing system is a wire that tightens the entire shoe like a mold against my foot.  The oily suction of the mud fights to suction them off my feet.  Sometimes, the mud is so dense, I have to release my shoes from my feet, then dig them out and balance to put them back on again.

Summer Lake, Oregon Photo

Winter Ridge in the distance above Summer Lake.

By the time I meet the waterline, a deep crimson darkness overcomes the lake; the baked clay scars in the land turn from interesting to menacing, and a light on the lake reminds me of why they call this Oregon's Outback. 

All that you can see from the shores of Summer Lake is a spectacle of simplicity.  Forget great heights or the complication of plant life; this is the scenery of peace.  But I get this sense that I am not alone on this empty lake, so I turn around and am startled by two figures, looking out at me from a section of dry mud. 

"Hello," the man says before I humiliate myself from the mud.  "Are you a birdwatcher?" he says.  It may seem a strange greeting, but not uncommon in such an area, when one is not carrying a rifle.

The man is forty-something, the woman next to him maybe ten years younger.  Although he appears faintly European, tanned and groomed.  She is pale and wears her hooded-sweater in a way that makes her look formless and broad-shouldered. 

"No," I tell them. "I'm bringing my wife's car up from L.A  I took the long way."

The man, his expression, his European-ness, the way I imagined him at a discotheque, or being a sport in the alps, did not jive with that pair of sharp-looking binoculars around his neck.  I said, "well, you two are birding?"

"Yes, yes," he said, his wife giggling.  "But we're just beginners, we don't know much." 

They come here every summer, to the inn.  Each year they dedicate a portion of their travel to birds. 

"The avocet mating season is beginning," the man says.  "There will be millions of them here.  When they fly, millions fly together, it's like a wave."

He's referring to a tall pinkish shorebird with a crooked snout.  He points to the grasses near the shore, "there is a hawk out there," he says.  "We think he is a Harrier Hawk.  He dive bombs you when you try to go back to the shore."

The woman says, "the avocets dive bomb you as well, during this season.  They are protecting their nest.  But they let out a sound that mimics the...what is it, honey?"

"The doppler effect," he says,  " As they attack you, the pitch of their chirps changes.  It makes it sound like they are coming at you faster than they are."

They tell me that while an avocet lays her eggs, they are in a trance-like state, and you can get very close to them.  They tell me to walk a mile down the shore to see them in their giant nests. I part ways with the couple, walking on the dry mud until the light gives out, and then I turn back. 

The inn is out of my price range, but the manager had cooked me up some chicken, and offers me a reduced rate and a bottle of wine.  I am relieved, because it could be a few more hours to the next hotel.  I open the bottle of wine and sit on the patio. 

The couple, still strolling, ask me about if I was dive bombed.  I said no, thinking, do they expect me to be thrilled by such a possibility? 

I offered for them to join me on the patio, so I opened my free bottle of wine and poured them some.  The whole time, I'm thinking: what makes people become so obsessive?  They opened their bird book and showed me what they had seen this time, last time, that other place.  He showed me his binoculars.  I wondered whose passion this really was.

"We got into it together," she said.

"But we're not like those crazy birders who compete for the most birds seen."  In a year, in a month, in a state, in a country, or in a region, such as North America, birders 'count' their bird sightings competitively.  Some birders will spend millions to fly around a continent, competing with similarly aggressive birders for an unofficial title.

"This is what I don't get," I say.  "How can you judge how many birds somebody saw?  Couldn't they just lie?"  I am wondering about this more because of my interest in travel writing.

"Ah yes," the man says.  "But there is a system of credibility in place.  These birders take laborious notes.  They strive to make their sightings known. They are often at a birding site at the same time as others. There is some proof."

"But what about when they are alone, they have no photographic evidence, and the bird sighting is unlikely?"

The woman answers, "If you are Joe Blow and you come in and you say you saw 700 birds and you give them a list that is highly unlikely, that doesn't count."

The man adds, while pouring the wine, "Being a birder means slowly gaining credibility. You are out there seeing something no one else sees, and you may not have proof. But your personality, your friendships with other birders, your notes and your constantly coming up clean over time, that is what makes your report credible. That is how you win a birding competition."

The woman, a little tipsy says, "You think we're strange don't you, for being birdwatchers."

I said, "no, no", but I was already thinking to myself. They just answered my question about a travel writer's credibility.