Old Haunts

I was a little afraid to return to Frenchglen, because the winds of change have caused havoc everywhere.

I nurse poignant memories from times I was here–2006, 1997, 1993–with my children. It is on the famous Malheur Wildlife Refuge, once taken over by the Bundy boys and their militia.

I woke up to 15 degrees at dawn, at Glass Buttes. My little propane heater worked, but it took quite a while to get the temperature up to anything decent. I could feel during the night when the temperature kept dropping, and just before dawn it was about as cold as my sleeping bag can handle. After I had a cup of coffee, I turned off the heater to switch out a propane cylinder, and the glass of water I had poured myself turned into a slushee in a minute, almost not drinkable.

I had just enjoyed nature’s facilities, when a man who looked almost like a cliché of a desert prospector drove up and said I was almost on someone’s claim. He gave me a map, showing the claims and the deposits of obsidian, and then proceeded to whip out a black obsidian spear point. He told me he made another huge spear point for a Riddick movie starring Vin Diesel. Ok. He gave me his card, and I read the name Emory Coons. His map showed deposits with intriguing names, like Pumpkin/Tomato Soup, Lace & Burgundy Swirl, Lizard Skin, Rainbow, and Gold Sheen. I hiked out over a hillside and saw nothing but pits dug into the ground, and lots of the blackish grey obsidian littering the road. It could slice some city tires, for sure. Anyway, rock hounding is not my thing. It’s fun to find stuff, but then who wants it around?

I filled up with gas in Burns, (Always fill up when you see gas out here) and headed south on Hwy. 205. There was still the April flock of sandhill cranes in a pasture, but I didn’t see any other good bird life, or wildlife–only a group of cows in the road, each with a very new calf. There is still open range out here. The last one, a big black and white cow with huge down-curving horns, abruptly stopped her panicked trotting and turned and looked at us. I suddenly envisioned Janet with a very big dent on that side. Very slowly, we eased by.

I found the only campground, in a great spot by the Blitzen River, which is really a creek. Steens Mtn. rises gently behind us to fill the eastern horizon with its snowcapped ridge. Then we drove across the refuge, past Pete French’s home site (all of this refuge used to be his ranch, the P Ranch, until a homesteader shot him) and to a place where an abandoned road branched off. I left Janet and walked a couple of miles to an abandoned homestead in a cluster of strange trees—cottonwoods of course, but also some conifer, maybe white firs, and even a cluster of old apple trees. Nothing else was left but a sad, old mud brick hut. Maybe they were squeezed out by Mr. French.

I found the warm springs, and they were beautiful, if tepid. The day had gotten nice and warm, so it was good for a foot soak. Nobody was around. I watched silvery bubbles come up at strange intervals from the green sand bed of the pool. I intend to visit more hot springs on this trip.

I made myself presentable, then drove Janet up to the Frenchglen Hotel, where I had dinner reservations. It’s just a tiny old historic hotel that has a communal dining room of three tables, and meals are served family style. So I was ready to share a table with whatever nature lovers were staying there. It was fine. An elderly couple from Seattle, and two elderly men currently, though of course not originally, from Bend. The wife facilitated polite conversation until one of the friends asked me if I was driving around alone. He was aghast. Said I was in denial. “What are we going to do with you?” This made me feel so young that I let him convince me I should get a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun that makes that chick-chuck sound everyone knows from the movies. I said that sounded great.

Frenchglen has a few buildings and a phone booth, though the phone is gone. I understand why they keep it, and it isn’t to look cutesy-quirky hip like it would be in another town. It’s to say they were just fine making do with the old telephones, they got along quite well, and anybody who couldn’t handle the huge, empty landscape was weak, and should hurry back home.

Drove back across the little valley in the gloaming, and I see a couple campfires going. It looks nice. Hopefully not quite so cold tonight.