Sheep Rock at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon (top) and Goldendale Observatory State Park in Washington. (National Park Service, State of Washington)
The search for
millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett in the wilds of Nevada is a reminder of the scale of the West. The aviator went missing Sept. 3
and presumably crashed somewhere in the state
. The search area is 17,000 square miles, more than twice the size of New Jersey.
More interesting is what searchers have found: the remnants of at least half a dozen other plane wrecks. In fact, according to press accounts, in the past 50 years, more than 150 planes have been lost in the Nevada wilds.
The search for Fossett has been likened to a search for a needle in a haystack
, but he is not alone. A search in Alaska was once described as trying to find "a needle in 10,000 haystacks
." Alaska, which has swallowed its share of the prominent, including powerful Democratic congressman Hale Boggs
, has been likened to the Bermuda Triangle
for all the planes and ships that have gone missing. Nevada may be the Lower 48's new Bermuda Triangle. Until the Fossett search, most of us had no idea that so many downed planes simply vanished. No wonder tipsters in the Fossett search have included psychics
. (Not to mention Amazon Mechanical Turk and Google Earth
With all the urban West's worries about population growth, sprawl, density, and mass transit, it's easy to forget that much of the region is just plain empty. Of people. Incidents like Fossett's are a reminder that this land – of Great Basins, Great Deserts, the Great Northwest, and the Last Frontier – is capable of swallowing you whole.
Last week, I was in Oregon
, a state that has gobbled its fair share. Last winter there were two cases that got national media attention.
The first was the disappearance of CNet's James Kim, who took a wrong turn over the Thanksgiving holiday while driving from Seattle to San Francisco and died hiking out of the snow-bound woods of the Coast Range while trying to save his family (who were found alive).
Then there were the winter climbers on Mount Hood
, one injured, who called out on his cell phone from a snow cave near the summit. His frozen body was recovered, but his two companions disappeared and have yet to be found. While I was at Mount Hood last week, the search for their bodies was continuing, but no luck.
This summer, cable TV featured the disappearance of a 76-year-old woman in the rugged canyons of the Wallowa Mountains
of Eastern Oregon. Somewhat inexplicably, she was found alive
late last week and in relatively good shape. Which reminds me of how people can be like eggs: incredibly fragile, but sometimes amazingly durable.
My companion and I
spent most of our time in Eastern Oregon. We traveled from the Columbia Gorge
to Mount Hood
, down across the Warm Springs Reservation
into John Day country – which ought to more properly be called John Wayne country given the fetish for framed Duke portraits in hotels and diners. But it's easy to see why a kind of instinctive conservatism would take root in areas like this, where urban problems seem so remote and cell phones and wi-fi are part of a different century. Here you can still explore backroads and small towns that have no chain stores or gas stations. The woman at the diner can take your order for chicken fried steak and pump your gas.
In these landscapes of ancient basins and ranges, sage desert, and tangled junipers that eke out an existence on rocky cliffs, one feels an aloneness that gives you strength, a scale that keeps you humble, and a silence that can keep you to yourself.
At Sheep Rock
, one section of three-part John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
, you get the history of the incredible rim rock country that surrounds you, filled with unprecedented layers of fossils going back 40 million years. They preserve evidence of animals you've never heard of and reflect scales of time you cannot comprehend. You try and imagine miniature horses, giant tigers, proto-elephants, and dog-bears in a landscape of sycamores and dawn redwoods – a fantasy world that contrasts sharply with the barren, beautiful blue-green badlands around you. You learn that these lands became dry like this when the Cascade range grew up and blocked the rains, all in the blink of a geologic eye. And that was one of the more recent developments.
Slow days of dry country
hiking, no connection with the outside world, isolated and sprawling ranches, and a landscape that holds the graves of 40 millions years worth of jungles, grasslands, forests, swamps, and the thousands of species that inhabited them: In the West, time can swallow you, too.
And then the skies. Endless blue by day. Standing on Mount Hood, you can see the tide of gray clouds flow in from the Pacific and cover the lower elevations. But along the Cascade crest, an invisible barrier stops the blanket of gray. To the east, the sun shines and the golden pelt of distant grasslands is just visible. To the west are the clouds that make the wetside green.
Over on the dry side, just north of the Columbia Gorge in Goldendale, Wash., Goldendale Observatory State Park
offers late-night programs and looks at the sky. Night is different in the interior where no city lights erase the Milky Way. On this night in early September, the sky was crystal clear, the moon and sun were down, and the stars were spattered like Jackson Pollock's paints on black canvas, an abstract open to interpretation. The constellations, save the dippers, never make sense to me, but they seemed almost irrelevant except as locators of other phenomenon.
We looked through the telescope to see a star cluster in the constellation Hercules. To the naked eye, it was at best a small smudge. It turned out to be a clump of a million stars called the Great Globular Cluster. One of the very first messages to extraterrestrial life was broadcast in its direction. We were told such clusters are widely distributed and form a kind of halo around our galaxy.
We saw the planet Jupiter hanging brightly in the southern sky and through the lens spotted two of its many moons, Io and Europa. In the constellation Lyra, we saw an exploded star – a planetary nebula – that has left a gas ring with a dark center. It resembled a sugar doughnut. We saw a blue binary star that rotates around its yellow twin. Every square inch of sky was filled with grand bodies and events. Through a telescope, the heavens resemble swamp water through a microscope, both teeming with activity.
The 40 million years
of geological history under our feet is dwarfed by the billions and trillions of galactic stories above our heads. In the West, big skies can swallow you, too.
Funny how a trip through the Big Empty leaves you feeling full.