Let's just say you are sitting at one of the Starbucks still standing, staring into a cup of stunningly delicious coffee, wishing you were headed somewhere like southern Spain to take a class on, okay, anything. Medicinal herbs is your top choice, but even miniature golf-putting techniques fits the fantasy. Those huge cerulean blue skies. Those plateaus. Those high deserts. Those plants. And let's just say that there isn't a snowball's chance in the Sahara that you are going to Spain, maybe ever. A VISA bill that grows all by itself, combined with ever-growing travel costs, are the marks of a trip that will not happen.
As a fellow dreamer, here is my promise to you: Bend's High Desert Museum will scratch that itch. A three-hour drive from Portland, depending on your need for rest stops and slow downs for random gaping, the museum is smack in the middle of America's outback. As their brochure explains: "The High Desert has been called America's outback because of its vast, rugged expanse and sparse population. The region ranges from southern British Columbia through Nevada's Great Basin and from the Rockies to the Cascades and Sierra." The drive itself is beautiful. Once you get past the exurbs, you will find yourself in the land of rivers, valleys, mountains, and desert. When you get to the museum itself, the place is a series of landscape paintings. It is that wondrous. If you are a painter, you will be set for at least a week. If you are a birder, you'll get to see owls, hawks, and eagles up close. I even got to see a baby owl. Adorable doesn't begin to describe it. There are fish in the streams and ponds, and otters.
There is history. Snakes, spiders, scorpions, and Gila monsters are thankfully behind glass (mostly) for those of us who want to see what they look like up close without having to use meditation belly breathing to keep from fainting. There's a stagecoach, a homestead ranch, and a sawmill.
Best of all, there are walking, teaching tours of the medicinal plants that grow in desert country (and, it turns out, not so desert-y country.) Dogwood's inner bark can be smoked for energy. Tea made from the rosehips nestled under the faded flowers of the wild rose plant can keep a family in vitamin C year round. Juniper berries can flavor your medicinal gin. Wax currants can keep you in jelly.
For me, two plants made the drive to the museum worth every twenty-cent mile. The first was skullcap. I've been calling skullcap a weed for years because it pops up in every yard I've had, and I've been too lazy to figure it out. No more. Skullcap is a superhero of medicinal plants. It gets its name from the little blue flowers that pop out of the top of its leaf clusters. They have two lips that look a little like the skullcaps worn in medieval times if you squint and look at them from the side. The plant loves sun and can cope with just about any kind of soil. It grows to about two feet and has hairy, square stems with downy, heart-shaped leaves that grow opposite each other.
It used to be called the mad dog plant because it was historically used to treat symptoms of rabies. Skullcap tea can ease nervous tension and those spasms you get in your legs from hiking or biking for too long. It can help you go to sleep without making you feel like you've fallen into a pod of jello air. One fellow on the walking tour I took mentioned its use for epilepsy. News to me. For those of us born as women, skullcap infusion is used to promote menstruation. It is being researched as an alternative medicine to treat ADD and drug and alcohol withdrawal. Important to state here that you need to know that what you have really is skullcap before you try any. Don't guess. Stay clear of it if you are pregnant. If you take some and feel giddy, confused, or more twitchy than when you started, you have sipped too much tea, my friend.
With that, a recipe:
Skullcap medicinal tea: Add a small handful of the powdered herb to a pint of boiling water. Steep ten minutes and sip a half cup at a time every few hours. (Formal disclaimer: Don't do anything without a doctor's permission. It might be time to track down a naturopath to get that permission.)
The second discovery? Manzanita. These are evergreen shrubs — some are small trees — that pop up all over the coast and in the great outback. Manzanitas are known for their smooth orange or red bark and beautiful twisting branches. The manzanita berries and flowers of most species can be eaten. Worth double checking. The berries can be soaked in water to make a cool summer drink, and the bark can be used as a tea for nausea. New leaves can be chewed if you are thirsty and far from water. These are also the plants to paint. Beautiful and complicated, like we are.
I've forgotten about Spain already.