“…we were surprised to find ourselves on the summit of a bed of broken mountains, which, as far as the weather would permit us to see, declined rapidly to some low country ahead, presenting a dreary and savage character; and for a moment I looked around in doubt on the wild and inhospitable prospect, scarcely knowing what road to take which might conduct us to some place of shelter for the night.”
~John C. Fremont, upon entering the High Rock Country, December 29, 1843
1. The Chewaucan Garage
We rolled off Highway 31 into Paisley, Oregon, early on a Tuesday morning. It was late July and the sun was promising a fine day in the reddish hues of nautical twilight to the east. Paisley, population 200 or so, was just beginning to yawn and stretch and mostly quiet in the long morning shadows, although someone was driving through town on a muddy four-wheeler with a border collie standing up on the cargo rack, a fine-looking dog leaning over the driver’s shoulder with his nose into the wind.
Our truck was full of gear, jammed to the gunwales like an old prairie schooner rolling out of Independence for the long trail westward: guns, camera gear, backpacks, bedrolls, ice chests full of food, shovels, flat-tire plugs and a compact air compressor, a fully operable camp kitchen and assorted pots and pans, 50 gallons of water in blue jugs, 20 gallons of gas in red and green jerry cans, and a high-lift jack in a truckbed toolbox full of tow-straps, jumper cables, bug-out bags, first aid kits, assorted tools, and well-chosen mechanical band-aids.
We were pulling a 10’ double-axle trailer with a Polaris Ranger ratchet-strapped to the deck. That would have to do for local mobility because I had wanted to bring horses, but roads in the High Rock country of northwest Nevada are marginal on their best days and my horse trailer is an asphalt queen: it would not survive the trip in any recognizable condition.
On the dashboard of the Ranger — later in our expedition it would become known as The Eagle, in honor of the Apollo Lunar Module — are three stickers: one for the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights — given to me by a SWAT Team pal who was one — one for the Paragon Jiu-Jitsu Academy where I once trained, and one that just says “Extremely Rightwing” because the excellent Texas riflemaker, LaRue, sent it to me when I bought a rifle, and also because I happen to think it’s funny.
My partner on this expedition was Colin Seitz. Colin lives with his wife on the Jersey shore, and is a photographer with a brilliant eye. A student of Ansel Adams and John Sexton, among others, he prefers to work in film and is an accomplished large-format artist. Colin and I served together in a boat-raid company in the Marine Corps, and hadn’t seen each other in 21 years when I picked him up at the Redmond, Oregon, airport. But infantry Marines, squadmates in particular, are forged in fires that create a uniquely adhesive bond, and it was clear from the start that not a day had passed in all that time. Colin flew out west to make a circle with me on the desert, and it was designed as a working trip for us both. He wanted photographs, and I meant to chase the ghost of Shoshone Mike through Little High Rock canyon and across the igneous battlegrounds of the Black Rock desert — to drill down through the crust of my own memories, and maybe somewhere, somehow, tap into the mantle of my soul.
The early morning highway from Sisters to Paisley had belonged exclusively to us, as it was surely meant to do: a silver ribbon running to the far horizon, drawing us directly into the desert sunrise out of the ponderosa forests near Fort Rock, through broad sagebrush basins, and over precipitous ranges where golden eagles make their nests in the rimrock and wolves have returned to the timber after a long absence. From Silver Lake into Paisley there was no other traffic on the highway. Not one car.
When we rolled into Paisley I was thinking about gas because it is true, whoever said it, that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. At expeditionary weight, my truck simply inhales fossil fuel because it has a big American motor meant for power on demand. I like that big carbon footprint — it serves my needs — but out on the desert there are no gas stations. It’s a simple equation, really, and I wanted a full tank – or as close to full as I could get it — before we ran out of asphalt south of Adel, Oregon. I did not trust the gas station in Adel to be open or even to have fuel, because on the desert the rulebook changes. Nothing comes easy, and only a fool makes assumptions. Assumptions lead inevitably to jackpots. So our last chance for gas before our scheduled reentry into the modern world, 200 honery miles south of Adel in Gerlach, Nevada, was therefore the Chewaucan Garage. And they were open for business.
We were three seconds at the gas pump when Colin broke out the 4x5 camera and began setting up in front of the garage to make photographs. When Colin sees a photograph in his mind, he jumps to work without a word. The tripod goes up, the bags get unzipped, and the process begins. The light was good at the Chewaucan Garage, excellent even, and it was time to go to work.
While Colin was setting up I leaned up against the truck and talked to the serious young man who was running the garage. He was in his late twenties. T‑shirt, military tattoos, ruined baseball cap. He looked over our rig and asked if we were out to play in the desert. “Yes and no,” I told him, and offered the broad outline of our mission. He nodded his approval. I asked after my friend, buckaroo and western artist Len Babb, who lives in Paisley, a stone’s throw from the cemetery. The young man said he’d just seen Len, and he was doing fine.
I watched the old-fashioned dials on the gas pump roll on their wheels and thought of early mornings on the Queen Valley Ranch, in Montgomery Pass, Nevada, where my grandfather would fill my gas tank at an antique pump after a weekend moving cows in the desert, or branding calves in the pole corrals with a crew assembled from the old, spavined cowboys who populated his life. He’d top off the tank with ranch gas before I headed back to school in Arizona. Gasoline, french bread, and a pot of beans were my wages. “Write when you get work,” he’d say with a smile, slapping the bed of my truck when I pulled out.
In November, 2018, the Homestead Café in Paisley burned down. I was at home in Sisters, Oregon, when the news of that tragedy floated in, and I asked the young man what had happened. The empty lot was right beside us, and it was a sad pock. Nothing remained. Not even the foundation. It was just empty, the vision and memories gone up in smoke or scraped away on the bucket of a front-end loader. A shock of green Russian thistle was growing in gravel where the restaurant used to be. The Homestead had been the only place to eat in Paisley, where I always stopped when passing through on my frequent trips through the country. In winter, a large woodstove kept the dining room warm, the food was plentiful and good, and the company was always sincere and pleasant.
“You want the official story, or the real story?”
“Both,” I said.
“One of our local cowboys saw it first. About six in the morning. He was driving through town and saw smoke just billowing out from underneath. Just pouring out. Officially, it was a flue fire, but it was probably electrical. Started under the floor, not in the flue. It didn’t burn the whole building, just everything this side of the front door.”
“Where does everybody eat now?”
“Nowhere. It’s terrible.”
“Will they rebuild?”
“Nossir. They’re done.”
I knew this young man. I grew up with him. I was him, once. He pointed across Hwy 31 at an empty lot. “I want to build something right there,” he said, “where the old hotel was. Couple of rooms on the top floor, a little café on the bottom.” We stood staring at the grassy lot, watched a pickup drive by. I could see his vision. Inside and out. Frontierish. Six-guns, faro, and batwing doors. I could almost smell the whiskey and bacon. It was a beautiful dream.
“People would stop,” I said.
“I think so too.” He stood wistfully a minute longer. “Someday,” he said, and hung the nozzle back on the pump.
When Colin was finished capturing images we drove on. Outside of Paisley we passed the headquarters of the ZX and J Spear Ranches, and I was hoping to show Colin some cowboys at work, a rare enough sight — at least from the road — in the 21st century. And then, suddenly, there they were, driving cows across a sagebrush flat to the east. I slowed down. “Look at that,” I said. “They’ve got one stretched out, head and heels.” And so it was, cowboys in the early morning light, a golden cloud of lingering dust, and an old cow stretched out on the ground, taking her medicine.
We crossed the Chewaucan River on a flat, alkaline plain rimmed by one of the world’s largest fault blocks, where Kit Carson once rode through, scouting the country ahead for John C. Fremont and company. Only days before they had been stuck in deep snow after a fraught parley with Klamath Indians. Approaching the Klamath Marsh, the company had seen smoke from a village and fired the howitzer. There were two explosions: the cannon firing, the shell exploding. The smoke trails vanished. Fremont lined up the company, full abreast outside the village, and the headman and his wife, wearing a woven hat, walked cautiously out to meet them. A meeting was had, where the company bought woven mats and a dog using sign language. Fremont asked for help, for guidance through the woods, but the Klamaths were not so inclined. The Klamaths wore shells in their noses, hung smoked fish in their earth and willow lodges, and were at war with tribes in two directions. The company rode on from the village into the timber and snow, down from Winter Ridge, and into the desert. Kit Carson rode mostly alone, far out in front, studying the country, while the company lagged behind, dragging their goddamned howitzer across the desert.
2. The Adel Store
“Creating God in his own image, man considers himself above change, believing that natural laws are fine for the ground squirrel, but not him. He cannot accept the fact that all species are on their way somewhere and in transition into other forms, even he. He sits complacently, thinking that somehow God will overcome natural laws to provide for his most errant species.”
~Dayton O. Hyde, The Last Free Man
I was sitting in the Adel Store, directly beneath a convincing, full-throttle mount of a mountain lion sinking its teeth into a doe’s neck, enjoying a cup of excellent coffee, and listening to the insistent whines of a young girl whose harried mother was working the counter. They were having a bad day together. The little girl – maybe five years old — did not want to be at the store, and the mother had reached the limits of her patience. It was hot outside, and hot inside. Everything smelled like hot dust. Refilling my cup, she confided: “I’m leaving early to go cut hay. Can you believe I have to sit in the cab of a tractor with that monster for the rest of the day?”
The Monster was now crashing through a pile of pink plastic toys that had been crammed into a play area behind my chair, directly underneath the mountain lion and the doe. I was amused by the girl’s antics – we’ve all been there – but mostly I was intrigued by the collection of retired branding irons hanging over the bar.
At the bar, the business ends of the branding irons hang directly overhead, and if you had happened to be sitting there on July 23, 2019, you would have been watching The View on a flat screen television mounted to the far wall, beamed in from New York City. From the Adel Store, New York City twinkles vaguely, like some planet in the distant portions of the solar system. It’s easy to confuse with other planets, and most nights you can’t see it at all.
Fortunately, nobody was at the bar, and nobody was watching The View, but there it was anyway, soft pastels on a flat screen, vigorous and expansive opinions choked out by the mute button. From my table, the women on the screen looked like cartoon toads.
When the Kittredge family owned the MC Ranch, just down the road from Adel, the only phone for many, many miles was in the Adel Store. It was a hand-crank instrument.
Much farther south at Bruno’s Country Club — the farthest point of our expeditionary aims — was my own kind of Adel Store. They make a pair of desert bookends, these watering holes, like forts on a long trail. In the old days, before Burning Man cast its ugly spell over the south end of this big desert, there was a payphone at the back of Bruno’s, screwed into the wall behind the faded green felt of a miserable, uneven little pool table. Above the phone was the dusty mount of a flushing pheasant, and next to it a broken jukebox that hadn’t played a song in years. I’d get a five-dollar stack of quarters from Bruno, sit in a plastic chair and make my calls on a Sunday morning, hat on my knee. But only if I had some reason to be in town, which I mostly didn’t, and only if I wanted to talk to anybody back in the world. Which hardly seemed important.
Outside the Adel Store the gas pumps were out of order, perhaps forever, and the promise of the desert was a bright, palpable presence, a looming thing invisible beyond a canyon curve in the fresh sealcoat shimmer of Twentymile Road. Great armadas of pure white cloud were sailing through a sky running horizon to horizon. You could smell the desert, like the aroma of hot, clean linen, blown northward on the breeze.
While I enjoyed my coffee, Colin was outside making photographs. I could see him through the windows, beyond the glass display cases honoring the life of famous MC Ranch buckaroos, and an array of mule deer, bighorn, elk, and pronghorn mounts above the door. Inside, half a dozen old saddles hung from the ceiling. There was an impressive slick-fork rig directly above my table that someone had long ago ridden down to the tree. The bucking rolls were still screwed in. But outside in the hard sun, under the hood of his large-format camera, Colin looked like the ghost of Red Adair gearing up to fight an oil-well fire in the sands of Kuwait.
A buckaroo and his wife came in. Real cowboys don’t look at all like the cowboys on television, of course, and never have, but in Adel a man who wears his hat to town is all cattle and not much of a hat. The hats don’t long survive. The hats are demolished by sweat and weather. Old-timey buckaroos wear felt all summer, even in the heat and the dust, which is hard on even the best-made lids. There is sometimes a calico patchwork of cowshit and coagulant and bovine medicine stains on their shirts, buttoned to the top. When their shirtcuffs slide up, the exposed skin is shockingly pale against the dark, burned leather of their hands. Nobody wears a watch.
The buckaroo owed the store two hundred dollars, he said, that he wanted to pay off. And he wanted some beer to take out to his crew, who were working cows somewhere over the next ridge. He wasn’t in a hurry, but he also was. He looked outside and saw Colin. “What’s that guy doing out there?” he asked the mother behind the register. She didn’t know.
“He’s making photographs,” I said. He looked at me. Over his shoulder. Askance. Recognized a stranger. Said nothing.
I caught a glimpse of The Monster, streaking through a gap in the counter.
“Maybe I should run outside the front door and pull my shirt up,” his wife said, looking at me and emulating the Mardi Gras method. Everyone laughed. I thought, and I was right: this is what trouble looks like. Her energy lit up an entire corner of the store. I imagined their squabbles were of epic dimensions, their voices spilling out the windows and onto the quiet desert at night, silencing the coyotes.
Everyone laughed except Colin. He was outside, under the hood in building heat, studying the cant of light on the front façade of the Adel Store.
The Adel Store has been made at least regionally famous, mostly by Ian Tyson’s song “MC Horses”, and in the collective lore of buckaroo country. In the song, Tyson bemoans the breaking up and selling off of the MC Ranch. It is a kind of love ballad to all things buckaroo, but particularly the MC with its storied history, its legendary remuda of horses, and the once fine dream of buckarooing in the wild, mysterious, and wide open country of the northern Great Basin. I once had a horse in my string, on the 3 Dot Ranch in northeastern California, with an MC iron on its hide. That horse was a source of pride, and every day I rode him I dressed him up in my finest gear.
William Kittredge, whose family built the MC into the legend it became, and who eventually grew dissatisfied with the desert ranching life and became a writer and professor at the University of Montana, has written several fine books about his experiences growing up in the country. In Hole in the Sky, his masterful memoir, he writes:
An old man I knew only as John the Swede held down the line camp at Ackley Mountain from May to early November, riding to look after MC Ranch cows and calves scattered across a territory the size of Rhode Island. It was a good sign that he was nowhere to be found; he was out horseback and working. We stacked a few crates of assorted canned goods on the kitchen floor, and Dollarhide left him a laboriously written note.
John the Swede was famous in our world because of his trips to the Labor Day Rodeo in Lakeview. After four months at Ackley Camp, with no way to spend his money, the Swede would gear up with a full rig of new clothes, a barber shop bath and haircut and shave, and settle into a room in one of the half-dozen whorehouses out on the far side of the rodeo grounds, in a little village called Hollywood. After a week, the rodeo over, John would be ready to go back to the ringing silences on Ackley Mountain—fucked out, as they say, worn down by the booze and the talking, and broke.
In the old days, in those camps, a cowboy always had a calendar on the wall of his shack. He would mark off the days, one by one, so that anyone visiting or bringing supplies would know how long he’d been out. Too many days without an X could spell trouble. The desert circles were bigger in those days, and a buckaroo might be out for weeks at a time. In Duck Flat, Nevada, where I held down a camp stretching far into the rugged country of Wall Canyon, I never went more than three days between X’s. But when I came back in, my circle closed, and saw those blank days on the calendar, I filled in my X’s cleanly, with a sense of pride and gratitude that I’ve never fully realized since.
A cowboy I know of died out there, riding the big empty, on a calendar day without an X. His horse went down on a slick of rhyolite. The cowboys who went looking for him found his body when they started seeing dollar bills blowing across the desert, hung up in the brush, scudding over basalt on the wind. They followed the money in a zig-zag pattern, the way a dog follows a scent-cone. That cowboy didn’t trust humanity to leave his camp unmolested, and so he wore a moneybelt when he was out on his circle. He died quickly when his horse went down, his neck broken. The coyotes had ripped through his moneybelt to get at the soft tissue of his belly.
In the Adel Store, people come and go. An old man in biker regalia came in, sat down at the counter, ordered some coffee. He had a long beard and kept to himself. He asked the mother if the bathrooms were really out of order, like the signs said. She said, “No, they work, we just can’t have people stacked up to go in there. Causes some problems.” He left his coffee on the counter and shuffled off to the bathroom. I don’t know if he ever left, because I never saw him again.
When Colin was finished making photographs he came inside and we ordered breakfast. We didn’t need to eat, but it was a kind of ceremonial last meal, before disembarking for the invasion. The Navy still does that for Marines going ashore. They did it for my grandfather’s generation of jarheads at Bougainville and Iwo Jima. They did it for us in Kuwait. Steak and eggs, shipmate, all you can eat. We ate and I heard the frustrated young mother say she’d been cutting hay at night — it was much cooler that way — but tonight she had no one to sit for The Monster.
There had been a terrible rumor, passed around on the internet, that the Adel Store was due to close, eminently, which was one reason I wanted to stop in before we hit the big empty. I asked the mother if it was true that the store was closing. She answered in hushed tones. The brother of the owner was taking over, she said. It was a family thing. But the store was not closing — at least not soon.
Which made the breakfast far more palatable than it might otherwise have been. It was not a remarkable breakfast, eggs over medium and chalky diced potatoes, but we ate happily and talked about the light, the store, our route south toward the Sheldon Range and beyond to the High Rock country, where we hoped to make Stevens Camp before dark. “I hope there is nobody there,” I said, aware that even our remotest corners are filling up with yahoos. To wit: I once found an Old Milwaukee can tangled in the vines of a remote rainforest, on a remote island, in American Samoa.
The Monster continued to race around the store looking for trouble.
And then, like a scene from a Sam Shepard play, a man walked in. He was tall, thin, in late middle age, and he carried with him a cloud of profound dismay edging toward severe distaste. He had a pronounced and awkward gait, a kind of precarious, neck-swiveling flamingo-step that suggested he had suffered some serious injury and only years of agonizing rehabilitation had brought him even to this point. But there was also a suggestion, a vaguely fixed-and-stationary aura, that he had probably achieved peak ambulatory grace.
He approached the mother at the counter. “You mean to tell me there is no other gas for 100 miles?” he barked. He had obviously discovered the gas pumps, a monument to ruin.
“It’s 180 miles if they are out of gas in Denio,” she said calmly.
“Do they have it?”
“Last time I was there they did, but you never know.”
The man with the broken walk stood at the counter as if expecting a different answer, as if expecting reassurance, as if expecting the desert would suddenly shrink to his needs. His entire aspect changed in that instant, as if his profound and now public confidence in ease and convenience had suddenly fallen through a trapdoor in his solar plexus. As he was clearly a man of means, judging from his head-to-toe outfitting in an expensive, seasonally appropriate outdoor uniform from REI, I admit to some callous amusement in witnessing the event. The mother, likely used to this sort of thing, just smiled at him with a kind of knowing finesse. She was not a spreader of false hopes. She drove tractors at night, in the middle of the desert, while this guy was preening at Portland TEDTalks and just worried sick about the dangers of corn syrup and climate change. Her world was considerably more immediate and more difficult: a store to mind, a Monster child wreaking havoc among the lion and elk mounts, and somewhere out there a field of alfalfa waiting to be cut. The man then turned and made his weird bird-step toward the door, glaring at us on his mechanical passage like a Victorian schoolmaster, spectacles akimbo, as if perhaps Colin and me were responsible, in some tangential equation, for his very real dilemma in a very big desert.
Next Up: Part 3: Crossing Over, and Part 4: The Udairi Experience