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Through the Desert Mon Aug 22, 2005 11:29 am

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Joined: 22 Sep 2005
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 22, 2005 9:48 pm    Post subject: Through the Desert Mon Aug 22, 2005 11:29 am Reply with quote

Well, we have a lot to catch up on, so here it goes. Think of this as a preview of the what the book will be like—and then commit yourself to buying 1000 copies when it comes out.

Before I recall specific events and people, let me describe the setting. For an entire week we walked through the high desert. This is only different from the regular desert because the average elevation is over 4,000 ft and because of this it gets even colder at night than a regular desert. I can’t say for sure, but the temperatures dropped from the 90s or higher during the day to the 40s or lower at night. These temperature fluctuations follow a pretty particular pattern. The day gradually gets hotter until a couple hours before sunset, and then it gradually get lower through the night until just before sunrise. We would both usually wake up at about 5 a.m., shivering in our sleeping bags. Then when the alarm went off at six, we would ignore it and go back to sleep, because about that time it was starting to warm up, and it felt great to go back to sleep. This was the schedule of more than a couple of our mornings.

Okay. So the desert is hot and dry during the day and cold and dry at night. What about the human influence? Well, in the 200+ mile stretch from Vale, OR, to Bend, OR, there’s only one “city” of more than 50 or so people, and this is Burns. Burns was a great place—a grocery store, a radio station; even a McDonalds to provide me with the always delicious $1 sundaes. From Vale to Burns wasn’t that bad. We had to climb up and down quite a bit—over Drinkwater Pass and Stinkingwater Pass. Stinkingwater was much tougher. The places to stop in that stretch were small towns, usually with one gas station or restaurant (i.e. Harper, Juntura, Buchanan). However, the places from Burns on out could never qualify as towns. About every 30 or 40 miles there would be a gas station or cafe and the “town” would consist of the owners and maybe one or two other people. If the business closed down, so would the town. This was evident in Millican, which shriveled up into nothingness when its store owners moved to Hampton (the great place we stayed at Thursday night). Brothers, the place about halfway between Burns and Bend, actually had a thriving population of about 15, from what we could see. They even had a school, which as of the beginning of this school year had exactly one enrolled student. (We read an article about it later. Apparently the school needs at least 7 more students to remain open. I feel for the young boy who may have to find another way to learn and can no longer go to the one-room schoolhouse he’s grown up in.)

So that’s the setting, but what about the culture. Much of what we learned about the people came from our observations of and conversations with the people themselves. The owner of the gas station in Harper seemed to know everybody who came in. Apparently his gas station was the center of the town’s commerce and social life, so everyone who came through gave us a glimpse of what the town of Harper was like. The restaurants out here are great. At both Juntura and Hampton we stunned the waitresses by eating more than they thought we could.

It was pretty weird talking to the owner of the store in Hampton, because he was still a relatively young guy (under 30) and he had already started five different profitable businesses. Unfortunately, the area he ran these businesses in was not closely legislated by the authority set in place—basically, there were no cops. The county post was 63 miles away one way and the state post was 70 miles the other way, so obviously the officers didn’t want to spend a lot of time in a town of only 9 people. Because of this, the other inhabitants of the valley, angry that they could not dump their trash in the store anymore, began to make trouble. Within the first week, the front window had been shot out with a shotgun. When Mr. Murray, the owner, contacted the state police, his advice was to get a concealed weapon permit and take of the problem himself. He said something to the tune of “If there’s trouble, I want to get a call telling me how many body bags to bring. I don’t want a call for an ambulance.” No lie. That’s what he told us. We had no idea that things still happened like that in our country. Apparently some places are still isolated enough that vigilante justice still applies.

In the span of a week we came across three different groups of people who were making similar journeys, each equally fascinating. The first group was two skateboarders who were only weeks into their projected journey to Virginia. They had a sweet bus that served as their support vehicle, and it was driven by a friend of theirs who enjoyed the atmosphere of the trek, but not the sore muscles and seemingly endless days of riding on a skateboard. Matt and I considered the similarities and differences between their trip and ours, and without hesitation decided that they had it way easier. Just to see them coast down the mountain that we were pushing the stroller up was enough to tell us that. I’m sure there’s more risk of injury, especially going down some of those steep slopes, but they’ll always have that bus there to help them out.

The second cross-country journeyman we came across was a 65-year-old man who was biking from Florida to California to Washington to Maine and back to Florida again. The enthusiasm of this man was contagious. He was so vivacious that we couldn’t help but gather a little inspiration from his desire and courage, especially for a man of his age. He hadn’t been bit by the crazy journey bug until his 60th birthday, when he biked from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back unsupported. That trip was for the American Lung association. His present trip, which included his wife and son driving an RV along with him, was dedicated to his wife and niece, who both suffered from diabetes. His niece is still young and is already having her third major surgery, an all-too-common occurrence for someone who is born insulin dependant as she was. This man, a cancer survivor, was a great inspiration to both of us, and was possibly a glimpse into the future for us if we continue to listen to those nagging desires and goals that enter our minds. He already is planning a journey for his 70th birthday to support the American heart association.

The third person we met whom we could relate to was not at all like the first few. We saw he a long way off as we walked through the desert, and as we got closer we were able to discern a woman pulling a wagon that was overflowing with belongings. She had one glove on to protect her pulling hand, and her outfit seemed a bit warm for the desert. We tried to get her to stop and talk, but she continued on, avoiding us without saying a discernible word, only mumbling something to herself. We learned from other along the way that she was on her way to Texas, and it was quite possible that everything she owned was in that wagon. She was frequently seen talking to herself and shied away from most people. We must have frightened her, or maybe she just didn’t feel like talking, but we figured a fellow traveler, upon meeting someone else on foot in the desert dozens of miles from the nearest house would be a little interested. I know we were, but I guess she’ll always remain a mystery.

Now what everyone who didn’t hear the FB & HW show has been waiting for. I won’t go into too much detail, because it’s a pretty disturbing story, but I’ll at least give you enough to creep you out.

We stopped at a gas station in Buchanan after a long stretch of nothingness. Buchanan was made up of the gas station and two houses at an intersection. The owner of the gas station was a very nice elderly lady, who offered to let us camp in the lawn of an abandoned house she owned across the street. She told us that the only one who we might have a problem with was the man who manages her store and lives in a small house behind it, but she would tell him we had permission. We set up and watched a movie on the laptop before getting ready for bed. Matt was in the tent and I was packing up the stroller. We were aware of the man across the street because he had said something to me a while before, but I didn’t really take notice of him. He was standing on his front porch smoking a cigarette. I wanted to make a quick change before crawling into the tent, so I kept glancing over at the house to see if the man had gone inside yet. Oddly enough, it seemed that every time I looked over, the man was staring directly at me. I just went about my business, not really in a hurry, but still looking over every few minutes. One time when I looked over, it appeared that he had taken his shirt off, but I couldn’t tell for sure because he was standing in the shadow of his doorway. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it appeared that he was making some kind of sensual gestures while looking right at me. This creeped me out considerably, and when he struck up a conversation with me later, I was very wary and defensive. After I explained our story to him, he offered us showers and told us to tell him if we needed “any extra money.” Looking back on it now, he was definitely trying to solicit something. I can say this without a doubt because right before I crawled into the tent, after I grabbed our mace and knives (you can never be too careful), I glanced over at his house and he was standing in his doorway completely naked, staring at me.

That night I don’t think I slept for more than 10 minutes at a time before awaking with a jolt. I had the mace in one hand and my knife in the other, ready for anything. I prayed for safety, sleep, but most of all for God to repeat his destruction of Sodom by sending a little fire from heaven his way. That didn’t happen, but we made it through the night without any incident. It happened long enough ago that I’m able to joke about it now, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

Well, we have to get on the road now, so I’ll leave it at that. I’ve probably forgotten a few things, but I think that covers the main events. I think this is the longest post we’ve ever had, so enjoy.

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