It would be generous to call this a road; it’s a path with two grooves that rarely seem to match up with the tires on my beat-up pickup truck. This rocky jeep trail is at least 30 miles from a paved road, 100 miles from a state highway and a hard day’s drive from the interstate. This is already a hard day’s drive; I’m riding the brake, two hands on the wheel, windows down, straining for the best view of this so-called road.
The high desert of southern Oregon isn’t a flat plain but a series of rolling hills that mark the northern extent of the Basin and Range, the great western desert. I’ve been bombing around out here for three hot, dusty months, each day experiencing something different. One hop west is the dry side of the Cascade Mountains. Another skip south and east, the Basin and Range desert, a fault block geology similar in look to a fleet of ships without water. A long jump north is the footsteps of the Columbia River plateau.
I allow myself the guilty pleasure of pretending like I am the only person to have stumbled through here since the guy who drew my topographic map, which is dated sometime in the forties. Along the paved state highway, Oregon 31, the view is breathtaking, winding over a series of raised fault blocks into valleys containing alkaline, dry lake beds. Winter Rim, Summer Lake, and Christmas Valley are places named for peculiar weather patterns and water availability observed by explorers. These landmarks offer a stark contrast between desert sagebrush, ponderosa pine forest, and alfalfa pastures. Along the edges of Winter Rim, a series of terraces mark the receding levels of an ancient ocean. Near the northern edge of Christmas Valley, there stand monuments to the forces of nature. Fort Rock, a volcano erupted while the ocean still covered this basin, and Devil’s Garden, a mass of lava, oozed from the earth and spread out over the landscape.
After a long day bouncing along a so-called rock path, I round a ridge into a long narrow valley; it’s more like a bowl with rising hills blocking the view in all directions. Scrubby vegetation of sage and rabbitbrush blends and melts in with the bright afternoon sun. It’s too bright to see many colors and I almost miss him. A white mustang, the most magnificent horse I have ever seen, is standing off at the edge of the bowl.
He has seen me, probably heard me coming for hours, and is looking right at me. The sun shining through his mane and coat make him look almost yellow. I slam the truck to a stop. A second or a year ticks by while we stare at each other in amazement. He nods his head up and down, shaking out his mane, and then looks at me. I am not sure what to do. I punch the gas pedal, lurching the truck forward, and again quickly stopping. The mustang bobs his head and turns a circle. I have stumbled into his territory, and we must see which one of us is graceful enough to keep it. I am unknowingly answering the challenge of the wild horse. This mustang is strutting, showing off, and pressing his superiority, in defense of his territory.
We are having a dance-off, and while this comparison to dressage and horsemanship will make any accomplished rider cringe, I am awestruck. I make the truck lurch forward again turning the wheel violently, rocking the truck from side to side. The mustang turns once to the right, then once to the left, drawing out a figure eight, spraying his mane and tail so they catch can the sun. He stops and looks at me again, as if taunting me, ‘Show me what you got!’ I throw the truck in reverse, lurch backward, then forward, but I am quickly running out of ideas. My beat-up Dodge is no match for him. He races out ahead of me, running at a full gallop, whips around to face me, throwing his mane into the wind. I drive into an open, flat spot, and gun the engine, making the tires kick dirt high into the air. He rears up on his hind legs, claiming his victory. I have nothing left. I cannot top this.
One of us is going to have to leave, no doubt me with my tail between my legs. I put the truck in first gear and slowly head out of the valley, trying to make the truck look defeated. Once out of sight, I can barely contain myself. I get out of the truck and do a little dance of my own, looking back first to make sure he can’t see me.