Reflections of the Alvord in Tokyo
I press my hands into the walls of the car, pushing back against the mass of people to make a shelter of sorts for my children who have slumped against the corner, exhausted. Our timing, unfortunately, has brought us through Tokyo during the late afternoon when those who spent their day at work in the heart of town are headed home to the unending outlying areas. The girls look up at me through tired eyes, grateful for the breathing room in the crush of commuters as we head for my brother’s house. As our train comes above ground, we pass through a Ray Bradbury world. Buildings as far as I can see, shadows disappearing into the smog, endless humanity.
Enough people disembark at one of the stops that a seat becomes available, and my children leap to stack themselves into it, younger on older. Seasoned travelers, they have learned to look out for themselves whenever they can. No longer protecting my children from being trampled, I drift into thoughts of their experiences. Out the windows is one of the most populated places on earth, yet my mind floats back barely two weeks, to a place that is one of the least. Closer to home, and a world away from where we are now.
In this other place, I scramble for foot holds and pull my way up, scraping my knuckles, and I am greeted by the excitement and encouragement of my children. They are more adept at climbing boulders, and are far less concerned with falling, giving them a real head start. After I reach the top and realize I have come up reasonably unscathed, I turn and face the void. The moonlight washes the desert in pale white and illuminates the cottonwoods reaching above the willows on the creek bed just enough to make them look like some sort of gnarled arms and hands reaching up in a line, pushing up through the dimly lit boulders that scatter the hillside. I feel a part of my soul pulled into the great emptiness, while the giggles behind me keep me anchored to this great stone.
Gradually, the girls settle down, and we sit together, silent. Across the Alvord Desert, miles away on the far side, the hills rise up as shadows into the darkened sky. Night changes things here, makes them closer, more intimate. In daylight, the vast distances are more apparent. In all the empty miles you can see from our favorite campsite on Pike Creek, there is very little influence of man visible, even in daylight. True, there is the abandoned blue port-a-potty up the hill that someone brought here and left, probably chukkar hunters who used it for their stay with no intention of removing it. It has since become un-usable for its very over-use. The mountain of crap in the toilet is now higher than the seat, and the smell is just what you would imagine in those circumstances. The moon glows off its sides, a blue monolith growing from the side of the hill.
There are only a couple of ranch buildings that can be seen during the day, invisible at night. They are so very distant that the only way to spot them is looking for the deciduous trees that have been planted around them, a foreign patch of emerald green in this arid landscape later in the year. Now, at the vernal equinox, life is just returning, and the leaves are not developed enough to create a color easily spotted from miles distant. It is a vast, empty place, carpeted on the borders with sage, and later in the spring alive with sunflowers and the cheery golden faces of the balsamroot. The center of the valley reflects the moon in the thin layer of water that has stretched across the desert floor.
As we sit staring into the night, the dim light softening the starkness, a calm surrounds us. We hear only a light murmur from the creek, spring melt off which will run onto the cracked surface of the alkali flats below and disappear. We imagine the coyotes stalking jackrabbits, deer browsing, and owls hunting mice. We talk about the badger who visited our camp, and the naked wiccan nanny and her charges we talked with in the hot springs earlier.
The music of a distant coyote pack begins to float up the mountainside. I am always fascinated by the reaction people have to coyote song. My friend Murphy thinks they sound like demons. Next to me on the rock, the girls inch closer, much like in a theater during a scary part of a movie. Coyote’s cry is certainly nothing like the lone howl sound effect in the movies; more a mad rise and fall, random staccato notes. Shostakovich in canine, more Hollywood ghost or ghoul than a normal sound from nature. Coming from another being it would seem demented, but their song has always been a joyful one to me. A family of wild beings, announcing to the night that all is right in their world. This corner of Oregon holds more square miles than people, and for all its loneliness, this place reminds us so much of how we are alive.
As the crowd on the train thins, more seats have become open. My children call me back from my thoughts of open spaces to an available place next to them. I become their rest as they lean into me, happy and tired from the day’s adventures. The overfilled places of Tokyo, the frenetic input of signs in kanji, traffic, crowds, and conversations in a language we cannot understand. Also very alive, but in a way that causes one to lose track of one’s own self. An external living.
Alvord Desert and Steens area photo galleries on the site:
Alvord Desert and a Kiteboarder
Alvord Desert and Hot Springs
Daybreak over the Alvord Desert
Fields Station - Denio Road
Alvord Desert and Steens Area
Travel planning information for this area:
If you go: Alvord Desert