Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Dark and silent, late last night, I think I might have heard the highway calling, geese in flight..."

In Oregon’s Rogue Valley, the first sign of fall is golden light. One night, as you sit on your porch, the light is bright, yellow, summery on the crisp, dry hills. The next, it’s liquid gold, honey poured on the slopes that now seem to glow from within. This has nothing to do with temperature or the date on man’s calendar. It’s nature whispering, “Get ready. It’s almost time to harvest then rest.”

I’ve always wondered what tells animals to migrate, makes them look at each other one day and say, “Let’s go.” Maybe one of you can tell me, but my best guess right now is the light.

The golden light came early this year, in the first week of August. I’d been noticing the Canada geese, more than the usual resident flocks, for about a week. And it was the signal for me, too, to pack up and head home.

As I drove on the first afternoon and evening, every time I passed standing water or green fields, there they were - the geese. We parted ways when I hit the interstate, but I wish you happy journey, traveling companions.

I can’t possibly do justice to the beauty of the Oregon and Nevada high desert as I drove east and south into the night. From just past Lakeview to Denio I saw just five other cars, none of them in my lane. I lost light after Denio; normally that wouldn’t faze me but the road passed through open range and prime elk habitat. I was hesitant to proceed at my usual driving speed because I prefer to see the giant hairy beasts ahead of time. As it was, during one twenty-mile stretch I felt like I was in the old video game “Frogger” as numerous jackrabbits (I stopped counting at 15) shot across the two lanes.

So I’m just going to write a few impressions.

  • No matter how hot it is, you need to let the air in or you’ll miss the smells. The air was heavy with silvery sage, which mingled with the bunch of fresh lavender I cut right before I left the house. Then, as I rounded one corner, I was hit with the sweetest aroma of fresh-cut green hay.

  • When I drove through in June, the land still had a blush of green. Now that blush has aged to silver. I never knew that drought had different colors in different biomes.

  • You might forget that the mountain beauty we enjoy is the result of powerful natural forces, but you’ll remember when you round a corner in the green forest and see a big swath of black volcanic tumble from the land’s formation.

  • Even when there is no hope of rain, the mountains always draw clouds at sunset. Sometimes rain falls in wispy curtains at the higher elevations, never reaching the ground. I saw a small, steel gray cloud formation, but the setting sun painted the curtain rain a vivid pink. Stunning.

  • The drive westward down Doherty Rim is beautiful and might frighten some. The drive eastward and up, when you are on the outside and there are no guard rails whatsoever, is just terrifying. Period. That’s a shame. I so wanted to take my eyes off the road but if I had I would not be writing this tonight. Scariest two miles in America, I think.

  • Wild burros do not hesitate to graze right up to the edge of the road. A ripe burro corpse is not pretty.

  • The streams that were giddy in early June, tumbling the snow melt down the mountains, are now summer slow and languid and low. Giant boulders, invisible in spring, sit exposed and warm in the sun.

  • I will be forever grateful for the experience of driving through a canyon with the sun directly behind me, shining my way through, lighting the stream a brilliant blue in the foreground and torching the aspens bright green as I passed.

  • And, finally, if you find yourself alone in the high desert on a clear mountain night, no one near, no lights anywhere, no sounds to be heard, promise me you’ll pull over and stop your car. Turn off the lights. Get out. Lie back on the warm hood and stare up at stars. You’ll never use the word “awesome” lightly again.

The lyrics in the title are, of course, by James Taylor. The photo is by me, taken from the top of Doherty Rim just after I'd driven up the Death Cliff.

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