Oregon’s thousands of acres of vast evergreen forest remain refreshingly untamed
Oregon is on fire. When we cross into the state from the southwest border beneath Steens Mountain, technically, we are the first vehicle to respond. We pass by the iconic American character, Smokey the Bear, pointing at us and holding an “EXTREME” danger sign. I remember him from my childhood but thought he had retired long ago — turns out in the wake of climate change he was just needed more in Western America. We are 200 meters away but try to drive closer to the fire so we can get a better photograph — anything for that perfect shot — until we realize we are being followed. Drifting with trepidation, we make steady eye contact with our pursuer who is seemingly stalking us as oncoming fire trucks catch up, then he breaks the silence, “So, how close to this thing do you think we can get before we get into trouble?” Later that evening we all parked under a lone radio tower and watched firefighters burn the peak of Steens Mountain.
The next morning our new friend leads us into Fields, the local town, and its all-in-one market, gas station and diner. I immediately notice the Kombucha on tap, a healthy fermented tea drink that is sweeping the state’s alternative culture by storm, juxtaposed to the preservative-laden “elk” summer sausages. I always come back to this imagery whenever I am asked to describe the identity of Oregon: progressive woods people. As we sit to eat, my partner Rob asks the server, a husky teenage lad with a handicapped left arm, if he could have a refill of coffee and the kid is quick to reply, “Sure you can, but you gotta take the pot and fill up everyone else’s cup!” Rob blushes in compliance while I enjoy the Oregonian quirks.
Oregon is a drug and its city of Bend is known as the gateway for recreational outdoor addicts. Within the city-limits is a sweeping panorama of numerous white tops, ranging from the Three Sisters to Mt. Jefferson. I have heard of elite powder chasers rushing to train at Mt. Bachelor, of kids spooking themselves in the confines of lava tubes, of runners and cyclists racing each other up filthy trails, and have been personally dared by the boulders at Smith Rock to put my sweaty palms on them. Twitching about what to do, Rob and I attempt to gather ourselves over coffee at Palate Cafe, but instead find ourselves in a spatial lapse among the owner and a newly-engaged couple we knew from across the country who are also wandering. Full from a day of socializing, we drive 15 minutes out of Bend and into the Deschutes National Forest for a secluded night’s sleep.
Morning comes and we decide to shoot down to Crater Lake National Park, one of the “Seven Wonders of Oregon,” and the most beautiful place in the Pacific Northwest. At its sight I delay, like Stendhal syndrome I feel myself getting anxious and disoriented by this lake too beautiful to be near. About 8,000 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted and formed a cauldron around itself, which it now feeds with rain and snow to become one of the deepest and cleanest bodies of water in the world. However, to look into the pristine blue of Crater Lake is to “risk death and lasting sorrow,” according to the Klamath Native Americans. It is fabled that pilots have forgotten themselves over Crater Lake and will fall from the sky only to have their bones found years later. Then, there is the mystery of the photographer who traveled 20 kilometers in two meters of snow without equipment and disappeared with his clothes laid undisturbed on a log with only his tibia and below found in his boots. Knowing this does not deter me from daydreaming about swimming across the lake to Wizard Island, which still haunts me today.
The park ranger at Crater Lake gives us directions to a lucrative natural hot springs in the Umpqua forest, a rare one that has yet to be privatized. After weaving through forest service roads we roll into a crowd of drugs shared by kids and elderly alike. A peppy, long-haired shirtless boy walks up to our car and welcomes us to join their van crew to smoke weed with them, but he is bewildered by our decline. He doesn’t understand, “But, it’s okay because you’re in Oregon?” I have also wondered where those from the hippie era and their offspring have gone and it appears to me now that they moved here with Smokey. Already doing a terrible job at fitting in, we note that everybody is either nude or getting there, so I glance over to Rob and pull my shirt off and shrug, “Well, I haven’t worn a bra in months so it’s only one step further.”
On a steep rock there are several pools of steaming mineral water flowing one after the other and leading into the freezing rapids of North Umpqua River. We share a pool with a timid young man and he tells us that his family has been camping at the hot springs for a couple of weeks since they lost their home. There are a lot of small homeless communities, tent cities or hobo camps that band together for whatever reason, but survive because of the moderate weather and shelter that the wilderness harbors. He points out that the older woman running to and from the pools has lived here for almost a year proclaiming that the water maintains her health and youth. I analyze the skin around her breasts to seek for any truth behind that statement.
We ride to the coast through the Rogue-Umpqua wilderness which passes us off to the Siskiyou forest, creating a nearly uninterrupted path of verdant Douglas firs and Jurassic ferns. The antithesis of its cardinal East side, Western Oregon is a lush temperate rain forest where pastel moss drapes every tree. The increasing moisture hinted in the air tells us we are getting closer until we reach Port Orford, the westernmost settlement on the Lower 48. Edging the coastline of Cape Blanco, I tug my jacket tighter to protect against the looming gray and harsh wind. When I am finally standing on the ledge I begin to cry. The feral waves crashing into the large jagged rocks make me sad for all the times that I have never been here. The twisted driftwood and tangled kelp remind me of my own unkempt hair. Rob holds me and suggests that we can camp on the beach for awhile and I agree to it knowing that in Oregon we all live with but can not keep our wild.
Bio: To read more about Chelsea and Rob’s off-road adventures on the Trans America Trail, visit www.arrowswest.com. They currently live in Eugene, Oregon and welcome any traveler to stay over for coffee.
IMAGES BY ROB MCNAMEE