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Descriptions of Nowhere: Big Bend

The view from atop this bluff looking straight down into the viridian water, rocky bank fringed with foliage, is as rich as it gets out here. At the right time, fat black carp will swim near the surface, perusing the rocky outcropping for bits of carrion. Their lazy rhythmical undulations speak to a life of spiritual ease. They never doubt their situation, or their motivations.

Up here where the sun beats down on the neck and toasts the dirt and dry grass into a granular, dusty similarity, the infinitude of cerulean sky and ochre hills beckons onward and upward. But there’s nowhere to go. It’s all private property.

Across the river, steer browse and bellow, stomping slowly from brown patch of grass to browner patch of grass. What do they actually live on? Have they learned to extract nutrition from tiny seeds and bits of lichen?

With the exception of this small patch of dust, sage, cornflower, lupine, and juniper, It all belongs to someone else. Which is exceptionally painful since the little valleys and riparian groves invite exploration. It’s easy to imagine that they hold treasures—vistas and glades, stones and wildflowers, little brooks—to feed our cavernous souls.

The bend in the river though, that is ours to explore. There’s a ledge below the bluff, just a few feet above the surface. From there I cast and cast, breaking that mythical plane with my line, and imagining what swims underneath that the lure might catch the interest of. Nothing, it turns out.

Until one morning while the sun still casts a long mountain shadow over the water, I cast and retrieve in vain, until something catches it under there. A rock? A log? But then a tug, and another more violent, and then I pull back, and my line slips from the water, minus tackle. So I go back to camp, crack a beer, and sit and watch the hills fall under the sun, as it warms the dust and softens the crisp air. Make a fire. Make breakfast for the bleary family. Stare at the mountain until the details emerge then recede—a basalt cliff face about halfway up, the Ponderosa pines at the base which give way to juniper as it rises, then sage and grass alone, then just grass and rubble. But way at the top another stand of pines crown the peak. Details recede until the hill is nothing but brown mass cut against that cerulean sky. Then the they emerge again, and it continues like this until the calls of the mourning doves draws my attention.

It’s only because they come from the trees across the river, and I can’t locate them, that my eyes are drawn into the stand. A sparse forest goes deeper than eyes can penetrate, and I can imagine it hides all sorts of creatures besides doves. One swoops from behind me, from across the Kimberly–Monument highway and comes to land in a tree across the river. It takes up cooing with rest.

The sun is high in the sky, must be nearing 10 o’clock, crack another beer and sit back down. Don’t even wonder how the rest of the family is so occupied here that I have the luxury of repose.

Truck pulls up by the outhouse bearing the emblem of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. A ranger? Have we paid?

A man gets out, goes to the back and unreels a hose from the bed of the truck. Unleashes a torrent of water into the plastic toilet building, washing away the ferocious stains of previous visitors. Leaving my beer in the cupholder of my ancient canvas seat, I stroll up the hill through the field of blue cornflower to ask him some questions.

I’d never encountered such a fastidiously clean outdoor toilet. He tells me the recipe: some parts bleach to other parts water, pushed through a high-pressure hose. Yes, the land all around is private property. The river was so low last year, you could walk through the deepest part, which is now a pool maybe 15 feet deep, hence the lack of fish. He has to come down through the campsites anyway and clean them all up, and we can talk more then.

So I head back down to my post and sit, sipping my beer and staring at the hill in front of me, occasionally casting a glance in his direction as he works his way through the other campgrounds, picking up the very occasional piece of refuse left behind, inspecting the fire pits. Eventually he pulls up to our spot, the last of the five in the campground.

We’re sitting by the fire ring, the little one off to the side building a faerie house or something.

“Oh this is such a great spot,” he starts in. And I know it is the best spot in the campground, and it’s easy to get because we’re really out in nowhere special and close to nothing, county population of well under 1500 cowboys and cowgirls, a few mechanics, federal and state employees like this guy, and a stark handful of dreamers and drifters with spartan cultural needs who can’t be bothered to compete for space. It’s truly inspiring.

And I stare off at that hill whose exact slope is still etched in my mind, the way it cuts across the clear desert sky as Chip the facilities maintenance guy tells us about getting this job, about how “a tough day at the office” might involve a rainstorm, or an extra dirty toilet, but he considers himself among the luckiest people alive because his four walls enclose the infinitude of space and he gets to meet great people like us out on the road. He drives a lot because he’s based at the Prineville reservoir, which he wants us to know is some of the greatest fishing around, and apparently quite beautiful as well. We should think about going there. I’ve been and I know the trout are large and plentiful.

And now Chip turns his attention to our campsite, which we have kept fastidiously clean. But someone broke the fire ring—Oh no. It was me. As far as I’m concerned, I’d fixed it. When we arrived it was filled with ash and trash, and the bottom was filled with 3 inches of concrete. It was impossible to start a fire in the thing. So I pulled it up, which was easy to do since the stakes that normally affix it to the ground no longer were, dumped and raked out the ash, pulled out the trash, and bashed through the concrete with a rock. Then I set it up on some rocks so that the fire could draw air from below. I didn’t mention a word of this to Chip, and I couldn’t tell if he knew.Big Bend campground Oregon fire pit

“Well I’m gonna have to fix this,” he says. And goes off on a little tear about people vandalizing the parks.

So Chip goes to his truck and rummages around for a bit, looking for the right tools I imagine. Then he starts talking music.

“What kind of music do you guys like?”

And we think and fidget and name some bands we like, things we’ve been listening to lately, and Chip asks us if we want to listen to some music. Uh, hmmm, kind of enjoying the song of the mourning doves. No matter, Chip has already opened the doors of his truck and turned up the stereo.

This is his favorite band. They’re called Rammstein. Have we heard of Rammstein? Yeah, we’ve heard of Rammstein. They’re brilliant, Chip says. He saw them play in Germany, and Chicago, and he’s followed them around but he hasn’t seen them at some of his favorite venues. And then he tells us that one of the best things about Rammstein is the lyrics and the stories they tell in the lyrics. Very dark stuff, as he explains. Fortunately for the ears of our newly five year old daughter, who is beginning to take an increasing interest in this animated and red-faced young man, the lyrics are mostly in German.

Chip is getting into his work of “fixing” the camp fire pit now. He takes off his BLM vest and lays it over the edge of the pickup bed. As he unbuttons his cuffs and rolls up his sleeves, he starts into the biographies of the members of Rammstein, the details of which escape me, because I wasn’t really paying much attention to what he was saying at this point. I was instead watching his every move, while casually sipping my beer. I didn’t yet know whether to be entertained, or terrified.

Now as we sit in our camp chairs around the fire pit, Chip comes over with his shovel and begins digging the ash and partially burnt wood from it. He leans the shovel against the single juniper tree that shades the site and begins explaining how the lyrics of Rammstein songs can often be traced to actual life events of the founding members of Rammstein. However, it was important to understand that although the songwriter may be inspired to write a song about necrophilia by a person who caused him emotional pain, the violence and degradation that he wrote about was often ironic, or even self-directed. Rammstein is often misunderstood by its critics.

And as Chip is telling us this story he’s digging the rocks out from under the pit, the rocks that I so carefully placed there to allow the fire to breathe. It had burned so nicely. The little smoke it generated mostly went straight up into the sky.

Now Chip lifts the ring from the ground, heaving and sweating by now. And he’s getting a little frustrated, since the lengths of steel rebar that once, long ago, held the fire ring to the ground, have been ripped out entirely. I did not do this. But I could see why he might think that the very same person who smashed the concrete out of the bottom of the thing also ripped it from its foundation. I sip my beer. Wife nods her head, slightly agape. The child stares up from her important work of providing shelter and entertainment for high desert faeries.

Big Bend Oregon fairy house

Turns out that the lead singer of Rammstein is not only a pyrotechnician himself, but also a masochist. Now Chip has the sledgehammer, and he’s trying in vain to smash the pins back into the dusty, volcanic ground. It seems clear to me that the ground is impenetrable here, and that’s why they filled the bottom of the ring with concrete, to make it too heavy to move. Eventually Chip comes to this conclusion too.

So now all there is to do is to put the fire ring down, and dig some dirt in around the base. And as Chip goes about the task, he starts recounting the story told by one Rammstein song. Perhaps it’s a domestic dispute. It definitely involved a romantic relationship. Here I should mention that up to this point, although the topics have been somewhat adult, the language has been tame. But now Chip is getting excited about this, his favorite song by his favorite band, the one that turned him onto the brilliance of the six men from East Germany.

There’s something about heartbreak, death, then dismemberment, and—I wouldn’t want to be quoted on this but it follows that—“and then he brutally penetrates…” as Chip spreads his arms and sort of thrusts his hips a bit.

“Okay Chip, that’s enough—we get the picture,” we say together, as my wife waves her hands in the air, making the shut-the-fuck-up face, and I start to actually get out of my seat.

Fortunately, Chip recovers himself. He looks down at the child stacking cornflowers atop juniper boughs for a brief second with a genuinely warm smile, and leans on his shovel.

“Well, that looks great. I’m just about done for the day. It’s about seventy miles to Prineville and I have one more place to stop. If you want to go fishing you should really check out the reservoir. It’s just beautiful high desert and there’s a really nice campground.”

“Thanks for the tip, Chip. I think we’re thinking of staying here for the next couple of days but we’ll check it out sometime.”

Big Smile: “Just so you know, there’s a burn ban as of midnight tonight. I just stapled a notice up at the entrance.”

We look at each other as Chip drives off. Just to make sure I heard right, I walk over to the bulletin board at the entrance. There it is: “Burn Ban in Effect.”

I kick my way back to my chair, pick up my beer and drain it.

“Well that was crazy.”

“What a weird dude.”

“Mommy, look at the faerie house I made.”

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