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Descriptions of Nowhere: Warner Valley to Hart Mountain

And the sublime comes down/To the spirit itself

-Wallace Stevens, “The American Sublime”

Our god is ephemeral. A god of the senses: To the sensual does our god belong. Though our god has largely been routed from the grand and magnificent, it now satisfies us from places discreet, charming—overlooked little pockets of verdure. But if we worshipped the same sensual god, and prolonged abrasion by the box-and-grid had squared the curves and irregularities of your once-voluptuous soul, I’d take you to a time and place of magnificence, where we might still find something to venerate.

Some June day after a good wet winter (so not this year) we’d head south and east toward the town of Lakeview whose lake is rarely in view. We’d then head east on Route 140, along which we’d soon encounter Deep Creek crashing along down a canyon to our south, disappearing down the occasional rapid or waterfall shrouded by juniper and rushes. When we reached the outpost of Adel we could probably still stop and have a burger and a beer at the gas station/general store. Romantically, and you might feel that nothing really romantic could ever transpire in this dusty gas station parking lot, Adel is named either for the sweetheart of the first postmaster, or for a cow named Leda, who was apparently a very bad cow. After paying and perusing the rack of postcards and outdoor adventure novels written by locals, we’d head north on the Plush–Adel highway.

Here’s where the drama begins, because though we’d begin in barren dust country with tumbleweeds blowing across sagebrush and incongruous plots of center-pivot irrigated alfalfa, the highway soon coasts along a vast lake, and the exposed earth is suddenly lush with vast fields of grasses and cattails and reeds, eventually giving way to smooth pastures. To the west, a steep wall of basalt rises to a point above our sight. The road undulates like an immense black ribbon fluttering in the breeze, and with each crest Crump Lake spreads before us like a parallel sky, impressing the immensity of the liquid expanse on our hot and thirsty minds. Together and without words, we’d imagine gliding below the surface and quenching the unquenchable thirst always lurking beneath the limen.

We won’t see it but, where the valley constricts to a mere five miles in breadth, a causeway runs under the water, built by a dying crew of soldiers back when this was still a war zone. The Stone Bridge, as they grandiosely refer to this trail of rock, has slowly sunk into the muck over the decades, and is now visible only when drought sucks the muck dry.

We’d slow down heading through Plush, the center of civilization here, and check the supplies. There’s a little store with things like frozen peas, vienna sausages, and tackle. There’s a slightly overgrown little park with an old iron gate and camping spots. Even though the grass is brown and the fence is covered in shrubs, someone takes care of it. It looks like a cozy refuge from the wildness all around, a place to duck under the shade of a tree and hide from the bewildering sky, but we won’t stop unless we run into a group of Paiute cowboys moving an interminable herd along the road.

Plush is funny name for this place, but it’s the navel of this valley, right next to the deepest and most consistent water body around: Hart Lake. Although the grass and reeds and willows grow dense as a carpet, the origin has nothing to do with a velvety thickness but is instead named after a Paiute man’s mispronunciation of his poker hand—he had a “flush.” But he soon realized he was being cheated by the dealer. Perhaps a commotion broke out, perhaps everyone was drunk and they stood up quickly to draw on one another, knocking over chairs in the process. Maybe they were playing in plein aire, or on a wood planked porch under the shade of the roof overhang. The details have been lost in the distance of history. Somehow though, the Paiute man came to be called Plush, and somehow, despite the history of violent conflict between natives and settlers here, he was locally popular, and for some reason they named the place after Plush the Indian.

The ancestors of Plush the Indian worshipped a god much like ours, and were loathe to surrender this verdant valley to the settlers who tried to establish ranches here beginning in the mid nineteenth century and periodic massacres kept the agriculturalists at bay. But to ensure the envelopment of this remote corner into the Empire, the US Army dispatched the occasional company of soldiers into the area, eventually establishing Camp Warner. Before then, in 1864, Quartermaster General Charles Stewart Drew decamped here with his men on their return to Fort Klamath from reconnoitering the Great Basin between there and Forth Boise.

Honey Creek runs through the north end of Plush, bringing water to Hart Lake year after year, so we might imagine its name came about as a metaphorical stream of milk and honey, the lifeblood of the basin. And the truth is both more prosaic and more magical than windy literary analogies. The banks of the creek down here in the canyon and lake were (and probably still are) lined with willow trees, and Drew’s soldiers noticed a shiny dry substance on the leaves of the willows that could be flaked off in pieces “as big as a quarter.” It was sweet as honey, and they called it “honey dew” (as we still do). And I don’t want to presuppose their level of sophistication, because to me the dusty eucharists from the cracked and dried and medicinal hands of old men in robes cannot compete with such a miraculous desert treat, but I know precisely where it’s from. Real manna from heaven is deposited on the leaves of plants as they are fed upon by aphids and psyllids. When they pierce the leaves to feed, the capillary pressure forces the plant’s sap right through the insect, which collects on the surface and dries to a shiny crust in the sun.

The fisherwoman and attorney Madelynne Diness Sheehan tells us that Honey Creek has excellent redband fishing down in the canyon to our west, but that it’s infested with rattlesnakes. Someday we’ll come back better equipped, but today we need to head up.

So we’d continue on to turn east over a causeway between two lakes, Hart Lake lapping rippling waves onto a sandy beach to our south, Campbell lake hidden behind a flush of greenery to our left, and head directly toward the immense rock wall rising 3600 feet from the valley floor—Hart Mountain. As we approached the base of this behemoth slab of basalt, Over the sound of the wind rushing in the windows as we fly down this straightaway, I’d explain to you the geologic forces responsible for fault block topography.

Basically, as the tectonic plates drift apart, cracks open in the earth, and the rock on one side, and it’s a um, what do you call it?… monolith…like it’s all the same…is pushed up by volcanic uplift, while the other side subsides due to the earthquakes. Someday, maybe another big earthquake will change everything. New cracks might open up, the water might drain out of the lakes, who knows? We’re gonna go right up the side of this thing.”

Then we’d head north along the base of the rock before hitting gravel for a few miles, then up, steeply. About a quarter of the way to the top, a little parking lot on the right is marked “Warner Valley Overlook.”

From here, on this hot and dry precipice of crumbling basalt scree barely held together by sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and dried balsamorhiza, the climax of this desert drama unfolds. Five hundred feet below, worlds of blue and green fill this valley from north to south as far as we can see. Like gargantuan agates cut through and polished smooth as glass, desert gives way to bands of emerald green with vast and peaceful cerulean centers. How can this be? How can this harsh land of scurrying lizards and venomous snakes and yelping coyotes harbor such a profligate flourish? It’s the blossom of the rock, nourished by sun and fed by tenuous tendrils from raincatcher mountains. Deep creek and Honey creek direct mountain springs and snowmelt to the bowl of the valley, enhanced by eruptions of hot mineraline water from the seething rock below. Meanwhile, Twentymile Creek was long ago partially estranged from the basin, dammed (damned) by the Bureau of Reclamation into irrigation ditches and the Greaser Reservoir.

Winter snowmelt pours from the Warner mountains to fill Hart and Pelican lakes first, then Crump, Anderson, Swamp, Upper and Lower Campbell, Stone Coral and Turpin, each lake swelling until it spills through little channels and wetlands (a course once known as the Plant River) into the next, all the way to Bluejoint lake, so named for the bluejoint grass that encircles it, then they recede through the summer as the thirsty desert air sucks the moisture into the atmosphere. Some years they don’t fill at all, remaining dry accents of desolation. And some decade, perhaps not too far in the distant future, they will disappear in the opposite order. First the shallow lakes to the north will cease to fill, then the magnificent Campbell and Hart lakes won’t fill for a few years, perhaps getting a soaking one or two years, eventually petering out altogether. This will be caused by agriculture and climate change, and our bodies will starve our spirits.

So let’s walk to the edge of this precipice; there’s no need to be afraid since we really have nothing to lose anyway, though if we survive we might live. As the loose pebbles slide out from under our feet and clatter down the rock face, cup your hand to your ear. Do you hear that? Nothing but the roar of silence, and somehow the circling of a turkey vulture, or a raven playing in the updrafts exclaim that silence. And from here, with nothing in the foreground but empty space (the empty spirit, in vacant space), the immense sublime fills our lungs so deeply that our atrophied chests ache with the effort, yet we inhale entire winds.

The clarity of the air transmits light from land with surreal (hyperreal?) crispness. The sun glints from infinite ripples across the valley floor. The knowledge that these 25,000 acres of water are just ephemeral puddles, scrappy remnants of a lake so deep its color would have intoxicated us into falling in from this pleistocene cliffside, does nothing to temper our captivation. We are transfixed, and as the deafening contrasts of parched and drenched, minuscule and mountainous, awful and beautiful accumulate in our consciousness we begin to falter, nearly bursting from the osmotic imbalance. The scars of our long ordeal of planing and sanding have stiffened us so much it hurts to let this wave in, and our putridity out. Like the Warner Valley below us, we are spiritually endorheic, enclosed, but over time this experience will evaporate, leaving us with fragile crystals of memory that will themselves eventually erode to dust.

Temporarily sated, reeling and stumbling, you’re ready to go. But I’ve been here before, and made the mistake of leaving too soon. Like a salty residue, the yearning to return stung nearly as sharply as memories of old transgressions and fresh missteps that wake me in the depth of nearly every night. Our ravaged souls won’t be restored in an hour or a day, or even a week. It’s not just a vacation, but a journey—a temptation to which we must succumb completely.

So let’s go up on top of the mountain to a little meadow where a deep pothole in the rock—created (they say) by a rancher with a stick of dynamite—burbles up hot water. Let’s soak tonight and take in the stars and tomorrow we’ll find the little creeks running down couloirs and ravines from the mountainside. Under cascades we’ll find the pools where redband hide. I’ll show you how we do communion, like catholics whose cathedral ceiling is the big sky, whose icons are little seeps from the rock framed by precious penstemon and lomatium, and whose ephemeral god fades with every passing year. What we call a sacrament was once just a meal.

This place isn’t here every day and maybe next year it won’t come at all. Someday it won’t come back, having been sacrificed for our bodies’ needs and wants. As our god leaves us, we’ll chase every illusory little eddy and wisp and vapor trail until disenchantment imprisons us again. So let’s stay as long as we can, filling ourselves with awe until our souls stretch at the scars and return to a more organic shape, defined by curves like those hills over there and craggy depressions like these alder-shaded ravines, prickly like the ends of these juniper branches. It’s hot out here, but inside we’re cooling down.

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