Friday, October 29, 2010

The Dry State

It's late fall here in Central Oregon and I'm beginning to realise why they call it 'high desert prairie' out here. My lips are parched and cracked from the lack of moisture. On my first night here I drank seven pints of water in one hour, my throat utterly parched. You can feel it when you step outside, the air is dry and heavily loaded with the scent of pine and juniper. It smells like a carpenter's shop out here. The high desert plain stretches out in a giant rain shadow from the Cascade mountains. Everything is the colour of ash and sand and faded khaki. Only the Ponderosa Pine stands out with its dark green needles, and that specimen only really flourishes when one hits the mountains. Out here it is sagebrush and cheatgrass, hard bristly grass anchored to a sterile soil. Despite the tourist brochures, the high desert plain is far from lush.

But it does have a remote, spartan appeal. Like any other landscape it comes alive at sunrise and sunset and at night there's a great echoing mystery in the ink black void that begins at the back of the strip mall parking lot and recedes into the who-knows-where. So far I have been confined to the two towns of Redmond and Bend, barely venturing forth into the great yonder where wagons rattled the Oregon trail. I'm looking forward to the exploration. The furthest I have gone is on a short walk through a Redmond suburb and over a highway junction, towards a small bridged canyon. I had it in mind to walk downtown, but the lack of pavements and my fear of the roaring juggernauts stymied me. Halloween is almost here, and in the houses I passed plastic illuminated pumpkins dotted the fences and super-sized examples of the real thing leered out at me from the verandas and porches. Nearly every house has some sort of Halloween decoration outside it, no matter how modest. The houses in Redmond are of the wooden box construction, some no more than little shacks, some the size of small manor houses. All operate on the same simple principles of construction however - breeze-block and wood. They're warm enough inside, no matter how cold it gets out there, but they seem to weather fast. Some of the older examples of the small shack begin to warp and peel - income or motivation clearly insufficient for repairs. The windows are dark and dusty, shutters begin to fall away. Their disrepair has an awful, bleak grandeur and you can see how quickly failed towns are swallowed up by the desert, leaving their tourist-baiting ghostly shells in their wake.

Downtown in Bend things are different. Affluent and optimistic, the buildings may be box-like but this time they are built of stone and have fine flourishes of the art deco and Frank Lloyd Wright. Many of them are surprisingly attractive with a no-nonsense charm. Maple trees and birch line the streets and dot Drake Park, their leaves turning orange and lemon and slushing the sidewalks in the October fall. In Drake Park, on the banks of the Deschutes River, the green of the grass and the verdant foliage help you to forget about the vast desert prairie beyond. It's a little ecosystem twinned with the lusher, wetter climbs that are found West of the Cascades, the greater part of Oregon that is known as 'the rainy state'. Kids tirelessly kick through the leaves as their mothers sling out their DSLR's and enact surprisingly exacting photo-shoots. Another surprise was in seeing a herd of high-school students jog past me in tracksuits and shorts, grimly pushing the pain barrier in the chill air.

Perhaps they're in training for the day their air-conditioned four-wheel drive breaks down somewhere out there in the great desert, and they need to move fast.