Earlier this summer, I attended the USGS Open House for two reasons: there is a lot of interesting stuff to see, and I wanted to network with the geologists and see what sort of opportunities would be available to a software engineer like me. I ended up meeting with several of the geologists over a two week period. I found their work fascinating, and I saw many areas in which I could contribute. Plus, a 15-minute walk to work would make for an ideal commute! Since there weren't any requisitions for someone with my skills, I submitted a proposal.
But I never heard back.
However, one of the geologists with whom I spoke forwarded to me a request for volunteers to participate in a GPS survey they perform every four to five years. And I volunteered. Maybe I might learn something. For sure, I'd get to see a bit of our country.
So here I am, sitting in a hotel room in the McDermitt Motel in McDermitt, NV, only a day after finishing second in the last race of the Rolex Big Boat Series racing on Bullet.
I hit the road this morning not quite so early as I intended, but it was early enough. I emerged, unscathed, from the Bay Area in the reverse commute. Through Sacramento, over the Sierras blanketed with Ponderosa pine, and past Donner Lake I went. Once I got past Reno, the hills got browner and the radio stations died out like the shrubbery.
Except for three religious stations.
So I listened for awhile. I heard this:
The differences between Christianity and Islam are insurmountable and irreconcilable so the only solution is for Muslims to accept Jesus Christ as their savior.
Actually, I can think of another solution. As I was listening, I saw this billboard: Jesus Lives.
When the radio's scan button happened across a country station, I was ecstatic. There was even an ad for eharmony.com. I was truly saved. And I don't even like country.
I continued past Winnemucca, NV and turned north up 95 past the tall hills, through the wide valleys where dust devils threw up funnels of dust and garbage alongside the road, until I reached the state's border where I paused for the night.
As the sun rises, I set off across the straight roads which divide the high desert to the horizon.
I am alone.
There isn't even a radio station to keep me company for over an hour; so I play games to pass the time like guessing how far the end of the world is. Unlike the Australian outback which is truly flat, the land here undulates gently so the answer isn't always 20 miles. Ten to twenty minutes later I see how close I came.
A single headlight in the distance twinkles like a star.
There is time to take in details. The bluffs and hills are pockmarked with interesting geology. How were the rocks formed? How long ago? How did they get here? In this state? I wish I knew. It is this curiosity which explains why I am here in the first place, volunteering for the USGS.
Meanwhile, crows pick at carrion. A coyote crosses the highway--leisurely--as he knows the limit in Oregon is only 55 MPH compared to the more libertarian 70 in Nevada (75 on the freeway).
I also observe that piles of rocks support fenceposts at corners and at gates to provide extra stability. This is cattle grazing land, so the ranchers aren't doing this to get rid of the rocks, as you see back east where farmers built rock walls as a way to get rid of the rocks in their fields.
The cars are so few and the visibility is so good I'm able to jot down these notes on my Treo while driving. It occurs to me that the Darwin awards have already been given out this year so the effort is wasted.
The terrain becomes flatter. I see brown grass, sagebrush, and rain clouds over the hills in the distance.
And then I drop like a rock into an arroyo. An oasis.
Later I pass a sign to Charbonneau's grave site. Not of Toussaint Charbonneau who was hired as a translator for the Lewis and Clark expedition but of his son Jean Baptiste who was dragged along shortly after his birth.
Then again, I drop like an even bigger rock into the Owyhee Valley. I start to pass farms, ranches, Boise suburbs with strip malls. I missed the city proper as I turned north just shy of Boise.
Then the rain started as I followed a river up an increasingly deeper valley with pines and firs once again blanketing the landscape. Then down into a valley with tall grasses, a wide meandering river, and maybe even a lake, where I landed in New Meadows, ID.
Surprisingly, my cell phone works, although I had expected that it wouldn't. And the inn offers wireless Internet too (most hotels seem to these days). So, I'm connected for better or worse.
Today was my premier data gathering day. I'm sitting here in the car 10 miles north of New Meadows while the receiver is dutifully collecting data from the birds circling overhead. The spot is in a clearing that is contained by the highway and the Little Salmon River.
I'm bundled up against the cold as it's cold, breezy, and cloudy.
Afterward, I drove up to Riggins, ID to reconnoiter the next mark. Yesterday Caroline, one of the other surveyors, called me up to report that she couldn't find the mark. Well, I couldn't either. And I hopped a barbed wire fence with No Trespassing signs to look for it too thinking that perhaps the fence had been put up since the mark had.
Wayne, do you recognize any of this?
The really nice people who lived across the (dirt) road were curious about what Caroline had been looking for. They told me that the No Trespassing signs were mostly for hunters and I should be OK. I later thought that I was hunting too. I also talked to a crusty old guy who told me that the fence had been installed at least 10 years ago, so I guess I didn't have to hop it after all as the mark had last been seen only five years ago.
I then met another person who lived on that dirt road who was walking her two gorgeous border collies. No, you RUN border collies. She worked for the Forest Service and had lived there for 25 years. She didn't know about the mark, but attested that the ground hadn't moved since she lived there.
Good enough for government work?
All in all, the Race Creek Valley is a peaceful, quiet valley. You can hear the creek bubbling. Horses graze in the green fields. The steep walls of the canyon comfort you. And it has its very own set of basalt columns!
I caught dinner at the This Old House Restaurant in Riggins where the maitre d, waitress, chef, and cashier were all the same person. And the service was great! Incredible. By the way, this is definitely the land of steak and potatoes. Potatoes anyway. This is Idaho after all.
Relaxing back in the B&B, the rain begins again. I'm thankful it waited until I was done making the measurements!
Since the mark in Riggins was not to be found, I took a personal day to start working on my so-called "security clearance" questionnaire for NASA and catch up on a couple of weeks of email backlog. It rained most of the day.
The sun came out to make for an enjoyable day for gathering data six miles north of Council, ID.
I didn't feel well today. And I had a four and half hour drive to make to Joseph, OR after collecting data. Ugh.
Council has seen better days. Like most of the towns out here, it is a two-block town. Only all of the businesses in one of the blocks was closed.
I again left the high desert and returned to the mountains. But first, the road made a bit of a detour around a pretty big mountain range which held back the Brownlee and Oxbow reservoirs. The entire treeless mountain range had recently burnt. Black circles remained where the sagebrush had been.
I finally made a right into the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area where the pine trees returned. Approximately 10 years ago, there had been a fire in this area. I had driven this road back in 2002 and I remember it being pretty stark. Now, however, there are many, many trees that are at least three meters tall so the forest is awash in green, with the white skeletons of the dead trees for contrast.
The sun was sinking quickly, and I knew that the critters would be coming out on the road soon which would limit my speed dramatically if it were dark. So I drove hard. 70 MPH straightaways were punctuated by 30 MPH turns. As the road became more and more contorted, 50 MPH straightaways (although my mom wouldn't call them straightaways) separated 15 MPH hairpins. My right foot was on the floor at all times regardless of which pedal it was on. After clenching my stomach to keep myself in my seat, I actually started feeling better. Even better, I arrived in Joseph as the sun disappeared behind the Wallowa Mountains. My driving time was three hours: an hour and a half faster than Google had promised.
But the motel in town didn't have any vacancy. Neither did the first two bed and breakfasts. I arrived at the third one, Chandlers' Inn, but no one was home. There was, however, a note with a phone number bidding me to call. So I did, and Lisa, who was having dinner downtown, came back and showed me a very comfortable room.
I invited myself to dinner and met both of the extremely warm and friendly B&B owners Lisa Allen and Syd Montgomery as well as their friends Steve and Deborah who had flown their biplane over from Portland for the weekend. We enjoyed a local microbrew at Embers and closed the place down. Syd and Lisa had run a dive business in Saudi Arabia, so we talked a lot about diving.
Yum! Eggs Florentine for breakfast. Except that because of the recent E. Coli scare, fresh greens substituted for the spinach.
I was gathering data at the airport when Lisa, Syd, Deborah, and Steve drove up to Steve's plane. Next thing I knew I was upside down at 500 feet! This was all business, of course, since I needed to shoot a picture of the approach to the mark from the air. Just in case. Steve worked hard so that I could get good shots. He tried barrel rolls, S-turns, and other maneuvers to inflict forces on my body that it is not accustomed to.
I am sorry to say that I was a dismal failure when it came to photographing during the barrel roll. I couldn't even get my hands out of my lap, let alone shoot a properly aimed photo.
Business concluded, Steve set me back down, and he and Deborah headed back to Portland.
Later that evening, I joined Lisa and Syd for dinner at The Hydrant (since Embers, fittingly enough, had suffered a small fire that day). Afterward, we shared a single malt and some good whale stories back at the B&B.
I enjoyed another delightful breakfast (omelet with vegetables, homemade muffins, yogurt, fruit, granola, toast, OJ and coffee). Lisa is out of Marmite, so if you're going, please bring some. I don't think Vegemite is an acceptable alternative.
Did you hear the one about the last thing that goes through a bug's mind when he hits the windshield?
After saying our goodbyes, I then hit the road for seven hours. I found out shortly that they still have this silly rule in Oregon where you're not allowed to pump your own gas. Unbelievable.
After circumventing the north of Wallowa Mountains, I left the grasslands surrounded by high, pine-covered mountains, and returned to the high desert with brown grass and sagebrush with low mountains and interesting rock outcroppings.
I joined 395 at Burns where I recognized the motel where Lynn and I stayed four years ago on our US tour. Across the street, I also recognized Ye Olde Steakhouse where we ate.
Then it got even flatter and the roads got even straighter.
Finally, I arrived at the Wagontire Motel with cafe, gas, RV park, and airstrip. Reference the news article about it--Riley tribune?--and the history link. I had been looking for some lodging around the mark at Alkali Lake but that's difficult to do for a mark that's in the middle of nowhere. But after a bit of Googling, I found the Wagontire Motel and soon found some pictures. So I sent Bill some email and he wrote back saying I should go for the end unit #7.
And that's precisely where I am.
The motel was purchased this year by Hoss and Joanna. They said the motel had been neglected for years, but you wouldn't know it looking at the rooms--they did a great job renovating the place. They live on the property with their 10-year-old daughter Kayla who did her homework while I had supper at the bar. Hoss is a retired rodeo pro and Vietnam vet and is quite the character.
I had a bit of a problem with the receiver today. The "down" button wasn't working, so I couldn't adjust the contrast to see the display. Fortunately, by lunchtime, the contrast had adjusted itself.
So I'm out here in the middle of nowhere. There is not a cloud in the sky. But it starts to rain and then it starts to hail. At least it sounded like it. It turns out to be the World's Dumbest Bug. You might argue that all bugs are dumb as they just have enough neurons to connect their legs, wings, and eyes. But these bugs are dumb as bugs go. In contrast, the flies--and there are dozens of them hanging out on my windshield at any one time--seem to have some purpose. They can land, walk about, and take off or find the window if I shoo them away while the Dumb Bugs crash on the roof or windshield (or worse, inside the car where they are trapped forever), and slide down the windshield moving their legs frantically as if they were drowning. When they try to take off, they hit something overhead and crash, they roll over and crash, or they fly in an inverted U pattern and crash again. They need at least a half dozen tries before they can actually fly away. They look a little like water beetles, and given that there isn't any water for hundreds of miles, it sort of proves my point that these are Dumb Bugs. As I write this, I've tossed out at least 20 of them which have crashed inside the car.
Meanwhile, about 100 flies have come to the back deck of the car to die. Interesting evolutional behavior.
Once the data was collected and the gear stowed, I set about to climb the nearby scarp. I thought it would make for some good exercise, and it would be interesting to take the handheld GPS to see how accurate my height estimate was. But, it was a lot harder than it looked. It got much steeper, and worse, the ground was extremely loose and treacherous. So, I cut bait 140 m or about two thirds of the way up, and came back down. I had seen a DOT truck stop at my car and then pull into the maintenance station up the road. I dropped by to check in. As it turned out, the driver had radioed the police about an abandoned car. He thanked me and called the police to belay that report.
Hoss runs the restaurant back at the motel, called Buckaroo Cafe. He's a one-man show: chef, server, cashier, and entertainment. There is no menu at this restaurant. Oh, there are a couple of handwritten notes on the wall, like Rattlesnake Jack Stew, or Kickass Cowboy Stew (with real cowboy). But generally, Hoss just yells, "Supper's ready!" and tosses a hearty dish in front of you once you sit at the bar.
Early this morning, I was treated to a symphony of howling coyotes--in two-part harmony even. One group crooned from the scarp in front of me, while another group completed the chorus from the direction of the dried lakebed behind me. They were all hidden from sight by the sagebrush.
Otherwise, it was a hot, clear and uneventful day. The car got too hot for the first time, so I set up the beach chair and umbrella. It was perfect, unless you're trying to use a laptop--it's too bright!
For the past 10 days, I've been turning on the power to the GPS receiver at 0900 (Pacific) and shutting it off at 1530. It was with some sadness that I switched it off and packed up the gear for the last time this afternoon. I had seen some beautiful country, done some interesting things, and seen the wacky places that people put these survey marks. Just one more night to see what surprise that Hoss has in store for me (dinner-wise), and then I'm off early tomorrow morning to try to make it all the way home to Palo Alto in one day.
And so now, some closing shots showing the equipment and procedure.
With the heater blasting at 0700 to fight off the low 30s chill, I could not hear the wail of the coyotes. But this morning, a half dozen crossed the road in front of me. All but one immediately disappeared into the brush; the last turned his head and looked curiously at me, much as I was with him.
Down 395 I went. As I hung a right on 299, the high desert gave way to fir and pine and great views of the distant Mt. Shasta. I entered Redding with the familiar oak grasslands and got gas and ate lunch on a picnic bench at the station (under an oak tree). I closed my eyes for five minutes, and then hit highway 5 and the San Joaquin Valley. I turned on the radio for the first time in days and rocked on with BTO, BOC, Styx, and REO Speedwagon.
520 miles and 10 hours later, I'm home. Total mileage: 2035 miles.
Copyright © 2006 Bill Wohler
Last modified: 2006