Sunday, March 28, 2010

Happy Wanderer

We spent this afternoon hiking around on the Crooked River National Grassland, on the area that is part of the grazing allotment for the ranch we used to manage. We've done this three years in a row, in the early spring so I guess that makes it a tradition. Other times we've tried to establish traditions they've only lasted a couple of years at most, except for eggnog on Christmas Eve. But that might have more to do with the gentle spiking with Johnny Walker than the actual eggnog. Well, ok, blueberry muffins on Christmas morning happens no matter what, so I guess we've been successful in that tradition.

But this post isn't about traditions, it's about the feeling of homecoming we get whenever we set foot on the Grasslands. No matter where we go or what we do, this area will be special because it was the place we became Americans, again for me and for the first time for the rest of my family. And what better place to do it than an area that was homesteaded in the early part of the 20th century by immigrants.

We marvel that anyone could imagine a permanent life up there. These resourceful folks used the rocks they cleared from the homesteads to create fences, some of which still stand.

I don't suppose they'd be smiling quite this blissfully as they took a moment of leisure.

We're told that back then, there were several years of unusual precipitation and riparian areas formed where there hadn't been any before or since. The area used to monitor the grazing allotment was termed "riparian" but was in actuality a dry strip of sand with one or two lonely sprigs of bunchgrass. Apparently in one of those precipitation years a stream flowed there.

But this post isn't about the strange regulations of the USFS. It's about revisiting an area where we learned to manage a rangeland. Where we could ride for hours without seeing anyone. Where a lone bull elk watched as we gathered cattle. Where we watched the "damage" done by the cattle around their water tanks transform into an area lush with native grasses the next year.

We don't go back up there on horseback any more. We tiptoe through the rocks in our sneakers and boots, making sure Murphy doesn't get misplaced behind a tree or under a rock.

But the feeling of isolation remains, and the sweet sounds of the meadowlarks and the wind filtering through the junipers complements the deep, deep silence. It's the silence of wild places, which the grassland is, early in the spring.
Yes, it's peaceful today, but I'm imagining the violence of the thunderstorm that blew this ancient juniper apart.

Later, when the gate at the bottom of the hill opens, there will be visitors heading to Wychus Creek or Alder Springs. Birders will hike along with their binoculars and late in the season, hunters will set up camp. And for a brief time, the cattle will graze, helping to keep the grasslands a grassland. There won't be any homesteaders and not many wild stories but I hope all the visitors take a moment to listen to the silence. It's a freedom we must cherish.