Wherein I hike with three young ladies among swoopdongles and bibbelty bobs amidst the litterbox smell of blue-berried junipers.
“Maybe Leslie Gulch” I suggested again yesterday. March has been typically springish — sunny days followed by plan cancelling, weekend rain. But today, on this first official day of spring, we’ve managed the drive to the eastern edge of Oregon for a short hike in Juniper Gulch.¹
“Do you want to invite a friend,” I’d asked Brenna. Hunter is in Washington this week so we have extra capacity. She chose her friend Roxy. “Take it down a notch, ladies,” became the theme of our two hour drive.
“Let’s be smart this time,” I said to Brenna as we left, “and wear shoes.” It was a reference to the last time we hiked together in flip-flops and both ended up with bloody feet.¹ The tradeoff is sand and gravel constantly lodging under our socks. I think I prefer flip-flops and stubbed toes.
If screeching is an indication, the girls are having more fun than we could have hoped for.
Most of the rock here is called tuff, formed of compacted, super-heated ash that emerged from two nearby calderas.
Walking under some of these ash-rock overhangs feels like tempting fate.
“I don’t know why I brought binoculars,” Roxy says of her magnifying glass. “Can you carry it in your pocket?” I think it was the perfect thing to bring but the girls are too energetic right now to pause for scientific observations.
The path rarely deviates from the sandy creek bed. Striated rock cavities and hollows prove it isn’t always dry.
“We won’t leave you” we reassure the girls when they cry, “wait for me!” (Are we giving off pheromones that signal secret intentions?) “Explore all you want,” we encourage them.
Rock walls seem to crest left and right, frozen, as if we’re the party of Moses crossing the Red Sea between churning walls of water held back by the hand of God.
I pause to contemplate a vermillion mottled stone holding complex stories of immense fires and forces spanning the rise and fall of whole civilizations, even species. It is strange to rest my hand on something that so thoroughly transcends my existence.
Brenna adds a tennis ball-sized rock to the pocket opposite the magnifying glass I’m carrying for Roxy. I need to get smart like Jessica and wear clothes without pockets.
We remark on the many juniper berries littering the ground as we wrinkle our noses at the trees’ signature, cat urine smell.
Whimsical walls of burnt orange and laurel green granules are
rhyolite ash that erupted from the Mahogany Mountain caldera (a large volcanic depression which encompasses Leslie Gulch) in a series of violent explosions about 15.5 million years ago. Much of the material fell back into the volcano as a gaseous deposit of fine ash and rock fragments up to 1,000 feet thick. About 100,000 years later, volcanic eruptions from the Three Fingers caldera, located several miles to the northeast, deposited another layer of rhyolite tuff in Leslie Gulch. Today, the tuff is beautifully displayed as steep slopes and vertical, honeycombed towers carved over time.¹
I enjoy a close look at anything stubborn enough to grow on dry rocks.
It is hard to resist such a playground. Our progress is slowed by endless, peripheral curiosities.
Gravity is the girls’ favorite means of locomotion. The kevlar weave jeans available for motorcycle riders should really be marketed to gradeschoolers.
A vague memory of the map (my phone having died after playing music as we drove) suggests right at the wye.
The right-hand trail rises above the ravine and opens onto a great cathedral, the “honeycombs,” more stunning than any man could make.
The girls race to explore fanciful ledges while Jessica and I pick our way along wide grinning rock faces. They aren’t aware the amphitheater space is carrying their chatter back to us. “We can hear you,” I caution them with a smile they probably can’t see at this distance.
When I first saw rocks like this I assumed they had somehow hardened while bubbling. But it’s actually the opposite. The shapes are intrusions not extrusions. Pits and channels result from “differential weathering” as some parts of the rock erode much faster than the rest.
Once differential weathering is underway, it self-perpetuates. Shaded depressions harbor water that freezes, thaws and flakes away still more rock. Hollows formed in this way are called tafoni.
One study explains, “tafoni initiation is determined by a unique combination of structural or compositional and environmental anisotropy,” which I think is the fancy way to say it’s hard to predict. We can tell “there is a noticeable lack of tafoni in sheltered regions where the entire boulders are never exposed to direct sunlight or rainfall.”¹ It only occurs in sunlit rock faces.
“Time to head back,” we call to the girls. They’re still playing but they’re also hungry for the promise of food once we get to the campground below.
From our honeycomb vantage point we saw that both branches of the earlier wye lead here so we opt to return on the path not taken. We’re stopped when we reach a ten foot drop in a slot. After some reconnaissance, Jessica finds a way to climb around.
Don’t worry, kids. And don’t look down.
“I think we wore them out,” we remark gladly at the girls’ increasingly somber march.
We pull into Slocum Creek Campground a mile down the road alongside the only other occupants, a mother and two boys.
While I work up the fire, the kids get together to slide down a dirt hill on — you guessed it — their pants.
I notice “BLM” painted on the row of metal garbage bins and think of recent, nearby controversy. Coming to Leslie Gulch puts us more than halfway to the Malheur Refuge which was occupied 41 days by those opposed to federal management of lands within state boundaries.
As long as there is a program to preserve outdoor experiences like this for my children and children’s children, I don’t much care who administers it. But someone must. A free-for-all is unlikely to preserve unique landscapes, places of wonder and solitude essential to a healthy mind.
Even as we walked up Juniper Gulch, I remarked it would be a fun trail to motorcycle. It wouldn’t take many riding like me, though, to ruin these remarkable sandstone features.
Some areas have been closed to motor vehicles for reasons I can’t appreciate but on balance I’m glad to err on the side of preserving important experiences for those beyond my tiny place in the world and time. I am certain that people and society have much more to gain from the humbling perspective of wild places than the profits or thrills the land might otherwise provide.
Hills have turned grey and the sky ominous as we turn toward home. For a while we see nothing to distinguish today from a million years ago — just rocks and scrub to the horizon.
“I wonder if they’re driving like this because some are drunk,” I mention to Jessica when we return to modernity behind a train of very slow moving vehicles, the same we saw circled around coolers on the dirt shore of the Owyhee Reservoir.
We endure some unhappy honks as we pick them off one-by-one on straight stretches so the twenty miles of remaining gravel to the highway doesn’t have to take an hour. Brenna lays down in the back seat and falls asleep for much of the remaining night drive home.