Michael Totten

Oregon's Outback

When people think of my state of Oregon they think of green. And not just those who don’t live here. Most Oregonians live to the west of the Cascade mountains in the wet, lush, dripping, fogged-in valley between the snowy peaks and the sea. Everywhere you look is creaking timber tall enough to tear the bottoms out of the clouds. Wisps of fog roll off the hills like smoke down the sides of an ashtray. The grass is a vibrant psychedelic green even in Winter. Most of our towns are little more than encampments in the woods.
There is another Oregon, too. Like a crazy aunt shunted away in the attic, the Eastern Oregon desert is out of sight, out of mind, and mostly out of the way. Many Oregonians don’t even realize it’s there. They go to the mountains to ski, or maybe to go fishing. If they cross they don’t venture far. Because if you climb the spine of the Cascades and keep on driving east, you will leave the Pacific Northwest. You’ve only crossed to the center of Oregon, but you’ve entered what’s known as the West.
Yes, the West is east of Seattle and Portland. And it is desolate.
I took a friend through the empty Oregon Outback last September, and he didn’t like it so much. There’s nothing out here, he said, and he was right.
There is nothing out there. That’s what I like about it.
You don’t go to the Empty Quarter because of what’s there. You because of what isn’t.
There is no traffic, no smog, no people, no phones, no office towers, no red lights, no light pollution at night. There are no forests to block your view of the mountains, the plains, and the stars. Nor is there much of anything else.
The cold in Winter burns. The sun in the summertime punishes. The land has been split by God with a sword, and pounded for centuries with hammers.
Oregon would not be whole if it were not there.
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Photos by Michael J. Totten