Michael Totten

The Empty Quarter

I don’t live in the West. I live on the West Coast. The West, somewhat counterintuitively, is east of here. It’s on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, away from the cities linked up to the Asian side of the Pacific Rim, in the desert, in cowboy country, the place Joel Garreau dubbed The Empty Quarter in his book The Nine Nations of North America.
That’s where I went over Memorial Day weekend. It’s where you should go if you want to go camping on a holiday and get away from the screaming children, the RVs, and the jerk who thinks it’s okay to listen to ball games on the radio twenty feet from your tent.
Landscape Near Fossil Oregon.jpg
Head east from Portland over Mount Hood and the landscape dramatically changes. You can still find some trees, but you won’t find anything that looks like a rainforest.

Shaniko Bank.jpg
It’s dry enough on Oregon’s eastern side that buildings in ghost towns like Shaniko have not yet disintegrated.

Strawberry Mountains Sunset.jpg
Some people in Portland don’t like Eastern Oregon. There’s nothing out there, they say. Yes there is. There is sky.

Road Through Green Desert.jpg
Behold the green desert in spring time.

Spring Rains Water the Desert.jpg
This landscape is white in the winter. It’s brown in the summer and fall. But right now it’s green. Almost all of Oregon is green in April and May.

Green Desert Near Fields.jpg
In August 1998 National Geographic published a terrific story on what they called Oregon’s Outback. I had never been there when I read it. Imagine that. An outdoors-loving person like me discovers a part of his own state in a national magazine. But that’s how it goes around here. Hardly anyone who lives in Portland ever goes out there. They don’t even know what it looks like because hardly anyone bothers to photograph it. The outback does not appear on our postcards.
I decided I had to go out there when I read that the landscape terrifies people. It’s so open and empty. You can walk 50 miles in a straight line and not even see a single telephone pole. The southeastern corner is, in fact, the least densely populated part of the lower 48 states.

Lone Tree.jpg
There’s something about a lone tree for miles around that demands I take a picture. I don’t know why, but I just had to.

Lake Alvord.jpg
Lake Alvord only exists for a couple of months. It’s hardpan the rest of the year.

Steens Mountain.jpg
You can see parts of four states (Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and California) from the top of Steens Mountain.

Alvord in May.jpg
Some parts of Oregon are arid even in spring time. When people say “back of beyond” this, I believe, it where they’re talking about. Hardly anyone lives here near the Alvord Desert at all. It is the desert of the desert. Those who do live around here came from the Basque country in Spain.