Even with help from space, I can get led astray
By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald Editor
From 12,000 miles up in space — a place I’ve never actually visited except in a figurative sense — I can plot my course with ease and precision across a goodly portion of Baker County.
On the ground, though, I get fouled up after the first intersection.
Give a bunch of brainiacs millions of dollars and they can toss satellites and cameras and other cool stuff into orbit.
What they can’t do is iron out Baker County’s topography, which is as rumpled as Charlie Sheen’s shirt after a hard weekend.
Although the two things, so far as I know, aren’t otherwise alike. I doubt Charlie ever smells strongly of sagebrush, for instance.
The risk in exploring the nearly tree-free hinterlands along the divide between the Powder and Burnt rivers east of Baker City, an area that includes a section of the Oregon Trail, isn’t that you’ll get lost.
The scarcity of trees, and the expansive views it affords, makes this unlikely except perhaps in a pea soup fog or a blizzard.
What I’m talking about is the navigational purgatory in which you never seem to get where you’re trying to go because there’s always a ridge or a knob or a draw between you and where you want to be.
It’s the place where you don’t trust the roads, which veer about in an unpredictable, sometimes unfathomable, way.
This wasn’t such a problem, years ago.
You figured on taking a lot of wrong turns, except you didn’t think of them as “wrong,” exactly, because even if you brought a map you knew better than to rely on it.
But these days we have GPS satellites, which follow us around like a crew of attentive butlers (complete with a snooty British accent, on some models.)
Moreover, we have Google Earth.
And in part because its photographs were taken from the middling height of a few hundred miles — much closer than the GPS satellites — the detail, as anyone knows who has sampled this program, is stunning.
Especially out on the Powder-Burnt Divide, where only an occasional juniper interferes with the orbiting cameras.
Take a tour of the area on Google Earth and you’ll see that the roads, many of which consist only of a pair of tire-width lines through the sagebrush and grass, show up as distinctly as a six-lane freeway.
Even fence lines, which involve considerable pounding but little in the way of excavation, are pretty easy to pick out.
The result of which is that it’s easy to convince yourself, after taking the interstellar bird’s eye view from Google Earth, that driving from one place to another is as simple as making it through the sort of maze they print on the side of a McDonald’s Happy Meal box, the sort any competent first-grader can finish without having to go back even once.
All you have to do is stay on this tan squiggle and you’ll be fine.
It was with this sense of confidence that I set out on a recent Sunday with my father-in-law, Howard Britton.
Last spring we drove from near Pritchard Creek west to the White Swan mine and then across Virtue Flat to Highway 86 near the Interpretive Center.
My goal that day was to stay on a road that I believed, after an extended study of Google Earth, stayed near the spine of the divide.
I still think it might.
But I failed to find the right way last year.
This year I failed again, except in a different place, or, rather, places.
We were going along well for a few miles. Each of my navigational aides — GPS, paper map, seemingly clear memory of the Google Earth view — was in agreement. But then we came onto a confounding boundary where several fence gates convened. We tried a different route, which led us to a windmill I was certain I had been to before, until it became obvious that I hadn’t.
Eventually we made it back to the “main” road — as I said, you have to work awfully hard to actually get lost in that country.
Still and all, I was, and still am, a trifle dismayed that a seemingly straightforward task devolved so quickly.
I’m no John Fremont, but neither has my inner compass ever let me down so completely that I had to spend a night hunkered under a tree, munching on pine needles and wondering how awful my own urine would actually taste.
I did gain a newfound respect, though, for those pioneers who came this way more than a century and a half ago.
Their maps, if they had any, were crude. Their version of Google Earth was to climb the tallest tree nearby, which along much of the route wasn’t very tall at all.
Yet they crossed most of a continent by a route that survives yet.
In fact the section of the Oregon Trail we followed must be unusual in that none of it has been paved over or erased by city or farm.
Someone with a more educated eye than mine could, I’m sure, still detect in places the rut of the wagon wheel from that of the heifer.
Probably get more use out of Google Earth, too.
Jayson Jacoby is editor