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Steens Mountain: A backyard with room for wind turbines

I can attest to the prevalence of wind on Steens Mountain.

My contact lenses, in particular, would gladly sign an affidavit.

Or an arrest warrant.

The lenses harbor a real grudge against the mountain.

And I don’t blame them.

I’ve never visited a place that combines wind gusts and desert dust with such gritty, lachrymose consistency.

Neither have my lenses, so far as I know.

I rarely go anywhere, anyway, that I can’t keep an eye on them.

So to speak.

Not much snow and even less sunshine: What a dismal winter

I’m beginning to miss the sun.

This is a rare affliction in our valley, which is sheltered by not one by two rain shadows and as a result is a pretty sunny place.

The Cascade Mountains, the more imposing of these topographic barriers, siphon much of the moisture from the storms that ride the jet stream inland from the Pacific.

Then the Elkhorns wring out most of what’s left.

It’s quite common, then, for the Elkhorn peaks to be shrouded in cloud while sunshine brightens the valley below.

Which is nice if you enjoy skiing in the mountains but are less enthusiastic about shoveling your driveway.

These pleasant circumstances prevail, generally speaking, even during the depths of winter, a season renowned in less beneficent climates for conjuring skies of various slaty shades for weeks on end.

The typical winter sequence here, by contrast, begins with a day or less of storm followed by two or more days of clear.

Oregon’s roads safer than ever (at least since cars came along)

We Americans can do just about anything in our cars.

Die, for instance.

Fortunately we’re dying in our cars far less often in Oregon than we used to.

Last year 381 people were killed in crashes in Oregon.

A terrible toll, to be sure.

But that’s also the fewest traffic deaths in the state in any year since 1949, when 356 motorists were killed.

This hopeful trend has continued into the first month of 2010, as well.

A dozen people died on Oregon roads in January.

That’s the fewest in any month since the state started keeping track in the 1930s, said Troy Costales, Safety Division administrator for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The average for January is about 33.

January was also just the third month in which fewer than 20 people died in Oregon wrecks. The two others are February 2009, when 16 motorists were killed; and February 1999, when 18 died.

It's about time someone studied the 'Halfway Grade Effect'

As great divides go, the Rocky Mountains get a lot of press, but I think the Halfway Grade puts the Rockies in the shade.

Not literally, of course.

In terms of topography, the Halfway Grade (and its shadow) would seem pitifully diminutive compared to the most inconspicuous foothill in the Front Range.

Even measured against our more modest local standards the Halfway Grade — the sagebrush ridge that separates the Eagle and Pine valleys in eastern Baker County — is hardly imposing. The summit where Highway 86 crests the grade is a meager 3,653 feet above sea level. That’s barely 200 feet higher than Baker Valley.

But in meteorological matters, I know of few eminences as mighty as the Grade.

I drove over it on Sunday.

There was no snow in Richland, on the Eagle Valley side.

In Halfway, the Pine Valley town a mere eight miles away as the chukar flies, the snow was about belly high on a mule deer.

But this vast discrepancy was not the product of some rare confluence of weather phenomena, akin to a tornado that destroys one home but disturbs not a single shingle next door.

What I’ve described is in fact the normal state of things, snow-wise, for mid-winter in this part of Baker County’s Panhandle.

Forests are beautiful, even if you don’t see them come of age

I went snowshoeing Sunday in the ponderosa pine woods near Phillips Reservoir and managed a brief bout of melancholy despite being surrounded all the while by beauty.

This is one of my skills.

And it is one I would happily trade for any of a whole roster of abilities, among them a decent vertical leap and a mastery of basic carpentry techniques.

It was as I mentioned a fine winter day.

A heavy snow was falling. The flakes were fat and slushy, more like snow in the Cascades than the powdery sort that frequents our mountains. I never got more than a mile and a half from the highway but the snow muffled sounds and the hum of traffic was distant and unimportant.

There was little wind and the temperature was mild for the season, perhaps a degree or two above freezing.

I parked beside the Powder River and climbed a thousand feet to a plateau that plunges off its east flank to California Gulch.

I saw a white-tail deer running across a draw, wending its way between the red-barked pines, its graceful gait so different from the bounds of the mule deer.

Tim Johnson’s first challenge: Getting his feet under him

I hope Tim Johnson has a pair of boots with sticky soles.

Or better yet, the new Baker City manager ought to buy a pair of those metal-studded rubber webs that you stretch tight over your footwear.

There’s still ice around despite the recent thaw, and it makes for treacherous going.

Of course that’s not the only sort of traction Johnson needs to worry about.

He is, after all, starting a job where he has seven bosses.

Which is six more than most of us have to try to please.

Besides which, three of those bosses — which is just one short of a ruling majority — didn’t even want to hire Johnson to run City Hall.

None of his several relatively recent predecessors, dating back 25 years or so, was picked by a City Council as divided as this current version seems to be.

The Council’s motion to offer Johnson the job on Dec. 18 played out almost precisely as did the motion, made on June 9, to fire Steve Brocato.

Councilors Dennis Dorrah, Beverly Calder, Aletha Bonebrake and Clair Button voted to hire Johnson — and to fire Brocato.

Motorcycles, hiking and chain saws: The perfect job

The typical motorcycle has two levers on the handlebar, and one day I managed to break both of them.

Actually I’m being too modest.

Snapping off those levers required little more than an hour of basically effortless ineptitude on my part, as near as I remember.

If I’d had the whole day I might have dismantled the machine altogether, like one of those exploded view pictures they put in repair manuals so mechanics can figure out which washer goes on first.

Although to be precise I can’t claim sole credit for the damage.

The ground helped.

I didn’t, you know, grab the levers and wrench them off, as though they were turkey drumsticks.

What I did was crash the motorcycle.

But not on purpose.

This was a recurring problem for me.

Once again the hunter returns, humbled by a bunch of birds

The point when you know, beyond all doubt, that you’re the worst wingshooter alive is when a fleeing bird slows right after you’ve fired at it.

And I mean “at it” in the theoretical rather than the literal sense.

It’s as if the bird, having recognized that the person wearing the vest with a recoil patch is about as malignant as a kangaroo rat, is curious to see how wildly astray the next wad of pellets will fly.

This is, of course, a dangerous habit for a chukar to indulge in.

The odds are good that the next hunter who comes along will pose a rather more immediate threat.

Actually the odds are better than that — 100 percent, not to put too fine a point on it.

In my hands a 12-gauge is not so much a weapon as it is a noisemaker that litters lead.

Although I suppose I could inflict grievous wounds on a bird by clubbing it with the shotgun’s butt, if only the bird would sit still for a moment and let me get my feet set.

Baker is aging, gracefully

Baker City never seems to me quite so old as it does around Christmas.

I mean this in a good way.

With rare exceptions such as fine wine, advanced age is associated with an inexorable deterioration in utility, vigor and appearance, whether the object is animate or not.

Both cars and people, for instance, tend to accumulate sludge in their circulatory systems as their mileage rises. This comparison doesn’t hold up, of course — you can sometimes cure a balky fuel injector by simply pouring a bottle of additive into your gas tank; fixing a clogged artery is a rather more ticklish task, and not one you’d be wise to tackle with that tool set you got at Sears for 59 bucks.

Anyway, the sense of age I’m talking about, as regards our city, is more clearly expressed with a different analogy.

The notion I’m getting at is akin to the way the face of an elderly person can attain a peculiar beauty, when its wrinkles are clearly the brands left by a lifetime of smiles. The sight pleases our hearts as much as our eyes; we feel the welcome weight of many decades of love and laughter, and bask in their kind warmth.

Christmas tradition: Battling the boiling brittle

I must confess: I overdosed on peanut brittle.


Well, actually, I prefer almond brittle, and even then I seek out the shards without any nuts.

And when you’re the one pulling the molten candy across a greased surface, it’s easy to “make” these nutless pieces.

I blame my aunts, Betty Braswell and Evie Plankinton, for my addiction to this wonderful sweet.

The recipe, smudged with years and years of candy-making, came from Aunt Evie. Aunt Betty was the one who decided peanut (and almond) brittle would make a wonderful addition to the holiday baskets she delivers to family and friends.

Near as we can figure, it was 17 years ago that we — my cousin, Emily,  Aunt Betty’s friend Connie Howerton and me — first spent a few hours pulling brittle.

Let me explain the process, for those of you who have never made this candy.

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