Around here there’s always a perfect place, whatever the season

By Jayson Jacoby March 12, 2010 03:18 pm
Spring debuted this past weekend in Baker County, on the ground if not the calendar, and I celebrated its arrival with a great burning.

Actually I just touched off the dead grass which lay in the irrigation ditch, flat as scythed hay.

This spawned a brief, but satisfyingly intense, blaze.

A little too intense, as it turned out.

I had to sprint to the shed and grab another section of hose when it looked as though the flames were going after one of the fledgling lilacs.

Except the hose, a cheap brand that probably was fashioned from the bald tires pried off some kid’s tricycle, was frozen into its coil like a winter-sluggish snake.

And was about as cooperative.

Anyway I saved the lilac.

And, since planting it was my wife’s idea, quite possibly my marriage.

Predictably, my premature preparations for the new season lured in off the Pacific a snow-laden cold front that shoved spring off the stage and sent it sprawling in the orchestra pit, popcorn in its hair and Milk Duds stuck to its knees.

The sky was still mainly clear at dusk Sunday.

At 4 a.m. Monday I awakened to the patter of rain on the roof, a pleasant sound that put me straight back to sleep.

When I drove to work two hours later the rain had given over to fat snowflakes the size of half-dollars.

This is the usual sequence for early March around here, and so I was only mildly annoyed that the balmy sunshine which had predominated the past two days was supplanted by slush.

The tranquil weather was happily confined to the weekend, a fortuitous coincidence if you like to get out in the air and smell the sage.

Which I do, and spring being an especially nice time to do so.

In fact these seasonal trips I take into the rangelands are part of what you might call the grand tour of Northeastern Oregon.

Well, perhaps you wouldn’t. But I am plagued by the peculiar need to apply lofty titles to things which are in truth rather mundane.

(To cite one especially silly example, I’ve long believed that the specific methods some people have developed for loading dishwashers — is it acceptable to mix forks and spoons in the same section of the utensil rack, for instance, and should bowls face forward or rearward — is a syndrome which deserves formal scientific nomenclature. I’m partial myself to “The Cascade Effect.”)

At any rate, my yearly migrations from one part of the region to another remind me of how the European aristocracy during the Gilded Age would spend, say, winters on the French Riviera and summers taking sitz baths in a spa in the Swiss Alps.

One significant difference being that I don’t have a batman to press my trousers and fetch me drinks.

(Although I would appreciate having one, as I am prone to leaving my water bottles in the refrigerator.)

Baker County, despite lacking sitz baths, is well-suited to this sort of weather-dictated travel.

When spring finally comes round, the sagelands east of Baker City are ideal for hiking.

(Ideal except for the ticks, anyway.)

There are few experiences, it seems to me, as rejuvenating as walking among the sage when the buttercups and the desert parsley are blooming and the soft ground has reached that perfect consistency, neither dusty nor muddy, that is so fleeting.

The benevolence of this raw and arid country is temporary as well.

Come May, or in some years June, the sun blazes cruelly and the absence of shade seems quite a liability.

But as if by magic, just then the foothill forests, which are lousy with shadows, happen to be at their most fetching.

Their carpets of pine needles feel spongy underfoot, like spaghetti cooked al dente rather than the crispy rice crunch of late summer.

The gulches chuckle with snowmelt and you’re almost always within earshot of the musical trill of water splashing over stones.

Meadows blush with grass widows, and among the pines the purple lupine blooms beside the canary balsamroot.

And everywhere the air exudes the rich scent of sun-warmed ponderosa bark.

But this bliss must also pass.

By mid July the woods can get uncomfortably hot despite their surfeit of shade.

Yet here again nature demonstrates the sort of exquisite timing that can elevate a funny guy into a famous comedian.

The very same heatwave that stifles the lowlands also, often as not, evaporates the last of the snowdrifts that languish across my favorite trails in the alpine country of the Elkhorns and Wallowas.

When I climb up there it seems almost as if spring had returned, only this time without the long intermission of winter.

The buttercups and the phlox, long since desiccated in the desert country, are just beginning to bloom in the high ground.

Mountain goat kids gambol across the sheer slopes and the lakes gleam indigo in the cirques where glaciers were born, the water so clear you feel as if you could reach in and pluck the brook trout right out.

Although I would recommend against it — the water is frigid.

Besides which the fish are way too quick.

Summer, of course, is the quickest season to pass among the peaks, and like as not there’ll be snow before Halloween.

Which is hardly a tragedy.

If I’m not yet inclined to strap on snowshoes I can move back down the mountains, just as the deer and the elk do as their instincts instruct.

And when the snow has at last descended even to the sagelands, why then I will happily plumb my closet for the wool and the down.

I rail often about our climate, which only a person more forgiving than I could describe as temperate.

Yet our county’s landscapes are so diverse that no matter what sorts of mischief the elements get up to, hardly a day comes when there isn’t some place nearby where I can go.

And when I get there, feel that it’s just about the best place around.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.