A bout of vomiting very nearly ended the trip when it had barely begun, and I’d like to blame the Hardy Boys.
Not that the fictional mystery-solving siblings are solely responsible.
I reserve some of my disdain for plate tectonics and volcanism and any other natural forces that transformed the topography between Baker City and Burns into the rumpled mess of ridges and canyons that it is.
I’d like to castigate the highway engineers, too, but I suppose that’s unfair, considering the limitations imposed by budgets and restrictions on the use of high explosives.
(To give the roadbuilders their due, I must note that in the 1960s there was a proposal, possibly serious, to detonate 23 nuclear bombs to create a route for an interstate highway in Southern California. You can’t say they didn’t lack ambition back then, fearing neither large mountain ranges nor tiny radioactive particles. Needless to say the highway promoters had to employ more conventional means of excavation, ones potentially dangerous to our hearing but not to our very genes.)
The real culprit in this episode of regurgitation was, of course, myself.
I was driving.
My lone passenger, my 7-year-old son, Max, was in effect a helpless inmate, latched to his booster seat in the back of our Mazda, which corners better than most four-door sedans.
Too much better, perhaps.
We set off an a fine Saturday morning to meet my dad and several other relatives near Burns, where they had procured permission to shoot ground squirrels in an alfalfa field.
The 150-mile route between Baker City and Burns, via Highways 7, 26 and 395, traverses several subranges of the Blue Mountains, with a predictable number of curves.
It occurred to me only much too late, while I was standing on the shoulder of 395 a few miles north of Burns, gingerly flapping Max’s fleece blanket so as to dislodge certain chunks of material, that I had forgotten Dramamine.
Also that the drug’s effects are not retroactive.
I was initially sore at the Hardy Boys because Max and I had been listening to an audiobook of “The Cabin Island Mystery.”
I figured we were both so engrossed, so to speak, in the Hardys’ adventure that Max couldn’t alert me, nor could I recognize the impending ejection, before it was under way.
Max is a clever child, though, and although he has great affection for his blanket (he’s no Linus, however), he managed to yank it into position so that it served as the receptacle, as it were.
This greatly minimized the extent of the damage, and simplified the subsequent clean up. The blanket, to borrow the insurance industry’s piquant phrase, was a total loss.
Max recovered with the rapidity that is exclusive to the very young and the very healthy, and within 15 minutes he was complaining about his stomach being too empty rather than too full.
Properly dosed with Dramamine, he had nary a gastrointestinal complaint the rest of the trip.
Which was gratifying because our itinerary covered quite a lot more miles. Fortunately most of those miles were on the arrow-straight highways and gravel roads of Harney and Malheur counties.
The southeastern corner of Oregon is not a featureless flat savannah, to be sure. But much of it lies within the basin and range province, and the basins, some of which stretch for 50 miles or more, are much more accommodating to road construction than the more tortuous terrain to the north.
We convened at the alfalfa field and Max and I joined my brother, Michael, and his daughter, Victoria, for a tour of the Steens Mountain country, which neither Victoria nor Max had seen.
I was struck as always by the sheer scale of that land, and by how puny the human contributions are.
The occasional ranch and its collection of modest house and barn and corrals seem somehow shrunken, as anonymous as a single boulder on the slope of a thousand-foot-tall fault scarp that stretches for 25 miles.
The vastness fools my eyes, which are accustomed to the great Elkhorns towering more than 5,000 feet above my backyard and barely a dozen miles away.
As we drove south from Frenchglen on Highway 205, Michael and I talked about Beatys Butte, the solitary sage-clad peak that, at almost 8,000 feet, dominates the southwestern horizon. It seemed to me that the butte was no more than 15 miles distant even though I knew the actual figure was nearer to 40.
Driving would have revealed the illusion even if a map scale hadn’t. We drove almost due south for more than 25 miles and the butte didn’t appear appreciably closer.
We stopped in Fields for a milkshake — which, along with topping off your fuel tank is the usual reason to stop in Fields. Although its eight residents can also boast that they live more than 100 miles from the nearest traffic signal.
We also made the obligatory detour onto the Alvord Desert, at the eastern base of Steens Mountain. It is perhaps the most striking place in a state that’s hardly deficient in the category.
The Alvord certainly conjures the classic image of desert more thoroughly than any other site in Oregon — a flat expanse of sun-cracked dirt, devoid of vegetation, stretching about seven miles across and 12 miles long.
We drove out a mile or two and parked. Max jumped out and started scampering around but he soon noticed a faint pair of tire tracks extending to a vanishing point. He ran along one of the marks and within 30 seconds he seemed impossibly small, though of course he hadn’t covered any great distance.
“Don’t get lost,” my brother joked.
Max sprinted back, smiling at the absurdity of the idea.
Then he asked for a Skittle.
But it would be some time before I trusted his innards, so I handed him a couple of saltine crackers.
We returned to the road that spans the whole east side of Steens Mountain, leaving the desert to itself and nothing but a couple of scuff marks in the dirt from Max’s restless feet to suggest we were ever there.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.