I slapped my left ear, rendering myself temporarily half-deaf and possibly concussed, and it was at that moment that I surrendered to the bugs.

It was the only reasonable option.

The insects were omnipotent, and it was patently ridiculous to pretend otherwise.

They were scarcely dissuaded by our multiple chemical defenses even though we applied the various liquids so liberally that we all but glistened in the alpine sunshine, like basted turkeys.

Campfire smoke failed to dispel them, having instead the effect that alcohol tends to have on young and aggressive males.

(Although in this case the biters, at least among the mosquitoes, were females, as only that gender requires blood to nourish eggs.)

And swatting, as I mentioned, was more likely to harm the swatter than his ostensible target.

Mosquitoes, as they so often are, were both the most numerous and the most annoying interlopers at our camp in the Eagle Cap Wilderness during the first weekend of August.

But in their incessant sorties these bloodsucking insectile fighter planes were joined occasionally by the comparatively lumbering — but still much too quick and nimble for my flailing hands, hat, book and any other object I happened to grasp in my desperation — bombers in the form of horseflies and multiple types of bees, wasps and other venom-loaded fliers.

That bugs were abundant during the brief summer in the high mountains is hardly surprising, of course.

But their onslaught was distressing mainly because most of our previous annual trips, because they happened toward the end of August rather than its beginning, required mere ounces rather than gallons of DEET.

We had gotten soft.

We were a chastened group, though, as we packed up on the final morning.

And a very itchy one.

My daughter, Olivia, had a bite on her left eyelid that made her look a bit like Rocky Balboa after going a couple rounds with Clubber Lang.

Her cousin, Tyler, had so many bumps on his upper back that he could have modeled for one of those medical textbooks that specialize in the description of exotic and exceedingly rare tropical diseases.

My wife, Lisa, had a smattering of red welts on her arms that she attributed not to mosquitoes but to the truly evil variety of black gnats we encountered at the otherwise enchanting Tombstone Lake.

I felt comparatively unscathed, having only half a dozen places that required frequent scratching, and most of these were pretty accessible, anatomically speaking.

And my ear had long since ceased ringing.

(The bite behind it, where the mosquito escaped harm during the slapping episode, itched something furious, however.)

But this being the Wallowas, perhaps the greatest natural treasure in a state hardly deficient in that category, not even a ferocious insectile invasion could diminish the bliss of being in the grand mountains.

I can’t say whether our futile battle with bugs influenced me, but as we hiked back to the trailhead the scenes that played across my mental screen mainly involved things that, like insects, are quite small.

This struck me as passing strange.

The Wallowas are renowned, and rightly so, for their sheer scale. This is a land of big things — looming peaks of white granite and brownish-black basalt, high passes where the cool wind blows almost without pause, limpid lakes of unplumbed depths.

I feel something like awe whenever I reach a summit that affords an expansive view of the range — a vista of ridge and scree and canyon that the vantage point of Baker Valley, where the Wallowas seem to be a single ridge, scarcely hints at.

And familiarity hasn’t chipped so much as a fragment from my appreciation for this place.

(Or for the generosity of my wife’s parents, Howard and Sandee Britton, who make possible these trips.)

Yet as I tried to preserve my memories I kept returning to moments when I was not craning my neck to take in the splendor extending over miles or thousands of feet, but rather focusing on something much smaller, and nearer.

And I realized that in this realm the Wallowas are equally rich, and sublime.

I thought, curiously enough, of another insect — the ant. I thought of how ubiquitous they are, and how vital their role in the mountains, and particularly the forests.

Ants create nutrient-rich soil that nurture trees, and they feed on bugs that can kill trees, among much else that’s beneficial.

I noticed, in a way I hadn’t before, how widespread ants are in the Wallowas. I saw them trundling across trails in their industrious way, climbing piles of their own sawdust at the bases of dead trees, and even bustling about on granite bedrock on the shores of lakes.

As we hiked I began to catalog, in a rather random fashion, how many little scenes of considerable beauty there are in the Wallowas.

The omnipresent summits command much of our attention (and megabytes) to be sure — the ramparts of Eagle Cap and Burger Butte and the dozens of other peaks that eclipse 8,000 feet.

But these are nothing like as numerous as the enchanting fragments strewn about the Wallowas like shards of semi-precious stones on a beach.

On our walk to Tombstone Lake I noticed that every time the switchbacking trail crossed a stream — and given the back-and-forth nature of such trails there were quite a lot of these — there was a spray of wildflowers. These splashes of color were often but a few paces wide, but each made the sort of tableau that a talented painter can replicate in a scene of which the eye never tires.

As we paused at one crossing to whisk palmfuls of the frigid water over our sweaty brows I imagined that in the Wallowas there must be many hundreds of places quite like this, a wealth that seems to me beyond measure.

That evening, as I filtered water from the creek that frothed past our camp, I relished the perfect rock I had found to wedge against the intake tube, holding it in place while I worked the handle and filled my bottles in preparation for the next morning’s steaming cup of coffee.

This is of course a minor thing, a tiny convenience that would hardly rate a notice in a more civilized setting where such things are expected, even demanded.

Yet at that moment it also seemed to me a sort of miracle. As I squatted there among the pink heather and the shooting stars, slopes of granite and basalt making the sort of backdrop to delight calendar photographers, I was enthralled by all that one place can provide in exchange for a bit of healthful exercise.

Indeed it might have been the perfect setting.

Except the mosquitoes apparently appreciate it as much as I did.


Jayson Jacoby is editor

of the Baker City Herald.

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