The Desert: Interlude III

January 29, 2009

I have told you about the desert in two ways: how Millican Valley tried to kill me, and how a glen of meaninglessness in the desert led to the most important thing I’ve known.

Now I’ll tell you about how they start to connect end-to-end in the ring that is my story and then I’ll be able to return to telling you about 2008 (someday) and you’ll have some context. In early 2005 David and I were staying in Sunriver with friends and we came back from a day’s snow-cold adventure (we as a rule have many adventures). There were drunk people in the kitchen of the rental house and when we told them we’d just made an offer on 180 acres in god-ass nowhere in a place called Millican they weren’t sure how to react, even though they knew us fairly well.

“You’re not married,” said someone. This was true, but by then much had happened (leaping over that seems so abortive as to be an insult but there is just too much, too much–we’ll have to stick to the polar ends of the story that happened in the desert), and we were engaged. What a disconcerting thing being engaged to be married is: everything feels new and unlike yourself and by the time you start getting used to it you’re married.

We were headstrong and buying property with such gusto did not seem peculiar. What we do is not strictly impulsive; I prefer to think of it as decisive. We perhaps recognize our proper path easily. This thing with this property did not seem unusual to us. Not even property 26 miles from anywhere with no trash service. Land dusted liberally with the detritus of the impoverished current owners. Land with a tilting barn full of car corpses and the shit of multitudes of long-dead animals. Land with a lone, frightened aspen tree planted next to a murkish pond–land that was to be sold with the small flock of geese already wandering around on it.

I wanted with great passion to have the geese and name one of them Beep. There were magical things about this land. An ancient river ran through it. No water now but the fascinating traces of where it once was, and a shallow gorge of rocks that David gaped after. He wanted those rocks. US Highway 20 ran through the middle of it, lazily pumping Burns-Bend traffic along a straightaway that got very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter.

A man showed us around the land. The upper half of the barn had been halfheartedly dingled with a decade or so ago by somebody under-qualified who wanted to make it into living quarters. Certain elements of household familiarity were present: some light switches, an couple of aluminum windows. Then maybe the would-be remodeler was struck by lightning or went to prison or forgot what he was working on, so all similarity to someplace a human could live ended there.  A modern version of the abandoned homestead, it was bare boards and gaps to the outside and that tingly, eerie trace of something human. Other species had nested here and left feathers and nastier bits behind. It was windy up there, which doesn’t bode well when indoors.

“You could finish this out,” said the man, with lighthearted optimism, as if completing the project were merely an issue of choosing the right drapes and crown molding. I felt myself look doubtful, so I gazed outside instead, which I could see quite well from inside, at the man’s five or six unmatched, slavering dogs in the hardpan dust below. Then looking beyond at the khaki flat valley. It was winter, but the valley all year emits heat in waves that make distance indistinct. It’s like the spirit of the prehistoric lake is still underground, breathing warmly, hibernating and waiting. I didn’t know that I was looking out at the place I’d be married, not just yet.

This impossible second story to this shattered barn would be irrelevant, something to set on fire, if it weren’t for the way that the Millican Valley worked. You can’t build there. Not without careful, multi-year manipulation of land use restrictions and Byzantine processes that I don’t wish to know of. The property’s single-wide trailer, a hundred feet away, was so rank and miserable that the man hadn’t even suggested we look inside. The only other structure of note was a tiny cabin, more of a lean-to, with a woodstove and packed entirely to the rafters–if there were rafters–with trash. So this weird warren of bare-studded suggestions of rooms, spanned over a derelict chicken coop and greasy machinery, might be the only livable hope. All around us the property abutted BLM lands, with the rasping kakking of ATVs and the pok pok sounds of a target range not too far distant. You couldn’t build a home here, but hey, at least you could rut it up and shoot at it.

“There’s fiber optics,” he said suddenly, which, juxtaposed with the landscape and the situation, seemed brightly incredible. “They ran it out along the whole of Highway 20.” So there was no firefighting service and possibly no water–a new well would cost anywhere from five to fifty thousand dollars–but yet as far as data was concerned it was absolutely milk and honey. We got moon-eyed again.

We drove back into Bend that afternoon and went to the library. I read books on goose husbandry. David researched greenhouse construction and local climate.

We tracked down the seller’s real estate agent in town. We walked in and probably talked a lot; we do that. We talked about our energy and excitement and compulsion toward land in the desert. We pulled out the books and reference material we tote around with us on these adventures. I talked about our collection of books about the Oregon high desert authored by Raymond Hatton (as no one really lives in the part of the state that most enthuses us, only one guy has written about it extensively). The real estate agent grinned and passed us his card. It said on it: PETER HATTON.

“Raymond Hatton is my dad,” he said. And so formed another loop back to the desert land.


We didn’t get the property. Our offer was second and the first was accepted. But it sets the backdrop and pattern for the desert and how it came that we almost tried to buy the town of Brothers, and then there was our wedding, which is another thing, but if we keep traveling east on Highway 20 together, soon we’ll come towards the nowhere of all nowheres, the handsome desert of handsome deserts, even past Brothers and Hampton and Riley, past Glass Buttes and Wagontire, past Burns and further, then south and further, I can tell you about this nowhere, and I will, in pieces, as too much has happened to tell you everything, but in the sense that it loops back to fate and 2008 I will. Soon.

Yes, we still want a space in the desert. A place to make something small and perfect. We still gaze at that Millican Valley with a spiritual history that makes us sigh. Soon.

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