Oregon’s Trail through Time: How do you protect a historic artifact from the development it catalyzed?

IMG_8067This feature appeared in the March 7, 2016 special travel issue of High Country News:

Ignore the cold that stiffens your fingers this blustery November day. Ignore the snow atop the distant mountains and the seed-flecked mud that weights your boots. Forget the Jeep Cherokee you came in. None of that was here, in eastern Oregon, in late summer when they crossed.

“You’ve gotta pretend,” says Gail Carbiener, “that it’s 100 degrees.”

I close my eyes. Beneath my feet are the ruts of the Oregon Trail, left by thousands of covered wagons that settlers used to haul belongings from Missouri to the valleys beyond the Cascades, back during the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. Even then, the route wasn’t new: Fur trappers and missionaries used it, and so, for millennia, did Native peoples.

Today, it’s the designated Oregon National Historic Trail, administered by the National Park Service and mostly visited by history enthusiasts like Carbiener and his wife, Muriel. This particular stretch, northwest of Ontario, Oregon, was a brutally dry 25 miles between the algae-choked Malheur River and a final crossing of the Snake River called Farewell Bend. I conjure creaking leather, plodding livestock, and sunburnt families on foot. It’s not easy: The ruts look more like an eroded ditch grown over with sagebrush. I can faintly hear traffic on Interstate 84, out of sight beyond a hill that fails to conceal a cellphone tower.

The visual intrusion makes 81-year-old Carbiener scowl beneath his John Deere ball cap, but otherwise, the white-grassed hills appear mostly unchanged since the 19th century. That’s why the Carbieners so love this spot, called Birch Creek. Those early travelers “would talk about coming up to a ridge, and as far as the eye could see, they saw wagons,” Gail Carbiener continues. “And so the dust here was unbelievable. The diaries would say that it was so thick, we can’t see the oxen in front of the wagon.”

To complete the scene, I glance at Muriel Carbiener. She performs living history at the High Desert Museum in Bend, where the couple lives, and today, she’s in character. A bonnet covers her close-cropped hair and a floral-print dress hangs to her ankles, cinched with a slightly tattered apron. “And of course there’s a corset,” the diminutive 79-year-old laughs, to “keep the girls in. Do you want to walk 2,000 miles without any support?” More…

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The day I tried to love ticks

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This post appeared in The Last Word on Nothing on February 26, 2016.

There’s a certain category of mundane but distinctly unpleasant discovery: The blueberries you just mixed in your oatmeal explode mold into your mouth at 6 a.m. You read that Donald Trump won the Nevada Republican caucuses. You roll over in bed to find a tick lodged midriff-deep in your shoulder, wiggling about with a tenacity that suggests she plans to spelunk all the way through to your lungs.

“Fortuitously, the antibiotic you take prophylactically for Lyme disease is also the one you take to treat Chlamydia,” the doctor tells me cheerfully a day later when he checks the bruised and swollen bite and gives me a prescription. I stare at him, wondering why he thinks I need this information. It’s unlikely that I’ve got Lyme. Though local incidence is going up, Oregon saw only 44 reported cases in 2014 and Washington generally gets fewer than 30 a year – with just zero to three stemming from local ticks. But the fact that odds are in my favor fails to cheer me as I pluck tick after ever-more-engorged tick from my dog over the next several days. They’re small and hide well in her fur, so unless they pop out of her ears and stroll calmly across her face (some do) I can’t seem to find them until they’re attached and on their way to becoming fat and shiny as coffee beans.

Their emergence is, of course, just as much a sign of spring as the lovely purple grass widows my friend Roger and I had been out looking for when tickmageddon started last Saturday. By tick 10, I started to wonder: Aside from their reputation for transmitting more diseases than any other blood-sucking arthropod, why shouldn’t I find a way to appreciate ticks, too – from a safe distance away? Maybe I could even learn to love them a little bit. Continue reading The day I tried to love ticks

The masks we wear

This is crossposted from The Last Word on Nothing, a science writing blog where I just became a regular contributor!

Revised alien

When I put on the metallic silver unitard and homemade alien mask that rainy morning, I had no idea that I was about to embark on one of the most stressful weekends of my life.

How could I? I love wearing costumes. One Halloween, I dressed as a vulture-like Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, and stalked through the local grocery sniffing packages of meat. Another, I made 30 little men out of fabric and baling wire, gluegunned toothpick spears into their tiny mitts, and sewed them all over my clothes. When my friends asked what I was, I screamed that I was “being attacked by tiny people!”

A mask gives you freedom to reinterpret yourself. Sort of like the way being drunk cleanses you of all your inhibitions: Maybe you dance “15,000 times better in costume than out,” as one of my friends puts it, or maybe you finally have an excuse to talk to that cute stranger dressed as a box of wine. To wear a costume is to take on a sort of power.

But the difference with my alien getup was that it wasn’t Halloween. It was an ordinary March day. As a newcomer to Portland, Oregon, I had decided to take on the role of the ultimate foreign visitor for a travel story that I was writing – a sort of cross between performance art and social experiment where I would spend 48 hours seeing the city’s sights through black, ovoid eyes. There was a tenuous journalistic angle, in that Oregon had the highest per capita rate of UFO sightings in 2014, and Portland was a hotspot. But it was personal, too: Moving from a town of 1,500 to a city of 600,000, I felt invisible. I yearned, with tinges of existential dread, to set myself apart from the faceless masses. To be a special snowflake. A special alien snowflake. Continue reading The masks we wear

Claustrophilia: Do wide-open lands bring us closer together?

Cover essay and photographs from the September 15, 2015 High Country News Books and Essays issue:

I can see a spark of tired panic in Jo’s eyes as they meet mine. Our narrow Purgon — a Russian-made UAZ van that resembles a jacked-up VW bus — is bursting with people. The rigid seats, which face each other like those in a diner booth, are crammed with butts, and our knees interlock like a human zipper. In the back, where baggage and boxes of supplies serve as yet more seats, two weathered old men hunch below the ceiling. In the front passenger seat, a woman settles on the lap of the standby driver.

Dhuka reindeerAnd yet here we are, picking up another passenger. She looks like she weighs maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, but where will she fit? There’s a slim gap between Jo and her neighbor; the newcomer clambers over and wedges in sideways. Finally, finally, after six hours of waiting, the driver decides that we’re full. He grinds into gear and we chug free of Murun, Mongolia — capital of the country’s northernmost province — toward the remote village of Tsagaan Nuur, near the Russian border.

After 30 minutes of paved road, we veer abruptly onto a dirt two-track winding into the hills. Jo’s husband, Sean, who finished a Peace Corps assignment here in 2007, grins knowingly at Jo and me. “Jiiinkheeene,” he comments wryly, drawing out the Mongolian word. Jinkhene translates roughly as authentic, or old-school. But it can best be defined by what follows.

The Purgon bounces and shudders: The passengers brace arms against seats and each other’s knees, occasionally knocking heads. The Purgon grows steadily chillier: The passengers produce a laptop and memory stick and put together a compilation of Mongolian power ballads that the driver plays on repeat for the next 12 hours. The Purgon bogs in the mud: The passengers tumble out and push, sprinting in all directions when it lurches free at high speed. Through it all, everyone smiles, everyone laughs. There’s something almost tender about the ease with which strangers drowse on each others’ shoulders through the night. Shepherd slumps against meaty policeman; meaty policeman slumps against Sean; Sean, wincing, flattens his 6-foot-4-inch frame against the Purgon wall and my feet, which I had propped up to keep my knees from cramping.

The Mongolians are better at this than us.

In my early 20s, I was in a similar situation on a Greyhound bus between Kansas City and Denver. When the sleeping teenage girl next to me began drooling on my shoulder, I felt not tenderness but silent, half-homicidal rage.

Now, though, watching these strangers touch each other as casually as friends, I feel differently. Beyond the smeared windows stretches one of the most sparsely populated landscapes in the world. There are no fences, and little interrupts the gentle roll of the steppe besides patches of dark trees and congregations of plump sheep, yaks and horses. Felt roundhouses called gers — the traditional homes of pastoral nomads — appear now and then like white buttons stitched haphazardly onto rumpled green fabric. Sean has told us about the nomads’ generosity, how they will offer even unexpected visitors salted yak-milk tea, food, a bed. And I’ve read of the blizzards and subzero cold that pummel people here each winter. Maybe, I think, in all this beautiful, brutal vastness, a tiny enclosure that brings the world to a human scale is to be shared, not defended. How else would anyone survive in such a place? More…

Glass half full?

This editor’s note, for the feature “Unite and conquer,” appeared in the Mar. 2, 2015 issue of High Country News:

On Jan. 1, I joined 15 friends on a raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. That morning, our boats were covered in snow; the canyon’s red cliffs, capped with white, looked like giant slabs of frosted carrot cake. The ranger said locals had never seen the place so wintry.

So we were delighted to return to Colorado — thousands of feet higher, where the river’s Rocky Mountain headwaters lie — and find no sign of winter. “Mountain biking in a tank top. Suck it, New England,” one of our trip leaders crowed from Durango on Facebook as a blizzard battered the East Coast.

But as the endless warm days slushed snow into mud and turned mud into hardpan, a growing alarm replaced our lizard-like impulse to bask. Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 8, 174 Colorado communities met or broke high temperature records. A few on the state’s eastern plains even neared or surpassed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. More…

Searching for the sacrifice zone: Where can we say yes to oil and gas development?

This feature originally appeared in the Jan. 19 print edition of High Country News:

Oil and gas waste pits at Danish Flat, Utah, just across the Colorado border.
Oil and gas waste pits at Danish Flat, Utah, just across the Colorado border.

Kaye Fissinger collects Don Quixote.

I met the diminutive 70-year-old at her home in a quiet subdivision of Longmont, Colorado. Amid memorabilia from her work in musical theater, black-and-white portraits and an eye-popping snapshot of her body-builder daughter, the man of La Mancha stared from prints and paintings, posed in wooden statuettes and porcelain figurines.

“Why Quixote?” I asked.

She regarded me over gold-rimmed glasses, a smile quirking her mouth. “Because he tilts at windmills,” she said.

In a way, so does Fissinger, but hers are the oil-drilling rigs that have popped up lately in her area. She looked computer-tired, clad in a white turtleneck, her hair pulled into a ponytail. She led me upstairs to a cluttered home office, cleared a stack of documents from a chair and urged me to sit. When she came here from L.A. in 2006, she explained, she was worried about the separation of church and state.

She didn’t yet realize that the plains further to the northeast were pin-cushioned with tens of thousands of wells, many of them hydraulically fractured, or fracked — a process that involves firing water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground at incomprehensible pressures — or that the boom had intensified in recent years.

Then one day in 2011, an automated phone survey asked her an odd question: How would she feel if drilling took place on Longmont open space? “Radar, radar!” she exclaimed. A company, it turned out, had proposed drilling around a local reservoir. The more she learned, the more she worried. She thought of her great-grandkids. A lung cancer survivor, she thought of her respiratory health. She thought about the flat lot near her house that might be a perfect place for a rig.

And in 2012, she helped found the nonprofit Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, which spearheaded a ballot initiative that made the city the first in Colorado to ban fracking. The next fall, despite industry’s expensive counter-campaign, several other Front Range communities followed suit. Places across the West and the country have also joined in, from rural Mora County, New Mexico, in 2013, to, most recently and significantly, the state of New York, which overlays a booming shale gas formation.

Though many bans face long odds in court — Longmont’s and others have already been shot down and are headed for appeals — activists and local officials keep fighting. “We’re in it for the long haul,” Fissinger told me emphatically. “Fracking is a toxic, extreme energy extraction method. I don’t think it can be made safe.”

The prospect of a drill rig towering over one’s home would terrify just about anyone, me included. But I still felt conflicted: A near-term transition from oil and gas is profoundly unlikely. Natural gas is slowly supplanting coal as a primary electricity-generating fuel. Petroleum runs our planes, trains and automobiles. Both make it into a dizzying array of plastics and personal care products.

The corporate machine of hydrocarbon development contains a ghost. And the ghost in that machine is us. Until that changes, every fracking ban — Longmont’s, Mora County’s, New York’s — no matter how heroic and justified, simply pushes drilling somewhere else. I wanted to know: Where are we saying yes to such development, and how can we say it in a way 0that lessens impacts on landscapes and people?

I had one hunch. To see if it bore out, I rented a red Chevy Cruze, filled the tank, and got behind the wheel. “Remaining Oil Life: 97%” blinked on the dash. How appropriate, I thought, and drove west, toward Energy Country. More…(subscription required.)

Four women joyride the flood that will revive the Colorado River Delta

This web exclusive appeared on hcn.org on March 28, 2014

The guides warned us, of course. Or they sort of did.

It was sometime after the river outfitter’s shuttle van had passed through the latticework of gates and fences that guards the steep, hairpinned road to the boat-launch at the base of the Hoover Dam, and possibly right before we realized that we had left our two-burner stove back in Alison’s truck, in the parking lot of a casino hotel towering beigely over an otherwise nearly buildingless swath of desert around Lake Mead.

March 19 had dawned beautiful and bluebird in what we had dubbed Baja, Nevada – a 12-mile stretch of clear turquoise water with intermittent hotsprings through the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, where my three college lady friends and I planned to kayak at a luxuriantly sluggish pace for four days. Green rattlesnakes will chase you, the guides told us as we wound into the steep gorge. Scorpions will roost in your sandals. Brain-eating amoebas will Swiss-cheese your frontal lobes if you’re stupid enough to snort the hotspring water. And in the afternoon and at night, the water level can rise without warning as dam operators let more or less through Hoover’s hydroelectric turbines to feed fluctuating power demands in Arizona, Nevada and California. Make sure your gear is secure, the guides fingerwagged, and your kayaks well-tied overnight. Yes, of course, but the stove? we clamored. The eating of delicious things was, after all, a top priority. The guides exchanged glances. Tight federal security around the dam meant there would be no driving back for it. That left hoofing it out from the first side canyon, about a mile downriver. More…