Updated: Jul 25, 2022
We were on the road before sunrise. “Just left Ontario,” Tim texted. “Grabbing the coffee,” I replied. Sunrise cast pink-orange light on the layered banks of clouds to the east as I drove south on Highway 95 from the Treasure Valley. As I climbed the Owyhee Front, I put on some mood-enhancing music and began to feel the fulfillment of the day.
I knew that most of the folks coming out today were Adopt-a-Highway seasoned, but Beth (the lead botanist on a FOTO trip a while back), Randy, and Tim were joining for the first time. Joanie and Randy are both long-time FOTO enthusiasts, having been on several conservation advocacy trips. Becky has attended all of the cleanups on this 4-mile stretch and has worked on both sides of the border; she serves as the amazing chair on our board of directors and was instrumental in the formation of the non-profit. Andrea has also been involved in FOTO for a long time, you could say she inspired our founder Tim's love for the Owyhee. After a group picture (gone between poor photo location, missing tripod parts, a dead camera battery, and resorting to my terrible cell phone camera) and distributing our $5 gift certificates courtesy of Sorbenots Coffee, we split up. "Divide and conquer" is our motto when it comes to garbage collection!
We collected a total of 15 bags of garbage and 2 bags of cans and bottles. These trips are like a short study in the psychology of the highway traveler. We have found a wide variety of debris in the past—everything from the expected plastic bags and cigarette butts to partially buried bags of feces and bottles of urine to hypodermic needles (I collected 38 in one day last spring) and vape cartridges. Randy and I came across some pretty neat stuff today:
A vehicle lead-acid battery in a waterway.
A partially burned memorial cross for Carmen, likely someone that lost their life on this road. I re-erected the cross, tamped some earth around it, placed some rocks, and then left a memorializing gift (Castonguay Clan gold dust).
A strew field of solidified molten metal that trailed to what we hypothesize is also a vehicle battery.
An entire box of Coca-Cola disposable cup lids scattered about. We each picked up at least 225 (I did my best to keep my count, but I think Randy was in the thick of it) and we also found 4 tubes still sealed (320). The box count is 960, so if we collected [(2 x 225) + 320], then we collected at least 80%.
We also had an in-depth conversation about the environmental pros and cons of carbon fiber, stainless steel, and titanium bike frames.
After the team called it a day, I headed to Jordan Valley for a stop at the Big Loop sub shop for a pastrami sandwich while I pored over some maps. My plan was to collect some preliminary data for the Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network's lighting inventory. Ideally, I would have also stayed out after dark to use our Sky Quality Meter for readings to add to the Globe at Night project, but the beautiful texture of the skies would have prevented any starry sky data. So, I came up with a new plan for an effective field afternoon.
The Owyhee is big. As a geologist, I’ve had the chance to travel to a lot of places during the 6 years that I've lived here. There are still so many places in the Owyhee to see: numerous corners, roads, canyons, ridges, and knobs that I have not come close to. As I thought about the low-hanging fruit options for my afternoon, I remembered that I've never driven Oregon 78. I quickly plotted the afternoon's roads and stops, gave the Coca-Cola lids to the Big Loop, stopped at Skinners Rockhouse Coffee for some caffeine, and headed out. Layered stratus clouds on the western horizon, some dark and swollen, looked as if they were prepared to drop precipitation anytime. They did just that by the time I hit Danner Road. I changed my hiking plans a bit, but knew I'd manage a successful field day regardless.
Did you know there is an Oregon State Park and a State Natural Area between Rome and Burns Junction? It's called Crooked Creek. I stopped here to take some notes, assess the geology a bit, look at the shape of the boundaries, and enjoy. Just the other day, I reconnected with a fellow geoscience community college instructor from Linn-Benton Community College, Deron Carter, who had done some of his doctorate work in this area. After some careful mapping, they showed plenty of evidence that the Pleistocene-age lake that occupied the Alvord actually had an outburst flood event into the Owyhee drainage via Crooked Creek. Neato!
Before turning northwest on Highway 78, I took a look to the south. Tim and I had been drooling over maps the week before (and the week before that, and the week before that), and speculating a potential fault with a NE trend there. Rattlesnake Creek is confined to a canyon, and as soon as it crosses the fault to the down-dropped hangingwall, it seems to dry up. Sure enough, not only is it mapped as a fault but it is mapped by the USGS Quaternary Fold database as active in the last 15,000 years. Neato!
As I departed Highway 95 and turned onto Highway 78, I still had faults on my mind. I recently connected with a master's student from Mississippi State (Allison Bohanan working with Dr. Kelsey Crane) that did fieldwork on the Sheepshead Mountains to the south of this road. The Steens Mountains are well-known as a large fault-block mountain, with the adjacent down-dropped Alvord Desert. The Sheepshead have that same general trend, but are cut by numerous faults into a mini-basin and range province. Spectacular views of this from the Fields-Denio road intersection with Highway 78. As I turned around, I felt conflicted but lucky to see the vandalism on the stop sign that read “Paiute”. A great reminder of whose ancestral territories I am on.
After driving a few miles up Crowley Road, hitting half a tank of gas, I figured it was time to head home. I sat for a while at a pullout, writing much of this blog and contemplating aspects of life: roadside garbage, conservation, legacy, recreation, geologic processes, and the past. I'm very thankful to do these things: be an educator, work in conservation advocacy, clean up beautiful spaces, and apply my geologic training every day.
Back on Highway 78, I came over a blind hill to a huge bird (and a smaller one) in the road. As it lifted away, it attempted to take the roadkill with it. As I passed, I identified the giant bird as a golden eagle, the smaller one as a raven, and the roadkill as a coyote. Interesting sight. I stopped, gloved up, and pulled the coyote carcass off the road so the birds could feast on the shoulder rather than in the middle of the road.
As the sun set to the west, those nice textured skies became pink and orange again with sunset. I waved at my own shadow as the low angle of the sun broadcasted on the roadcut, then later I waved my three fingers at Three Fingers Rock as I left our Adopt-a-Highway section behind, not far from the valley. The glee of getting home to share this day's adventure with my three kids began to set in. Manny will love seeing the metal chunks, Neva will be touched to hear about the Carmen memorial, and Oshen will be interested to hear about the golden eagle, raven, and coyote engagement.
Our mission here at Friends of the Owyhee is conservation advocacy, stewardship, and recreation in the Owyhee region. This truly was a mission-fulfilling day. Thank you for supporting this mission, by reading, sharing, discussing, donating, acting, thinking, and caring about the Owyhee.
In memory of Diane McConnaughey
Diane is shown in this picture on the far right at our third annual Succor Creek Thistle Removal event in 2018. She's standing next to Ben Hipple, her partner in life and naturalist adventures. She lost her fight with cancer this past October, just days after I happened to meet her and Ben at a rest area while traveling. Becky and I both attended her celebration of life in November, and Becky spoke about the first time she met Diane on a Friends of the Owyhee conservation advocacy campout at Three Forks—she had brought a Dutch oven full of berry cobbler to share with the group. One of her brothers read a touching eulogy during which he cited "falling leaves" and passed each of us a recently collected leaf (mine was a catalpa tree leaf, and I had just driven Catalpa Street on the way to the service). He gave us the directions to place this leaf on the river and let it float downstream, memorializing Diane's life and passage beyond. I'll be taking my Diane leaf to the Owyhee River and celebrating her tenacious spirit as a badass, hot-shot firefighter, "Earth Mother", and all-around joyous person.