Bill and Jewell DeLong met Nora the Schnauzer and me when we pulled into their driveway at Vale, Ore., on a recent damp and blustery Tuesday morning.
“I have a proposal,” Bill said. “I hate to change our plans, but I think we should take the pickup tour today and the ORV ride tomorrow,” he said. “Come inside, and I’ll show you why.”
On Monday, we had planned the two activities in reverse order, not that I minded a change.
Bill called up the weather report on his computer.
“We’re going to have 35-mph winds down here today, and they could be 65 mph up on the mountain (at 6,500 feet altitude),” he said. “And it may rain.”
Bill switched to Wednesday’s forecast, which predicted much less wind and mostly sunny skies.
Sounded perfect to me. So, after stowing away Jewell’s lip-smacking breakfast (eggs, hash browns, toast and coffee) we set out at 8:24 a.m.
We drove northwest on Oregon Highway 26, toward John Day. We stopped at Bill’s brother Duane’s place.
Duane DeLong retired after a long career with the Bureau of Land Management as the Vale district’s animal control officer.
Duane, like Bill, knows the Malheur territory (every rock, gulley and tree on it, Bill said), and Duane had doubts about us being able to make the proposed trip on the high-country back roads because of Monday’s rain. So, Bill borrowed a shovel.
From then on, my sense of our location fuzzed up a bit.
We drove a couple of miles south (or north?) on the highway and turned west onto a primitive road.
Within minutes, we saw a golden eagle rise from the ground and skim away over the sage.
Shortly after that we saw a redtail hawk soar above the sage with a squirrel in its talons. It hovered briefly then dropped onto a bush.
Eventually we reached Bully Creek Road, a mile or so from the reservoir. So, we stopped off for Bill to see my pumpkin-colored tent.
From there we followed Bully Creek north and west to an area of hot springs and drilling rigs.
“The owner plans to harness the thermal activity and produce electricity,” Bill said.
He wasn’t sure if it would work.
On the way back, I reached a hand into the water beside the road. Ouch!
From there we headed back toward Vale and turned west on Highway 20. At Harper we turned north and east again.
We stopped and, for an hour, we climbed a sage-covered hill for a better view of a rock formation. It resembled a man-made or fantasy tower, or a Space Needle.
We paused often to gander at other picturesque rock formations along the road (one with a hawk perched high on top).
We also visited the semi-ghost town of Westfall, which still has an operating post office. The shell of its two-story hotel made of stone still stands.
After that we headed north and east. Stretches of steep, rocky road jostled us as we reminisced and discussed the stark beauty, geology and history of the area.
Despite the slippery spots that Duane cautioned us about, we crawled along.
We saw many deer and antelope (one with crooked antlers). Wind walloped the pickup.
At one high vista, we counted seven species of wildflowers.
Twice we stopped to examine ruts cut in bed-rock by iron-rimmed wagon wheels as pioneers headed from Old Fort Boise to the Oregon Trail near Farewell Bend on the Snake River, beginning in the 1840s.
The wheels eventually cut the ruts as wide as pickup tires.
We passed one giant mound of boulders the size of SUVs. The pile resembled an igloo, but the boulders could hardly have been placed by humans.
Back at Highway 26, we drove to Ironside and turned eastward. We stopped at a cemetery with births and deaths dating back to the 1800s. Wind blew so hard there that we leaned against it with flapping jackets and watering eyes.
We continued along Willow Creek and past Malheur Reservoir. We passed a gold-mining operation with big trucks and earth-moving equipment.
Finally, after 40 or so back-road miles, we returned to Highway 26 and reached Bill’s home by 7:15 p.m.
Bill assured me that the next day’s ATV trip would travel slower, steeper and rougher jaw-tensing roads (to keep from biting our tongues) with stunning views.
I could hardly wait.