A grove of aspen trees in their autumn dress catch the early evening light in Steens Mountain Wilderness, Oregon.
In autumn of 2016 I felt the need to disappear.. the need to be surrounded by vast, empty landscapes where I could feel my insignificance in the world. A place where I could exist in quiet introspection. A place to isolate, avoid, purge, face, absorb, and be born again. A theoretic center of my universe.
I knew that in deep south eastern Oregon I could find exactly that and so I left Portland midday and drove the 8+ hours non-stop to the Steens Mountain Wilderness. Arriving at midnight, I fell asleep near the summit in forceful wind which rocked the truck throughout the night and left a buildup of rime across its surfaces. I spent the calmer morning drinking coffee and eating breakfast while watching the clouds dance on the face of the mountain that faces the Alvord Desert Playa.
I had only seen some parts of the Steens Mountain area on a previous visit in which the majority of the road was still closed by snow. Arriving in the dark and having my first glimpses of the area be shown in a bath of morning light only made the cathartic nature of the morning much more pronounced. I didn't worry about photographing that morning. My intent was to purge.. to breath... to feel alive.
I spent the next couple of days exploring back country roads on the western slope of the mountain, still with the focus less on photography and more on being. When I saw a stand of aspens across the gorge I checked my topographic map and lo and behold, a four wheel drive road cut straight through the heart of it. It was the first time I had ever seen such dense stands of aspen in autumn colors and I gleefully drove the road, marveling at the beauty of the early evening light being filtered through the dense yellow foliage. I found a place to park and wandered the forest looking for compositions. Frustrated with the challenge of trying to photograph such chaotic scenes, I walked back towards the truck and as I rested my mind this arrangement of trees stood out to me just inside the forest line. It was exactly what I had been looking for photographically and as I wrapped up shooting the scene, a gentleman and his wife emerged from the trail near my truck and we got to talking.
It turned out that they were staying in a Bureau of Land Management bunk house not too far away, one that he and his grandfather built before their land had been acquired by the BLM. Our talk was brief and we retired for the night. I walked to the edge of the gorge and watched the shadows fall across the land while I ate dinner. As twilight fell away, I laid in my truck with the doors open searching for constellations. It's so dark in that corner of the state that I had a hard time even finding the Big Dipper with how many stars were visible. I focused on the breeze moving across my skin in the deafening silence of the night. I think they call it deafening silence because it's so quiet that there's actually an overwhelming drone of white noise, possibly the sound of blood rushing past your ear drums.
I ran into Ric and Phyllis the next morning and they pointed me to one of their favorite overlooks.. one where they had a plaque dedicated to their ancestors who had lived on the land and one of the most impressive places I had been to in the area. They later arrived at the same viewpoint and we talked for well over an hour. I listened as he told me the history of the land, who lived where in the area, the struggles of being a rancher, and the politics of losing his home. I heard his memories, learned some secrets of the area, and realized how much reverence he has for the land, something that we had in common amongst all the things we didn't. The topic of sobriety came up and I learned that he had over 20 years under his belt, his worn sobriety coin in his pocket which he pulled out to show me. It was then that I realized that the day prior was the six year anniversary of my own sobriety. I had been so deep in my mind and experience that I had completely forgotten. Once we parted ways I was overwhelmed with gratitude, and being alone in the middle of nowhere, I let it take me and run its course.
There's magic in those hills in south eastern Oregon. Some places just feel that way, you know? It's something very abstract and intangible, but extremely powerful that results in very tangible emotions. It gave me the soulful healing that I was desperately seeking and it gave me the opportunity to make some new friends while showing me that even though we come from completely different backgrounds and might have opposing views, the stuff deep down... the important stuff... we shared. The struggles, the appreciations, and the wonder. At the end of the day and at the center of ourselves, are we really all that different? Photo © copyright by TJ Thorne.