Alvord by Joshua Willey
The car started, the sky grey. Cautiously, we rolled down the logging road, crossed the river, and joined the highway. Something had changed. Something in the quality of the light. The empty space between the canyon wall, even between the car doors, was somehow vaster, even menacing, as though if you fell in, you might never manage to climb back out. As we crossed a summit and began the descent into the town of John Day we didn’t speak, but watched the clouds, moving too quickly to form definite shapes resembling anything that we could identify. A man was pulled over to the side of the road emptying a pistol over the hood of his pickup. What was he shooting at? Balthazar began to describe the dissolution of his engagement to a southern belle, a portrait painter, in New York City. The darkness he’d loved in her since the beginning turned against him in time. He could not see through it. The economic downfall had hit hardest out here, where livelihood was fragile to begin with. Barns were collapsing. In John Day we stopped for gas and there was a used bookstore attached to the station with cheap copies of Descartes and Dumas. We filled our thermoses with coffee and bought clearance priced butter roles and raisin bread and pepper jack cheese. For a brief moment we got radio reception, though there was no antennae.
We passed by the home of the Prospectors and into the heart of the Strawberry Mountains, onwards towards the town of Seneca. We passed Idlewind. There was nobody around. We got to Burns around noon, but just rolled through to the town of Crane another thirty miles south, where there was meant to be a hot springs. Balthazar fell in love with the proprietor, a woman with heavy rural accent in her sixties. The springs didn’t boil up on their own anymore, they had to pump the water out, and their pump was broke, so the water was only about seventy seven degrees and the wind was whipping randomly at the edge of the desert. We watched the RVs go by. She let us fill out water bottles. The mountains ended, the trees fell away, leaving only sage and clump grass. The rocks turned green and red. In the distance you could see the Steens. The clouds had slowed by now and it was possible to discern distinct representations in their likeness. A fishing boat. A Vietnamese hat. A Rolls Royce. A grandfather clock. A woman.
At the turnoff to the next springs we stopped. There were no more cars, not as far as they eye could see, not any closer than the horizon. There was no water in the ground. We didn’t wear seat belts as we moved down the gravel at sixty miles per hour. Occasionally a windsock hung listless on a fence post. We rattled over cattle guards, Balthazar counted the jet streams in the sky, no longer cloudy but perfectly, totally blue. We didn’t speak for an hour. When we reached Mann Lake we saw a Dodge Ram with a camper, but no human. I shit in a honey bucket. When I stepped outside, I could see Balthazar in the distance, throwing rocks at a road sign. Every time he missed, and every time he missed, he took a step back, making it harder. When I asked him why he moved further from, not closer to his target he just said “true to life.” He put on a Miles Davis record and we eased down the road.
The Californian was sitting in his little car when we rolled up. I didn’t notice him at first. As we were fucking with our shit, I heard him speak. “It’s too hot” he said. “Too hot for what?” Balthazar asked. “Too hot for me” he said, and turned on his motor. “Maybe it’ll cool down this evening.” “Maybe” Balthazar said. We walked down the hard clay path to the springs, half enclosed in bullet riddled sheet metal. The smell of sulphur rose up faintly from the rust colored streams trailing haphazardly into the desert and disappearing. Above us the Steens were still speckled with snow. The tub itself was of concrete, divided in two, with the interior cylinders of old washing machines placed under the water as stools. Indeed, the water was nearly too hot to soak in. A fear of sterility set in. At first I entered quickly, and then I sat very still, perhaps thinking a bubble of cool surrounded me which I dared not disturb. Balthazar was more cautious, dipping his toe like in that video where Eddie Murphy parodies James Brown. A Jackrabbit crossed the space between two thickets of sage not far away. When I got out five minutes later my vision blurred, I could not stand. The desert seemed to vaporize and I couldn’t swallow, as though I’d smoked a lot of pot and not drank any water. Little white spots flashed across my eyes, and I crawled into a corridor shaped shed adjoining the tubs and lay on the decomposing wood floor. A large framed photograph hung on the back wall, of an old man with David Lynch’s haircut who had passed a year prior and was the site’s volunteer caretaker. There were hooks on the walls, a pair of royal blue Haines underwear hanging from one. Balthazar had entered the other tub, which was much cooler, too cool, in fact. The only way to maintain comfort was to shift frequently back and fourth between the two. When Balthazar rose to move from hot to cold steam rose furiously from his back and disappeared in the arid air. A man with a pony tail and a woman with long graying hair came walking up and asked about the water. “It’s too hot” we said. They felt it. “Oh it’s much hotter than it was this morning.” Still, they took their clothes off, lingering naked on the deck letting goosebumps cover their skin before getting in. We all sat there in silence, the wind the only sound. They were biologists, she from Walla Walla, he from Seattle. They were on contract for a month, based in the town of Fields, doing population surveys of Sage Grouse. The Grouse were lekking, so once they’d located the leks, it wasn’t difficult to get good counts everyday. They rose an hour before the first light of day, drank coffee and listened to Morning Edition, went out to the lek on four wheelers, watched the lek for a couple hours, came back and entered their data, and were finished with work by ten. So they had a lot of leisure time. They walked every trail in the Steens, sat long beside the little snowmelt streams. In fact, they realized, communally, a week into the project, that it was changing their lives. Biologists are experts at taking it slow, but they’d never taken it this slow, not since childhood. It only took a few nights sharing the room at the end of Fields’ only street for them to start having sex, and from then on they had it all the time, three times a day on average. In the bush while watching the lek, after data entry, at a nice isolated spot in the Mann Lake riparian zone, in the back of the truck on some desolate, windy, summit, at night, before an early bedtime, in their room. She read voraciously. Edward O. Wilson, Niles Eldrich, Stephen Hawking, Timothy Ferris, Dee Brown, Albert Einstein. He had a few volumes along himself, but he read them timidly, repeatedly, with eye not for completion, but inspiration. Whitman. Nietzsche. Marx. Yogananda. They wrote long letters by hand and posted them to distant friends. They watched HBO for at least an hour every night. And everyday they had at least one soak in the springs.
The cook came up to the springs with three German shorthaired hunting dogs, skinny with big ears and big, intelligent eyes. The first two, Trigger and Sierra, were pups, but the third, Stretch, was old. He’d been abandoned at a hunting camp not far from the Alvord Ranch headquarters, and the cook had offered to take him on. He was an avid hunter, fisherman. He was born in Bolivia and worked in the mines in the north of the country as a youth. All day they’d work, and at night get quickly drunk on nearly pure alcohol of local origin, fall fast asleep only to do it all again, seven days a week. The average life expectancy for those miners is thirty five. In China, I heard some two hundred miners die everyday. I remembered those movies, Blind Shaft, Harland County and Matewan with a young Will Oldham as the political preacher about miners in the United States. We never learned how he got to the country but he’d worked at hunting and fishing lodges all over, and worked ranches too, and sometimes saved up and not worked at all. He’d grown accustomed to solitude, to extreme freedom, extreme open space stretching out around him. And you could see in the way he moved and in the way he talked that he’d come to find deeper and broader meanings in the experience. That he’d attained something profoundly beautiful. He wore glasses with purple lenses and smoked Winstons in the tub and drank water from a plastic bottle. His dogs brought in a rodent hide.
Everyone left and for a moment we were alone again, when this woman with long red hair walked in from the desert with a dog. She felt the water and made a funny face. “That’s way too hot.” She was a nurse from Portland. After college she’d gone to work at a hospital in Anchorage for Inuits and Athapaskans. She did some work for the WHO, and the Doctors Without Borders, finally coming to rest at the emergency room at Oregon Health Sciences University. “I come down here a couple times a year” she said. She changed into a bathing suit and tried to sit in the hot tub, which was too hot, then abandoned it for the cold, which was too cold, so she left altogether. We starred at the light, dying now, over the mountains. Purples and Pinks. The camper we’d seen at Mann Lake pulled up in the twilight and a man walked down alone with a small bag. He suggested we plug the intake and let the hot tub cool. As night was coming on it was getting cold quickly. He took out a bottle of wine which he poured a mug full at a time out of. He was getting “smashed” as he put, and that we could put him at his ease seemed the best thing we’d done all day. He spent his twenty third year working for the Department of Fish and Wildlife on the Snake River. He lived in a pale green teardrop trailer where Oregon, Washington, and Idaho collide. Mostly his charge was to cruise the border out on the water itself, in a little aluminum boat with an outboard motor and a set of wooden oars. He’d sit on an orange pillow which was also his life preserver and in the afternoon a strong wind swept up the canyon from the Columbia and he’d hold onto his hat as the tips of his ears and nose went comfortably numb. He checked the fishing licenses of the many sportsmen and tourists floating down from Ice Harbor toward Lewiston. Once he had a romance with a girl he met on the river. She was a third wheel so the situation was ripe from the beginning. Tragedy had struck her, he never knew how, but she was tired, and her friend convinced her to take in the river with her and her fiancé. The three of them camped at the grounds near his trailer one night and the light was just perfect, electric, a truly living and vital light, so they stayed another two nights, fishing from the shore, drinking wine, dancing and telling stories and even eating mushrooms around the campfire, and when the friend and fiancé left she stayed for a week, and he never saw her again but it was perfect, it saved her she said, and it would be a lightness in his step for the rest of his life. Otherwise at night he’d sit in the trailer and drink cheap red wine alone reading Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold and Barry Lopez and John McPhee. The trailer had skylight through which he’d look up and wonder how he’d forgotten all the constellations his brother had taught him when, in their youth they’d gone camping and enjoyed the mysterious and euphoric process of bedding down in the back of a pickup, only to doze off and on and wake all the night through watching the cosmos entire spin around in an incomprehensibly large circle, all save the North Star, hanging constant and brightly in the center of them all.
On off days he’d fish for Rainbows and Cutthroat and even Steelhead or go bow hunting for small game which he mastered the preparation of, even with only a limited larder at his disposal. He stripped and polished a perfectly straight pine branch he’d found and used it as a walking stick, and he’d laugh at night when he looked at it, propped in the corner of the trailer. Once, in the evening’s stellar redness, after he’d been looking for mushrooms and was returning with seven pungent chanterelles to his teardrop, he was shocked and awed and stopped dead by what sounded like the blood curdling scream of a woman in dire straights. In fact the moment after the scream was louder than the scream itself, as in the ancient Chinese poem about the blackbird, as the silence thundering through that forest beyond Enterprise was so great he could hear not only the beating of his own heart, but the pumping of his blood in his veins. With cold and sweaty palms gripping the pine staff, he stepped forward, flat-footed like his Nez-Pierce friends had showed him to do when hunting to remain incognito, to distribute the weight as evenly as possible on the ground, so not even the worms would recognize the human presence. After three or four steps further, he heard the scream again. Then he smelled it. It was not a woman in distress after all, it was a lion, and it screamed but to ward him off.
He had two daughters who he refused to take to Disneyland. “I’ll show you the real Disneyland” he said, and he took them to Alaska. Balthazar told him about New York. One of his daughters had gone to school there, at The New School, and she had to commute to class, and she got lost, and she got scarred, on those streets all by herself all the way from the Rogue River Valley where she was born. She studied Malcolm X and Eldrich Cleaver and James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and WEB Dubouis and Langston Hughs and Robert Hayden. “They say it’s best not to let your career get in the way of a good education, and that was certainly her motto out there.” Balthazar described his time alone in the Wind Rivers, circumnavigating Haystack, sleeping in the Cirque of the Towers where the wind bounced off all the granite walls and seemed as if it was coming from every direction simultaneously. He heard a chilling sound out there, in the dead of night. At first he thought it was old women moaning. Then he realized it was coyotes or wolves. “I don’t know which one would be more disturbing, wolves or old women screaming in the wilderness” Balthazar said. “Old women” the camper and I responded in unison.
“Be careful of this mud” he warned us. “The mud in the Alvord, it’s not like other mud. One moment yer cruising along at sixty, nice dry packed dirt beneath you, blue sky above, and the next moment big clouds come rushing up from the south and it’s fucking pouring. Now, you gotta forgive me, I’m getting smashed here, but I been driving in that mud and its like you go twenty feet and then you gotta stop because the mud builds up thicker and thicker around your tires until its filled the wheel wells, and you gotta scrape it off with a shovel. So if your going way out, like if your going to Rome, make sure to watch the weather, keep your radio on at least.”
That night he left around midnight. I walked out into the emptiness to take a shit. The biologists had warned us about molten sink holes. The terrain was so flat you could see automobiles approaching from miles away. The lights cast an eerie glow across the face of the darkness. I wondered what we’d do if one of those lights stopped. After soaking in silence for so long, drinking the rest of the whiskey and smoking the rest of the Winstons, how would explain to anyone, friend or foe, the majestic sweep we’d traversed, that night, that week, in our own lives, as a nation, as a species, as a planet. Sometimes if you can’t articulate everything, you might as well bid farewell to the notion of articulating anything at all. I walked back to the springs. You could hear the voices of myriad coyotes in the distance lifted in song. We lay our bags out on the wooden deck beside the tub, comforted by the living murmur of the water trickling in. We talked about evil. What is evil, really? Is it the Devil Baby at Hull-House? It must be an evil that serves only itself. Some guys can kill me, they can even stick my head in a bench vise first but if they have some motive, even if that motive is only rage or revenge, it doesn’t seem like evil. It doesn’t make it right but the world is full of problems and mistakes which we don’t call evil. Because beneath those actions there is goodness, or so we think. What then, is horror? “It is to witness depravity, insanity, senselessness” Balthazar said. But can’t these things be creative?
In the morning I was shocked at what I saw. The sky was full of snow. The ground was filling. Balthazar’s sleeping bag was covered. The wind was blowing from the north now, and the mountains had turned somehow the same color as the sky, and I looked down at my hands to see the same color again. Being wrapped in that storm was like lying in a womb, fully aware of the unconscionable vastness of the world stretching into infinity outside, but unable to access it. Such a state is at once inebriating, it is so comfortable and safe, contained, but also it stifles, suffocates, and destroys. I put my hands on Balthazar and whispered him awake.
We sank back into the hot springs so quickly, it wasn’t until the heat hit us that we really woke up, though I’d walked to the Jeep and drank the remaining V8 juices, and flossed my teeth and starred into the abyss. All the way to Fields we hardly spoke, but listened to some old Neil Young records, to the slowly changing sound of the engine, sinister until we blocked it out of our minds. I’d left my phone on and it died in the Strawberries. Balthazar’s Iphone was dead too. We passed the road to Frenchglen, which looked smoother, but it wasn’t our road.
Fields was just one street, the paint on all the houses peeling, a lot of rusting cars and not a human in sight. Not even a dog. We pulled into the gas station, which was also the store, and the restaurant. After a decade driving the same car, I pulled in the wrong way and had to turn around. A young man came out and started filling it with eighty seven, and we collected our thermoses and water bottles and staggered inside. It was all we could do to stand, after so long in the hot water. A woman was cutting large strips of meat at the counter. The man filled our first thermos, which cleaned him out, so he started a new pot and stood beside it, arms crossed, listening to it trickle. He had tattoos on his arms, one of which, a portrait, resembled Rene Falconetti. Balthazar gained access to the kitchen to rejuvenate our water supply. We had been completely out, not yet contemplating drinking the radiator, but thirsty. We bought two Annabelle’s Big Hunk bars, which offered, on the back of the wrapper, instructions for two distinct paths of consumption. One: cure for the snack attack, grip firmly in one hand and whack. Two: for a gooey tasty treat, place in microwave for eleven seconds. Having no microwave, we were confined to the first. As we left town we saw the biologists checking the oil in their four wheelers. They didn’t see us as we passed, but as Balthazar looked back, he saw her waving, frantically, through our dusty wake.
Seven miles south we turned onto Whitehorse Road, which was meant to take us past the Whitehorse Ranch and onto Whitehorse hot springs, eventually bringing us to the lonesome road connecting Burns and Winnemucca. It was gravel, and after crossing an alfalfa field we entered a sharp canyon. The snow thickened. As we rounded the curves, a temporary retreat of the cliff revealed a small pasture with a crumbling farmhouse in the middle of it. We pulled over and watched the snow fall on the stone structure for a moment before getting out and walking slowly to it. It had been some time since it was occupied by humans it seemed, but there had been other animals there. What remained of the floorboards were smeared with shit, or scat, or guano. Chewed straw as left by rodent nests had collected at the baseboard. Yet the skeleton was strong, the roof had holes but where we stood, we were hidden from the snow. A hallway stretched back into darkness. Tiptoeing, we edged down it.
Twenty yards away was an outbuilding in similar condition. It looked like an old paddock of some sort. Balthazar stood in the threshold of the old door and looked up into the rafters. A swallow flew out of its nest and disappeared into the snow. We never found the hot springs. The ranch looked abandoned. There weren’t any cows, or cowboys or cowgirls, as far as we could see. Later I heard that the BLM shut down the open range grazing all through those parts. The road got steadily worse. The precipitation washed away the sandy surface, so only the rocks were left, pointing sharply upwards into the tires. We hit the flats again, and then the highway, and I turned off the ignition and we stared at the sign. South to Winnemucca. North to Rome. We sat there for a long moment, in the silence, waiting for something to happen.
After growing up in Oakland and studying literature in Portland, Joshua Willey moved to China and commenced working a perennial series of day jobs including firefighting and commercial fishing. He is currently writing Hydrogen, a novel about hitch hiking, and seeking a publisher for Frostwork, a manuscript of poetry and black and white photography. Some his work can be found at joshuawilley.com