Wednesday, July 5, 2017


…on the road from the Jackson Hole Writers Conference…

I’m not a horse person.  I can’t imagine one totin’ me around or feeding one or scoopin’ up after one.  Nope. Horses, I think, are not for me.

But when I’m riding some ribbon of asphalt across a sweeping section of backcountry plains when, over a rise or around a bend, maybe a quarter mile away from the pavement, one of ‘em stands silhouetted against a ridge line and involuntarily, a tape of something composed by Elmer Bernstein starts playing in my head.

I love the west, I know, and horses, roaming these expanses, are the west.

On a recent run through Oregon, I happened to visit the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse corrals, just south of Burns on US 395.  The following collection of shots, hopefully, will convey the good work these public servants are engaged in.  (Click on any photo to enlarge it, but consider expanding those photos of text in order to understand the whole story.)

Of the three-day trip from Jackson Hole to home, this day was going to be the shortest, clocking in at about 325 miles.  The variable weather created a cloudscape as dramatic as the land.

I knew I had time to visit places I might otherwise pass by, something too easily done in the high desert.  It’s one thing to fly over this country in a 737.  It’s inexcusable to do so on a motorcycle, I’m thinking.

Gingerly, I guide the big Triumph up the gravel road and into the parking area.

A well-appointed kiosk contains signs that tell the story.

Mustangs and Burros, being non-native to the area, have few natural predators.  Thus, they can breed and soon over populate the delicate dry reaches of the basin and range.  The BLM makes efforts to control the population by rounding ‘em up and making them available for adoption to highly qualified applicants.  But fewer than 25% of these animals ever find adoptive ‘parents.’

A self-guided auto tour rings the expanse of the operation.  Not being in an auto, I choose to hoof a good portion of the route.

A series of chutes and corrals allow BLM wranglers to herd and sort the mustangs retrieved from the wild.  As I fumbled for my camera, a group was coaxed through this raceway.

Beyond, a complex of fence lines cordoned off areas.  Not sure I understand the sorting process…

Back at the kiosk, we are told that the colors of the wild mustangs are as varied as the colors of the landscape from which they come. 

Not being a horse person, I was surprised at the emotions I felt observing these beautiful creatures. 

Can I take this one home?


There’s a spirit or culture that exists in our west – a relationship that cleaves humankind to the land.  Integral to that relationship, I come to believe, are the horses - wild or otherwise - of the high desert.

Perhaps this poem says it best...

And like so many other times when I stop to check something out on the open road, when I leave, a new tune is stuck in my head…


More about the BLM’s efforts in this regard:

A little on-line research shows that there is some controversy surrounding this program related both to the herding practices (the use of helicopters) and some of the sterilization efforts.  I, myself, had harbored some concerns about restricting the freedom of these wild beauties, but, with consideration to their non-native status, I begin to understand the rationale for the program.  All that said, a visit to this BLM facility is engaging and informative and worth an hour’s respite from the road, offering a fine opportunity for one to form his or her own opinion on the matter.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, July 3, 2017


On the road from the Jackson Hole Writers Conference

Early in my college career, I enrolled in “California Geography,” a class taught by Dr. David Lantis.  In speaking of highway corridors, he referred to some bergs at GEMs, his acronym of “Gas, Eats, and Motel.”  We’ve all seen ‘em.

We’ve also seen ghost towns.

Thirty-five years ago, I was traveling north toward Spokane, Washington on US 395 on a 1981 BMW R-65 motorcycle.  The 650cc Beemer was my first foray straddling anything that could do distance in relative comfort.  The rub, I soon found out, related to fuel capacity.  Although the little machine returned good economy, when crossing the high sage desert, one didn’t want to pass a gas station.  Fortunately, just after the amber idiot light illuminated indicating low fuel, I rolled into Wagontire, Oregon.  Leaving a ten on the counter of the café/store, I pumped about four gallons of regular (all they offered there) and went in to retrieve my change.

Last week, I rolled through Wagontire again.  Good thing I wasn’t running short of fuel on the big T-Bird.

Ghost towns like Calico, Bodie, Paxton or Twain CA, I usually associate with the bust that follows some sort of a boom – the decline after the gold or silver plays out, the movement of railroad construction further down the line, or a slump in the timber industry.  Maybe prolonged drought.  I also figure that ghost towns haven’t been real towns with bars, schools, churches and residents for well over a hundred years.

But what about Wagontire?  I clearly remember when I could get fuel, get fed and get a night’s rest in this used-to-be GEM. On this day, however, after I pulled off to stretch my legs and rest my bum, the highlighted activity of the moment was a ball of sage slowly rolling across the highway pushed by a light southwesterly breeze.

It had been 28 miles since I’d turned south on 395 at Riley and it would be another 84 until I got to Lakeview.  The first half of that 112-mile run would be through high sage desert rolling over slight undulations and across ancient playas.  The latter half, along the Albert Rim would be more scenic, but there wasn’t going to be any gas.

I’m not sure what might have kept Wagontire afloat during its halcyon years.  Given that a wagon tire is that steel rim placed on a spoked wooden wheel attached to a buckboard’s axle, I suspect the site dates back to the days of horses and buggy whips. 

Perhaps they ran cattle in these parts. 

Maybe it was a jumping off point for some high desert hunting.  There is evidence, after all of a one-time landing strip. 

Maybe it simply served as a little resort for those seeking solitude in the middle of nowhere.  A strong argument could be made that Wagontire is the middle of nowhere.

I figure that since modern transportation allows that a hundred-plus-mile gap between filling stations is nothing of concern, Wagontire now crumbles and dissolves into the desert floor.

Among the mental games I play when riding through an at-one-time-somewhere is imagining what life was like in the day.  Heading south on 395, the Wagontire words that came to mind were open space, fresh air, sage (of course), peace, solitude and starry nights.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

But as I ride south toward home, the sage, solitude and presumed starry nights of this once-necessary GEM continue to intrigue me.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, July 2, 2017


…exercise from the Jackson Hole Writers Conference…

During a workshop at the recently attended Jackson Hole Writer Conference, the presenter gave us five minutes to work on this story-starter opening line.  Ironically, my mother had called just the day before I’d hit the road.

Here (with some minor revisions) is what I came up with…

My mother called this morning to complain that her phone must be on the fritz.  “Nobody’s called,” she said, “in weeks.”

I know I’d talked to her just a day or two before.  “Is the orange light lit?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I can’t see it.”

Within a bank of buttons on Mom’s phone is one that, when pushed, illuminates in orange indicating the telephone will answer calls.  When pushed a second time, the illumination goes away and the answering function is quashed.  Although a rotary dial might be more in her league, I suspected there was nothing wrong with the phone.

I said, “Well, if that light isn’t lit, people can’t you leave a message and you’ll think no one called.”

“I can’t see the light.  I can barely see the phone!”

Macular degeneration steals one’s vision a few darkening retinal rods at a time.  The process is agonizing and gradual.  Victims know what’s going to happen, knowing also that there’s not a damned thing they can do about giving up the sighted world, all the while hoping the sighted world doesn’t give up on them.

“But Mom, how were you able to get a hold of me just now?”

She paused for a moment, perhaps prearranging words for her son: the one who never seems to catch on. “I felt around for the keypad and punched in your number from the pattern I remember.  Once I get past the area code, all your numbers are in the same row.”

“Well, at least you know your phone works,” I said.

“Not so well.  First time I tried to dial you, I got the dry cleaners.”

I laughed.

“It’s not funny!  I don’t have anything at the dry cleaners.”  There was a pause in which I could hear her exhale a gust of frustration.  Then she said, “Do you think I need a new phone?”

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press