Before I traveled to central Oregon last month, a friend commented, “So you’re going to the Big Empty.” I didn’t know much about the area – only that it included a geological wonder called the Painted Hills, many fossils and a scattering of very small towns – but that seemed about right.
Google “Big Empty” and much more comes up – a 1994 song titled “Big Empty” by the Stone Temple Pilots, a 2003 movie called “The Big Empty” starring Jon Favreau, and a PBS TV special, “The Sagebrush Sea” about the huge sagebrush plateau between mountain ranges.
It’s a catchy phrase.
The Big Empty isn’t the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, and it’s certainly not thronged with people. It really IS pretty empty. Technically it’s the inter-mountain west. Specifically, I planned to travel around the Umatilla Plateau and the Blue Mountains’ John Day/Clarno Uplands. A mouthful, these are U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ecoregion designations that delineate regions based on geography, solar radiation, and rainfall.
Here are two views of Blue Basin, part of the John Day/Clarno Uplands.
The uplands include semi-arid foothills of sagebrush and gentle mountains dotted with ponderosa pine. Highways here are two lane and relatively quiet. Rugged cattle country, this area is famous for Painted Hills beef.
Truly vast, open landscapes aren’t to everyone’s liking. The agorophobe takes no comfort in endless horizons. Landscapes dominated by mountains, waterfalls or other grand features usually appeal to people more than dry desert steppe.
In central and eastern Oregon’s sagebrush and pine country, the landscape is drawn down to its essence.
Below are roadside views of the Umatilla Plateau, a treeless grassland farmed for winter wheat. Seen from the car passenger window, the plain rolls out to a horizon that always seems to push past the last sight line. Where the plains curve into gently folded hills, they too carry the eyes out into the “wild blue yonder.”
This arid land will shrink plants to the bone. Even buildings are squeezed dry.
The open landscape captivates me. Seventeen years ago I had seen very little of the West, in fact my teenage son knew it better than I did. In the summer of 2000, while at a program in southern Utah, he needed a minor operation. I flew out from New York to be there.
Driving south out of Salt Lake City in my rented car, I gaped as the city gave way to countryside. Stretching out on either side of the road, wider and wider with each mile, the Utah landscape was infinitely more grand than any I’d seen before. The colors appealed to me. Soft tawny golds, dark rusts and pale gray-greens offered countless subtle shades to focus on.
It pleased me to be in a place where I could focus on simple shapes – the triangle of a treeless mountain top, the sphere of a boulder. I finally understood the draw of the great American West.
This is the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, in Oregon. Whether in Utah or Oregon, being dwarfed by the western landscape puts everything in its proper place, and I am comforted.
The quiet ease of small western towns is deeply refreshing, too. We stayed in Mitchell (pop. 130 in 2010), which nestles into the hills of Wheeler County, the least populated county in a state with only 1.27% of America’s people. Around Mitchell are scenes like this:
The small, unpretentious towns that settle into the folds of the hills have a straightforward appeal. The mercantile should have what you need, as long as your needs are uncomplicated. Breakfast at the cafe comes with easy, friendly conversation, and maybe a little advice from a hand-lettered sign on the wall.
Having fewer choices, going at a slower pace, and the simple pleasures of clean air and attractive vistas made this Big Empty experience full enough, for me at least.