BIG. EMPTY.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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This arid land will shrink plants to the bone. Even buildings are squeezed dry.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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46 comments

    • My pleasure, and thank YOU for stopping by and commenting. I trust all is well at UBC. I hope to get back up to Vancouver (and the UBC Botanical Garden) sometime this year. Meanwhile, the wildflowers on the other side of the Cascades have been wonderful – last week I saw terrific displays off Rt. 97 near Blewett Pass, and outside of Ellensburg in the Wenas/Umtanum area.

  1. You have conveyed a wonderful sense of space – vast expanses. Even the individual objects have a feeling of detachment and isolation. The sheer scale is difficult for us to comprehend here in the UK.

  2. I bypassed this area when I drove to Crater Lake, taking the easy route, Interstate 5. You images and description make me want to go back there and visit the “Big Empty”. Thank you for sharing them!

  3. Wow, wow wow! – I’m not surprised that you’ve graciously allowed us in the copilot seat… Am about to leave on a road trip and will look at this closer while traveling — by bus… See you online again in a few days! Lisa

  4. The landscapes feel completely unreal, like it was carefully photoshopped to fit one’s imagination! Love your thoughtful descriptions, Lynn. You also captured that small town charm in your text and images perfectly.

  5. i love the land…and the path with all the lines…i can imagine walking here…always delightful to read and see your compositions…beautiful i would love to see Painted Hills…smiles ~ hedy

  6. Wow, what a place! You’re so lucky having those vast, wide open spaces. I had them in Kenya too – but now in most of the UK, there are just far too many of us – but still, walking not far from the cars thins the crowd appreciably! 🙂

    • Yes, that’s a large part of why we moved west from New York City. There, it took way too many hours of driving through heavy traffic to get to a “big” place, e.g. the Adirondacks. Here, it’s more accessible. Still, drive times are fairly long because the distances are great. Soon we’ll go east again, this time to some quiet parts of Washington State. i can’t wait.

  7. Wonderful photographs as ever Lynn. Sorry not to have been around much of late. All is well but I’ve been struggling a little. I hope all is well with you and progress is being made. Thinking of you.. x

  8. Such variety, Lynn. I Love those wide open spaces. I recall that the Palouse is up somewhere in that area but I suspect it’s hundreds of miles away. Some of the folds in the wider landscapes remind me of that area.

    • Yes, it’s hundreds of miles away, and I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a major photographer’s attraction out here. I think we’ll go to a different area next, north of the Palouse, nearer to Canada. We’ll see. Thanks!

  9. What a beautiful post….full of lovely colors and compelling images…and revealing a place that would appeal to my desire for the Simple things in this physical life…..

    Well done, Lynn…..thank you.

  10. As always, your photos are a delicious blend of exciting and calming. You really make me long for the road. I’ve never seen pictures, let alone the real thing, that show such a beautiful shade of green on mountains as depicted in your first photograph. The photos I want to look at longest are the rest of the ones of the mountains and hills. Such long views! And such wonderful colors and shapes.

    • That first photo is from a place called Blue Basin, where I took a great walk. Gunta at “Movin’ On” has also been there and blogged about it. The local geology is very complex and includes many different time periods and types of rock – and I did not exaggerate those colors at all, if anything, I may have understated. Yes, wonderful colors, shapes, and space. That’s why I wanted to go – plus the fact that it’s so sparsely populated and not visited much. The area is about 3 hrs east of Bend, OR.

  11. Wonderful post! I had never heard of the ‘Big Empty’. I love the simplicity of the plateau landscapes. And you found some great old buildings too … love the old store and paint & body shop.

    • That simplicity is the draw, and the big spaces, right? I would have liked to have had more time to do those places justice – you know how it is when you’re traveling, you’re kind of rushed. It’s full of great old buildings out there. Soon we’re going to the northeastern corner of WA for 3-4 days. I think it will be a bit similar – old mining/logging towns, open country, pines etc. Thanks! Hope you’re enjoying the summer.

  12. How many times have I stared at those double yellow lines heading out to the horizon! Far too many to count! It’s an entirely different world out these in that Big Empty for sure. You captured the spell this sort of country creates so perfectly!

    • I would have liked to have stayed longer….the photos weren’t all that great but a few worked. The first one here is Blue Basin BTW. The week before last we did one night closer by but on the other side of the mountains, with walks in two very different habitats – mountains and open country – fabulous wildflowers at both places – just unbelievable. Hopefully I’ll get a post done with some images from those walks. One of these days.

  13. Enjoyed everything about this post Lynn! These are my kind of landscapes, I think if I lived where you do the urge to travel around and see it all might seriously disrupt my life 🙂 It’s so wonderful to be able to share these places in this way, I just like knowing they are there..

    • We’re kindred spirits in some ways…I get it, just knowing the place is there and seeing photographs of it, is important. The urge to travel has always been strong for me, but until now I haven’t been able to follow it often. I’m not working any more, so in 3 wks or so we’ll be going on another road trip east, this time to northeastern Washington. We did one night the week before last, too – just on the other side of the mountains, where the landscape opens up – wildflowers were fabulous. I’ll post photos in a bit. I bet you’d love it! 😉

  14. In some of your photos, such as the second one, the hills seem to have been covered with velour: close-cropped and snug against the rocks. And didn’t I laugh at the sign painted on the window of one of the old businesses: “Fossil Body and Paint.” That’s one of those details that can make a photo stand out — not to mention amuse the viewer. The winter wheat fields remind me of our rice fields. They’re planted in rotation, and this year I found some when I was out and about: emerald green, and a portent of geese and sandhill cranes to come, perhaps.

    That blue and green photo reminded me of Kansas, too: not the colors, so much as the horizon. I finally have realized that the common denominator among my favorite spots on earth — the ocean, the prairie, and the plains — is the horizon. It’s always seemed strange to me that offshore sailing and prairie walking could both be intensely appealing, but the horizon makes sense of it.

    • I like the idea of velour hills – I’ve often imagined far off lines of trees on rounded hills to be something I could run my hand along, like the fur on a stuffed animal, you know? The horizon – yes, that does make sense. A broad expanse.

  15. This is a lovely, eloquent introduction to a part of the country with which I’ve had almost no personal experience. We’ve made several road trips across the continent, but always have seemed either to choose a more southerly route or to stop at a destination far short of Washington or Oregon. I love the few chances I’ve had to experience our great west, but they have been very few and very, very far between. It’s a real treat to be able to enjoy places like this through the mind and the lens of a sensitive artist. My compliments on what you’ve done with the derelict buildings and the first landscape below your mention of Mitchell in Wheeler County. Beautiful stuff, Lynn.

    • It’s gratifying to hear that these images are a treat. That landscape – funny, I worked hard on that one! When I took it I was rushed because we were on our way from one place to another. It didn’t look like much when I got home, but I worked at it, and I guess it was worth it. The buildings I wasn’t so happy with – there were a lot of them and they were fantastic, but I was often photographing around noon on sunny days. Really tough light! But you do what you can. Thanks!

  16. Hi Lynn, Your images are gorgeous and your story captivating. The small town shots along with your landscapes are terrific– I am happy that we are going here this summer. Thanks for whetting my appetite!

    • I just hope you’re not going for the eclipse? I don’t see how they could cope with crowds on all the two lane roads and with services so few and far between. I look forward to seeing what you do with it – it’s frustrating, wanting to stop over and over again and you can’t stop every five minutes! 😉 So you do what you can and wish you had more time. I’m sure you know what I mean.


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