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Sagebrush shenanigans

Summer vacation in the high desert


Civilization is so overrated. All the men with bad haircuts, erecting ugly offices and debating the best way to define marriage, screw the schools and rape roadless areas-it's about enough to drive a news editor to the bottle. That's why, for my summer vacation, I'm heading to where the sidewalk ends-not to mention the pavement, plumbing, and electricity. Out in the sagebrush sea of Southwest Idaho, Oregon and Nevada, men wear mesh hats, roads are indistinguishable from fields and the really important questions to debate are, "Is it illegal to crack open a cold beer when you hit the dirt roads?" and "Are you a 'real man' if you don't?"

Ten years ago, when my car didn't actually have my name on the deed, the Owyhee desert seemed to contain an endless wealth of human oddities-specifically, decommissioned missile silos, abandoned Catholic missions and derelict mine shafts. Today, after paying for my own gas (and learning that the missile site was once a secret pesticide dump), my priorities have shifted toward the beauty and desolation of big-N Nature. Case in point: This year's arid odyssey will begin at the remote Oregon lava flow the Jordan Craters.

A 97-square-mile basalt blip on the Oregon-Idaho border, the Craters area saw volcanic activity as recently as 3000 years ago. Today, the lava field is a maze of big caves and oh-my-gawd-there's-no-way-I'm-squeezing-through-that caves, all with a fraction of Craters of the Moon's tourist traffic. My favorite feature, however-only for folks with ropes, harnesses and other caving toys-are the bubble-shaped pit craters on the flow's northern edge. These caverns are about 50 feet wide at the top, 100 at the bottom and 60 deep, and require a perilous free-hanging rappel to reach their floors. However, after the white-knuckle descent, I'll enter a steamy grotto of shrubs, mosses, birds and-if my friends are to be believed-the angry ghosts of buried civilizations. Dangerous? Yep. Creepy? Yep. Ah, but exploring remote microcosms are what being a desert dipshit is all about. Look for me in the Darwin Awards.

If there's one thing freakier than a lava pit in the middle of nowhere, it's an un-maintained pioneer cemetery, and the high desert has its share. My summer favorites are at DeLamar, a ruined mining town west of Silver City, and on the western shoulder of the Owyhee peak War Eagle Mountain. The latter, called Fairview Cemetary, is one of the eeriest gems Southern Idaho has to offer. Its graves reach well into the 19th century, and most belong to one of two classes: immigrant miners who made the trip over only to collapse in a harsh winter, and mining-camp children who existed for a harsh and forgettable blink of time. Visit the site by heading up War Eagle Road, a steep but 2WD-friendly track located a mile east of Silver City.

Since it is located at over 7,000 feet, Fairview offers a rare view of the Treasure Valley within its larger, barren surroundings. When viewed from on-high Owyhee, our towns look like nothing more than a heap of broken toys on a distant floor-or, perhaps more accurately, like the Tattoine desert slum of Mos Eisley from the first Star Wars movie. I'll make a few grandiose decrees to the ants scurrying at my feet, punctuate it with an 80-decibel burp and keep trucking to my next stop: the end of the world.

OK, so Jarbidge, Nevada isn't the end of the world in the Revelations sense, but this century-old boomtown does accurately bill itself as "The Most Remote Town in the Lower 48 States." It is two hours of washboard-road driving to the nearest town in any direction, and over three to the thriving burgs of Twin Falls and Elko. Roughly translated from Shoshone, the town's name means something about a man-eating devil lurking in a canyon in the nearby Jarbidge Wilderness. Most visitors take the legend's word for it and never make it farther than Jarbidge's watering hole, the Outoor Inn. I'm not so wise.

While on the Nevada border, if I'm feeling zesty-that is, not eaten by devils-I'll try hiking the Jarbidge Matterhorn, one of only five peaks boastful enough to don the M-name. (Interestingly, all but the original are in the Western United States.). Trails are sparse in the 113,000-acre thicket surrounding the 'Horn, and the only regular visitors wander in to shoot at the elk herds that were reintroduced to the area in 1990. Sure, I could spend my summer in Idaho's own copious wilderness, but sometimes visiting another state is the best way to take a mental break from the struggles facing our beleaguered backwoods (i.e., should predators be allowed there? Should roads be allowed there? Should trees be allowed there?).

On the way home from these foolhardy adventures, I'll doubtless be sore as all git-up, and will end with a dip into one of Idaho's sparse desert hot springs. Murphy's Hot Springs, a quaint cluster of bath-houses between Twin Falls and Jarbidge, is the first choice; alas, at press time no one answered at the phone number. Barring that, I'll boil at Miracle Hot Springs, a stellar geothermal pool near Buhl ( Ah, summer. No really, those bubbles are from the rocks. I swear.