August 14, 2003 11:00 pm
An occasional pronghorn, jackrabbit or band of sheep often provides the only company in the high lonesome of southeast Oregon's high desert. (Photos/Mark Highberger).
An occasional pronghorn, jackrabbit or band of sheep often provides the only company in the high lonesome of southeast Oregon's high desert. (Photos/Mark Highberger).

By Mark Highberger

For The Observer

Mention Crowley, Oregon, to my wife and she'll most likely cover her ears, bow her head, and begin moaning. "Tell people to stay away from there!" she says. Her voice is shaky, her breathing ragged.

"But the folks who read The Observer might want to know about Crowley," I tell her. "Can't you think of anything nice to say about it?"

She pauses for a moment. Her breathing calms. "Well, you can sure get away from it all," she says. "You don't have to worry about traffic or noise — or even life itself. There isn't any."

Oh well. As eager as she is for adventure, as resilient as she is to hardship, my wife still has difficulty dealing with what she sees as Nowhere. Granted, this is a land of sagebrush and sky, of distance and dust. Yet these are the qualities of the country that compel people — sometimes as many as two per week — to drive southeast Oregon's Crowley Road. Besides, you might never know how lonesome the high lonesome can be, might never see how much country a backcountry road can cross, until you take that drive.

From the road's Highway 78 beginning at a sun-baked, high-desert junction 66 miles southeast of Burns, the Crowley ranch lies less than two-dozen graveled miles away. In 1874, when cattleman James Crowley built his home near a desert stream, southeastern Oregon was virtually unmapped. Today, even though the area remains relatively unchanged since those days, it is the maps that tell much of its history.

For instance, when you first turn onto Crowley Road, you'll find that from the north flow Soldier Creek and Indian Creek, named during the Indian wars of the 1860s; to the south rise the Sheepshead Mountains, named for the numerous skulls of California bighorn sheep that died out in the 1880s after contracting diseases from settlers' flocks; in the east stands Turnbull Peak, named for Thomas Turnbull, who built a sheep empire here in the 1890s; and to the west lies Folly Farm, named by a homesteader who evidently saw the humor in trying to irrigate the desert.

The road heads northeast into a long valley, edging past power poles and heading toward juniper hills, until the nine-mile mark takes you to Duck Creek, for more than a century a critical source of water for the area's homesteaders and ranchers. "We did not farm much," Thomas Turnbull said about his early years in the valley, "but put up enough hay at the Duck Ponds for our horses."

In the late 1880s, enough families had moved into the area that a post office was established at Cord, near the mouth of Duck Creek. Today its first postmaster, Thomas Seaward, lies buried beside two other Cord residents beneath a wind-swept stretch of sagebrush and bunchgrass that holds a small cemetery.

Less than a mile down the road stands what was probably the Seaward's homestead, nestled on the edge of a seep-watered pasture where the grass grows high enough and thick enough to tickle the belly of an Angus cow. A rail fence frames the old stone house and poplar trees shade it; logs brace its pond and stones form its corrals; cows graze across its pastures and pronghorns lope through its fields. But nobody's home anymore.

The water that serves this homestead, however, flows through the valley so that the road now leads to wire fences, irrigation sprinklers, and green fields below Duck Pond Ridge. Just over three miles past the homestead is a Bureau of Land Management fireguard station, and a bit more than a mile past that is Dowell Reservoir, which is home to cottontails and meadowlarks, doves and ducks, pronghorns and deer.

Near here you'll cross Soldier Creek at the foot of its canyon, then roll out onto the edge of a prehistoric lake bed, flat and fertile ground running to the ridges. Maps now call this area either the Turnbull Lake Bed or the Piute Lake Bed, but during the time of the homestead act and the open range in the 1880s it was called Barren Valley, the home of numerous homesteaders, sheepherders, and buckaroos.

"When a dance was held, a rider would go up one end of the valley and another the other way," said an early homesteader, "and they would bring back as many as 40 or 50 people."

Those people lived in a land more than three-quarters of a mile high, where the water was scarce in summer and the snow deep in winter. "We leased a band of ewes for six-bits a head and got the wool and the lambs," Turnbull said. "We trailed them to Barren Valley, where the other sheepmen said we would go broke. But we did not."

Although Turnbull made his fortune, most of the other ranches did go broke. One that survived is nine more miles down the road, where you pass through a gate that marks the boundary of the Crowley Ranch. Even though the ranch's name is the same, its sense of hospitality has changed. "Warning! No Trespassing. Private Land," say the signs nailed to the fence post lining Crowley Creek.

Nevertheless, the road is open, as it has been for more than 100 years, for Crowley once sat on the edge of the Willamette Valley-Cascade Mountain Military Road, a major thoroughfare that stretched from Albany to the Snake River. Once you pass through the last of Crowley's gates, you'll find yourself following the old road along a stretch that is definitely not for everybody. From here it's 60 miles to the pavement at Harper Junction. Sixty miles of sage and sand and sky. Sixty miles of heat and horizon.

"It's the kind of place only a mother could love," my wife says, "though I can't think of what kind of mother that would be." She's squinting through the windshield, gawking at a dusty thread of rutted road that squeezes through the sagebrush, squiggles to the crest of a hill, and then slides away into the white crumples of clouds squatting on the horizon. Then she begins to hum.

"Er — I can drive," I say.

She grips the steering wheel and grins, her stare still on the endless road, and the hum turns into a song, something about "Oh, the Herefords moo me to sleep, and the ground squirrels make no peep, here in my sagebrush heaven." Then she turns to me, her eyes glazed, and says, "Yee-Haw!"

It triggers the warning of a friend who has traveled this road before. "At the 20-mile mark from Crowley, you'll begin composing country-western songs in your head," he said. "At 30 miles, you'll begin humming those songs and at 40 miles singing them." Then his voice dropped to a whisper: "At 50 miles you'll appreciate the genius of Hank Williams, and that's when you know you're in trouble." Sagebrush syndrome, he calls it.

To prevent this, I persuade my wife to let me drive, and soon we're playing a game that involves counting the puddles and dips and rocks along the road. As the miles pass, she looks forward to reading the road signs, searches frantically for a tree. At Skull Spring we find some green grass; at Dry Creek, a couple of wrecked shanties and a stream. "Just a few more miles," I tell her.

She grins. "Hey-hey, good lookin'," she sings, "Whatcha got cookin'? How ‘bout cookin' somethin' up with —" I tromp the gas pedal and jolt her out of the Hank Williams stage of the syndrome.

More miles pass, until finally Harper Valley looms in the distance, and we begin dropping 1,500 feet from the sagebrush plateau to the valley floor. And there far below at the bottom of the hill, almost 83 miles after leaving Highway 78, is the pavement of Highway 20.

To reach it, we coast the hills and cross a creek and fall in behind a couple of thousand sheep heading for the corrals at Harper Junction. The bleating seems to calm her. "That was quite an adventure," I say.

She flinches. "What — what's that?"

"Crowley Road," I say, smiling. "Quite an adventure."

But she only bows her head and begins moaning something that sounds like a Hank Williams' tune.