Wallace Stegner was an American novelist, short story writer, environmentalist, and historian, and is often called “The Dean of Western Writers.” He said that to have a Western outlook means that you “get over the color green,” stop “associating beauty with gardens and lawns,” and “get used to an inhuman scale” of vast spaces. Sagebrush is, as he put it, “an acquired taste, as are raw earth and alkali flats.”
It had been a while since Moby tasted sagebrush beneath his tires. After a night-time drive a couple hours SE of Boise, we found this flat spot to camp. Sunrise showed plenty of sagebrush to be savored.
Our destination: Blackstone Desert, one of Idaho’s several named deserts here in the Bruneau watershed just north of the Nevada line. At 5,000′ it is known as high desert. The flat lava plateaus are dissected by steep gorges.
Sheep Creek Canyon to the north was inaccessible from the top for miles.
But to the south we could gain access. As rocks fall from cliffs they form steep talus slopes. The steepness of these slopes depends on the type of rock material. Geologists refer to the specific slope angle as the angle of repose. Wallace Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 for his novel Angle of Repose.
This was to be what is known in Idaho as a “cast and blast” adventure. Shotgun in hand in case we found chukar partridge on the slopes, or quail in the brushy bottoms, and a fly rod in the backpack to survey the trout population in the creek below.
We had parked at the end of the primitive road. Sheep Creek is a federally designated Wild and Scenic River and flows through the Bruneau Jarbidge Rivers Wilderness area. That means no mechanized vehicles allowed, only access by foot or on horse. Sadly, as we see so often in this part of the country, scofflaws had destroyed the signs, moved barrier rocks, and continued driving on into the wilderness even though the faint track only continues another half mile at best. They claim the right to keep their lazy asses on the seat of their ATVs no matter what. I righted the sign and replaced the rocks.
The groundcover of lush golden grasses are lovely in the fall sun. But sadly, much of it is cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and other invasive species. Behind human settlers, cheatgrass is perhaps the biggest environmental scourge to hit the arid west. After severe overgrazing by domestic stock it takes over the landscape. It sprouts and seeds earlier in the spring than native grasses, taking what little soil moisture is available. Then dry, it serves as tinder for the range fires now plaguing the west. It can survive the fires, but the native vegetation and dependent native animals cannot, and the vicious cycle continues. Also, its innumerable sharp barbed seeds specialize in embedding themselves in animal fur and human socks for transfer to virgin fields.
Sheep Creek is an intermittent stream, flowing only parts of the year. Most of the year water flows only underground to replenish pools like this one. No need to break out the trout rod, as it contained only small minnows.
Few things Janene likes better than snake and spider laden brushy areas. So this hike up the dry streambed was one of the trip highlights for her.
But above we came to this huge pool. Surely lunker trout awaited, but my casting produced nothing.
Surely there would be trout biting at the head of the pool where free flowing water rushed in. But fishing there was also what we fisherman refer to as “real slow.” As in I was skunked. That is why it is called fishing, not catching.
Had we come here only to shoot birds or whack trout on the head, it would have been a wasted day. But the desert had other things to offer. Like this geology textbook example of a “baked contact,” where eons ago the hot black lava layer heated the rock below and baked it into this red color.
Also present were piles of rhyolite slabs. Back in Boise I built a patio of such rock and am slowly extending the walkway as I find more such flagstones. But carrying these perfect specimens up out of the canyon was a bit too daunting a prospect.
No fish, no fowl. But plenty of solitude. My friend James is a well known musician in Portland. Back in our Portland days, Janene and I enjoyed many a happy hour listening to his band (James Low and the Western Front: listen here) at the funky Laurelthirst Public House. I once took him on a cold December chukar hunt in Hells Canyon, deeper than Grand Canyon, the border between Oregon and Idaho. We sat eating lunch, and before us spread the vista of the sparkling Snake River below the snow covered Seven Devils Mountains. James remarked on the beauty and the splendor. “This is so fantastic, we should come out here all the time. But no one does. If it wasn’t for the chance to kill something there is no way in hell we would be here.” So it goes.
But just minutes from Moby I scored a trophy: a fine patio stone small enough to carry back. Trip saved.
The two-track road through the grasses back toward civilization.
Suddenly ahead of us flew another animal with a taste for sagebrush, the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). Not a goat, not an antelope, the pronghorn is the sole remaining member of an ancient ungulate family dating back 20 million years. With a 60 mph top speed, the adults have no predator fast enough to catch them. And, unlike some fast sprinters in the animal kingdom, pronghorns can keep it up for long distances.
But this herd did pause just over the horizon for a drink at one of the few plateau waterholes in the Blackstone. (Look closely, they are there)
After ten miles of dirt, rock, and gravel road we reached little traveled Highway 51, then pass only a few farms and ranches in the next forty miles to the north until the tiny burg of Bruneau. But then another twenty miles north we reach civilization in the Air Force base town of Mountain Home. The local car dealer had a very tempting “BUCKS & TRUCKS” sale going on, but we resisted. It was truly a sign that we were home in Idaho.