Fort Rock is not a fort but from a distance you might ask “who built a castle out in the desert”?
The broken rim of a crater—a semi-circle—protrudes from a stark landscape with few interruptions and no forests. The monotone of sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and bunchgrass has the near colorless opacity of the sea on an overcast day.
Visiting Fort Rock in December, we wore jackets, knit hats, and gloves. Like reading a book from back to front, we parked and began walking without first perusing the interpretive plaques and placards.
Writing this, trying to fit a very long story into a human timeline, frustrates me. I see how we insist on knowing the order of events, preferring a neat chronology of when certain things happened, then other things, and still later more events until, eventually, we arrive at the year of our birth, and then the present. I do not think that poets are as concerned with precise timelines as scientists.
In 1995, we crisscrossed eastern Oregon on a camping trip with family and friends, and our children. I found the photos. Fort Rock looks the same but now the children are grown and, really, we have all changed.
Imagine—during the Pleistocene—an enormous pluvial lake, much larger than any existing lake in Oregon or Washington, or California, and half as large as the Great Salt Lake.
Pluvial lakes formed during ice ages when dry air from the south mixed with northern glacier-chilled air, causing a wetter climate.
Recent estimates are that the underwater eruption that formed Fort Rock occurred between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. [The plaque at the trailhead indicates that the Fort Rock eruption happened 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Once the age of Fort Rock was thought to be 1.8 million years.]
Imagine—camels and horses, bison and mammoths roaming the western North American Pleistocene landscape.
Imagine explosive ash and steam, and fiery lava arcing upward then sizzling back into the lake.
If the eruption had occurred when the land was dry—the warmer period between ice ages—Fort Rock would have formed as a cinder cone or a lava flow, and the name “Fort Rock” wouldn’t have occurred to anyone.
Imagine—whitecaps on an inland sea and wind-driven waves eroding terraces into the tuff ring rim.
Now we see, carved in stone, a record of fluctuations in the ancient lake levels caused by climate change connected to the advance and retreat of the great North American ice sheets.
When the lake was deepest, Fort Rock would have been only a few islands. Now, the desert landscape does not bring to mind lakes.
Walking on the trail inside Fort Rock’s curving walls marked with shapes, textures, holes and hardened flows, at ground level and tucked along the northern edges of boulders were leafy plants and lichens, and patches of ice.
Sometimes people live(d) here.
Almost one hundred sandals woven of sagebrush bark were found in a cave near Fort Rock. The shoes would have fit men, women and children. They were worn. Well-worn. Mud-caked. Some burned by sparks. Many sandals were found beneath ash from the eruption of Mount Mazama—now Crater Lake—and so, even before carbon-dating, we knew people lived here more than seven thousand years ago.
The view to the southeast, where once wind-lashed waves battered the lava, is of a flat landscape with hills, or perhaps mountains, in the distance.
Returning to the parking lot, I scanned a cliff-face where a flash of wings caught my eye. I hoped to see a hawk, or eagle, but instead, through binoculars, found rock doves perched along high ledges.
This time, I read the plaques—and learned that Fort Rock was designated as a registered natural landmark in 1977 and that “Reub Long* and his wife Eleanor donated thirty acres to the State for including in Fort Rock State Park…”
Climbing into the car, I wondered about the short chronology of our experience and how Fort Rock—formed in a time of pluvial lakes and now adrift in a dry desert basin—is located in the political jurisdiction of Lake County.
. . .
*Reub Long was a cowboy who grew up and ranched in the Fort Rock region. In The Oregon Desert, Chapter 17 “Every Day is an Adventure,” Long wrote:
“I freighted when I was young, because there was lots of freighting to do. Homesteaders kept coming and what they owned had to be hauled to their places: bed and mattress; a cookstove and a heater of some sort, some farming tools, pots and pans; and most of them had enough boards to throw a shack together. I hauled for them for money, a cow, an old horse, or a promise. A few years later I hauled out some of the same families I had hauled in. They had less to haul out than when they came, and had less money to pay me.”
NOTES & REFERENCES
Photo credits unless noted otherwise: Katie Eberhart.
Fort Rock: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Rock
The University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History, articles on the Great Basin sandals: http://natural-history.uoregon.edu/collections/web-galleries/great-basin-sandals
The Oregon Desert (R A Long and E R Jackman), Chapter 17, “Every Day is an Adventure,” pg. 271.
Wikipedia page for The Oregon Desert by E. R. Jackman and R. A. Long.