Crater Lake To Stanley, Day 9 : Curiosity

I’ve made it to Juntura, and am eating breakfast at the Oasis diner. Terry the cook sits down at my table and writes me out a list of the hot springs I should look for as I ride east.

When he gets up, I start a conversation with the guy two tables down, first about the road, and then about his strange hobby. He owns some land outside of town, and for five or six years now he has been using some of his retirement fund to buy large amounts of seed and distribute it to the wild bird population.

I ask him, “What’s the motivation?”

“When I was young I did a lot of hunting. Killed a whole lot of them. Now I want to give something back. Sometimes it’s complicated – you have to move the feed sites around to keep the birds from getting sick, and grain prices can fluctuate a lot. But I enjoy it.”

“How do you finance it?”

“I’ve got an income, I’m comfortable. Got enough to spare so I can do this.”

While we’re talking, a woman walks by, towards the exit doors. The guy chats with her for a while, and I learn that she’s a farmer, and her grain harvest is coming up soon.

The man says, “Make sure you get the quail out of the way first, because the babies won’t run, even if they hear the noise.”

“Oh, I do, I do,” she says. “I chase them out myself.”

This guy is very dedicated to preserving birds. I consider making a donation to his cause, but I don’t have much money at the moment. In retrospect, I should have offered to help him put up a web page for accepting donations and offering tours. I should have at least gotten his name.

It’s about an hour before noon, and I’m on my way out of Juntura, after lingering in the diner for too long. The air is hot and dry, and blowing steadily in my face as I climb the first rise out of town. The clouds overhead look very intricate.

Down that first hill, the road begins to follow a canyon, cut by a river. The walls are towering strata of rock and steep hillsides crumbling down onto each other in massive colored bands.

It’s very pretty, and I spend many hours biking through it due to the headwind. The contrast between the dry hills and the wet river is a little weird. After a long, dusty afternoon, I pedal out of a valley and discover a nice display of sunset colors behind me.

After one final push, I make it to the top of the hill. From there I make a long and very fast descent into a valley.

As I’m descending, I can already tell that this valley is different from any of the valleys I’d pedaled through all week. The air is cool, and not dry. Crops can grow well here.

And grow they do. In fact, the air is thick with the pungent smell of onions. Miles and miles and miles of them.

Also, corn. Tight regimental rows of genetically identical corn plants, for miles and miles. As it scrolls past my bike I think in amazement, “Each of these fields will feed a thousand people this year. Hell, maybe ten thousand. Mechanized farming is incredible.”

Between and within the fields, farmers have etched canals for water distribution. Some of the local plants have grown wild in these canals, claiming the unused space. Animals have also moved in. As I’m riding by I glance down one of the canals and see a handful of baby ducks paddling hastily after their mother.

Eventually I roll in to the town of Vale, just on the Idaho border. I locate a motel across from an RV park, and see a sign that says “Check In At RV Park Across Street”. As I walk my bike around the gravel lanes of the RV park to the office, I notice a lot of cats – some very young – slinking around in the shadows, spying on me. Then I see a big hand-painted sign: “Caution! Children And Kittens Crossing!”

I get a room for 30 bucks, and haul my bike into it. Then I wash up hastily, and pull most of my luggage off the bike so I can ride it around town more easily. It’s about 11pm but the diner at the other end of town is still open, so I ride over there and get an omelette, toast, hash browns, and a visit to the salad bar. Plus four cups of ice water. While I’m digesting, I listen to the conversation of the old farmers seated nearby.

They talk about training and purchasing horses, fetching stray cattle, the difficulty of managing dry weather and estimating the value of land. One of them tells a story of a horse he bought that didn’t train very well but was extremely sturdy, and how he used to ride that horse through the rough terrain on the west edge of his land, until one day he was out mending a fence with some ranch hands and something made the horse get skittish, and it put a foot wrong and fell down on a hillside. It never fully recovered from the injury and the farmer had to just let it out to pasture.

The regret in the farmer’s voice is obvious, and part of an interesting pattern. Farmers don’t talk about animals the way urban people do. Animals on a farm are generally kept to serve some purpose — in other words, to do work. And a working relationship inspires respect. Sometimes more than just respect, actually. For example, the work that dogs and horses do is done better when the animal has intelligence and personality. You spend all day on a well-mannered horse, and you’re going to start liking that horse. Spend all day managing sheep with a clever sheepdog, and you’re going to feel an attachment to that dog. Even feed animals inspire a relationship with a kind of depth to it – not on the individual level, but on the level of the species. They need to be managed. But if you keep an animal around just for amusement or attention, an accessory to your life that doesn’t make or save you money, the relationship is, of course, different. It can be a lot less respectful, a lot more dismissive.

It’s strange to listen to this casual respect in the words of farmers, and compare it with the attitudes I find in city-dwellers, on both extremes. There are people in the city who think of animals as differently-shaped people, with complex inner lives and human empathy and wisdom – and there are people who consider animals to be robots, ambulatory objects made for eating, destruction, or abuse. One type of person would keep a chihuahua as a pet, name it Snookums, and claim that it has psychic powers. The other type of person would buy the veal entree on a lunch break, eat half of it, and dump the rest casually in the trash. Some people even do both.

To farmers, it must seem like this sort of contact with animals is a joke.

But I digress. At about 1:00am, I pay my bill, and ride my bike back to the motel. I pass the neon sign out front and decide it needs to be photographed.

Then I disappear into my room, for a tepid shower and some much needed sleep.

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