June 16, 2013

Sunset on the Eastern Oregon Desert

Sunset on the Eastern Oregon Desert

One of my first sojourns out of Bend took me into the Eastern Oregon desert chasing weather and the chance for some thunderstorms. Monitoring satellite photos from my iPhone, I drove 4 hours southeast towards Denio, Nevada. Just west of Denio I hit a strong batch of wind and rain which was good for washing the bugs off my windshield, but, alas, no lightning. Disappointed, I had dinner at Denio Junction and considered my route home. Needing gas, I discovered, rather un-amusedly, Denio had none. Their recommendation (a scribbled note of the station tank) was to go north to Fields, Oregon.

As I considered this, a sudden hard rumble of thunder shook the truck. I looked up and saw lighting off to the west, not the direction I could head with such a low tank. So, angrily, I headed North. But my mood was assuaged when, as the road (Hwy 205) turned Northwest, I intercepted the storm. Or should I say, the storm intercepted me. And this storm seemed angry. Lightning flashed on both sides of my truck. Heavy rain mixed with hail came down in sheets and, though there was easily an hour's worth of daylight left, it felt like nightfall.

Fields had gas but the store was closed. Argh! The next stop was Frenchglen, another 50 miles up the highway. I had about 60 miles until an empty tank. And the farther North I went, the angrier the storm got. The lightning seemed to be chasing me. The rain and hail intensified pounding down incessantly for the next 40 miles. To the west, not more than a mile away, the clouds broke wide open. You could see blue sky. But the road and the storm seemed hitched. With the sun lowering, I knew there was the potential for some incredible light, and indeed, the sun poked through the clouds and set the sheets of rain, clouds, and hills around me ablaze in a warm neon orange glow.

Any chance for a photograph meant I had to get beyond the edge of the storm. Nothing doing. I cursed the road. It seemed to tease me at every big curve hugging the storms edge. A brilliant rainbow appeared in my rear view mirror and when I frantically stopped and tried to position my truck to block the wind-driven rain to make a photograph, my camera and body were soaked in seconds.

Then, just as the sun was on the horizon, a break in the action! I pulled over and was able to make several photographs of the setting sun illuminating sheets of rain to the northeast. I chose my Zeiss 18mm wishing to capture as much of the grandeur of light and cloud play holding out hope that a little lightning might sneak itself into my composition. The lightning had ceased. But what was left, was soft lit and magical.

I made it to Frenchglen on fumes. They had gas. Available at 9:30 am the next morning! The bed in Room 1 of the Frenchglen Hotel (a state heritage site) was a welcome relief. And the homemade french toast the following morning was heavenly.


It's a landscape that has to be seen to be believed. And, as I say on occasion, it may have to be believed in order to be seen.

N. Scott Momaday