If you're a regular reader of The Bulletin's Outing page and you're the kind of person who pays attention to bylines, you may have noticed a couple of things in recent years:
1) A handful of us in the newsroom have rotated responsibility for these articles ever since the paper's longtime outdoors writer, Jim Witty, died unexpectedly in 2008. And ...
2) Among that handful, I am the least outdoorsy.
It's not that I don't like the outdoors. I do. It's just that I'm more naturally inclined to go see a band at Silver Moon Brewing & Taproom than to go camping at Silver Falls State Park.
My lack of outdoorsy-ness has always made me feel slightly out of place in this nature-crazed region, never more so than when I approached Jim about six months after I moved here to ask for a recommendation. I had family in town and wanted to take them on a fun, low-key hike to show them what Central Oregon has to offer without wearing them out.
He asked me if I knew about This Trail. I didn't. He asked if I knew about That Trail. Nope.
Him: “What about So-and-So Scenic Overlook?”
Me: Blank stare.
Him: “Have you been out to Whatchamacallit Wilderness?”
Me: “Maybe we'll just take a drive up Pilot Butte.”
Jim loved the Badlands, that High Desert expanse between Alfalfa and U.S. Highway 20 east of Bend that's now an official wilderness area. At 29,000 acres, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness is a dusty sea of juniper trees, rock outcroppings and sagebrush, crisscrossed by more than 50 miles of trails with modest, geologic names like Dry River, Black Lava, Tumulus and Flatiron.
When Jim would wax (or write) poetic about the Badlands, I just kept my mouth shut, because I never quite got it. It all just looked like a lot of dirt and ugly plants to me.
Five years later, I think the tide is turning; I think I'm falling for the High Desert's charms. Last weekend, when it came time to choose an outing for this story, my mind didn't even glance to the west, but instead looked east, to the Badlands. On a Bureau of Land Management map, I found my spot: the Ancient Juniper Trail.
I noticed, on recent trips to Horse Ridge and Dry River Canyon, that I've begun to appreciate the Western juniper. (Another co-worker told me years ago this would happen.) What I once considered a bland, gnarled mess of a tree has begun to reveal its unassuming beauty. I've grown to appreciate not only the juniper's stout, solemn shape and jagged branches, but also its distinctive bark, which ranges from reddish orange to brown to gray and looks like nature's corduroy, with its countless ridges and furrows.
The 1.9-mile Ancient Juniper Trail delivers on the promise in its name. From a trailhead along U.S. Highway 20, you can choose the Flatiron Trail to the right, or the Ancient Juniper Trail to the left. They meet up to the north, about halfway to Flatiron Rock, and I suspect the scenery is pretty much the same either way you go. (Note: You can take the Flatiron Trail back to the trailhead for a total hike of three miles.)
I went left and found a relatively easy stroll through a sparse landscape. The Ancient Juniper Trail's ground is uneven but not too rocky, and it climbs slowly up a small hill, twisting and turning like macaroni laid end to end. Last weekend, the path was about half wet soil and half heavily trampled snow, but never so muddy it was impassable.
If you're looking for variety in your sightseeing, this is not the place for you. It's pretty much juniper and sagebrush, over and over again, and occasionally two or three junipers perched atop a rock outcropping. (Plus one very quick jackrabbit that surely startled me more than I startled him.) After a while, it begins to feel almost repetitive, like you're going round and round on some sort of Badlands carousel. Fortunately, Horse Ridge and the Ochoco Mountains rise on the horizon to provide perspective and keep the trail from feeling like a staircase in an M.C. Escher painting.
The thing about the repetition, though, is that it highlights the differences among these ancient junipers, which can live hundreds or even thousands of years in the desert. (The oldest juniper in Oregon, estimated at 1,600 years old, is nearby at Horse Ridge.) As I walked, I began to delight in zigging and zagging across the trail, checking out each tree and mentally cataloging their different shapes and the shades of their bark. I found myself appreciating the different textures of those ridges and widths of those furrows. I found junipers that appeared relatively fresh and healthy, junipers that looked tired and weathered, junipers that had burned and junipers on their side, as if relaxing after several centuries of hard work.
At one point, I realized I was having ... fun. Outside. With juniper trees.
I'll probably never be a rugged rock climber or a rapids-shooting daredevil or whatever. But on Sunday, I came to the not-so-sudden realization that there's more beauty in the Badlands than meets the eye. You just have to look for it.
I think that makes me a little bit more of a Central Oregonian.
And that's good enough for me.