Art by mail: Outdoor adventures

Message on postcard:
Hello Finn! Greetings from Oregon. I’ve been traveling the country all year with my dogs, and I’m finally finishing my trip out here in eastern Oregon. There are huge mountains, deep canyons, and flat deserts. It’s a neat place. I’m visiting it in a Vanagon, a Volkswagen van like the one your dad has. Your dad asked me to send you a postcard from my travels. So I thought I’d tell you about my dogs. Their names are Skillet and Kaida, and they’re outside the van right now, soaking up the heat in the very flat Alvord Desert. The reason it’s so flat is because it’s the bottom of an old lake that dried up. It’s a really neat place!

Skillet and Kaida both like to travel. We’ve been on the road since April of this year, and at first I was kind of nervous because Skillet gets carsick easily. But Skillet is a smart dog, and it didn’t take him long to learn that he wouldn’t get sick if he kept looking out the window. He and Kaida both like sitting in the front passenger seat. Fortunately, Kaida is very easygoing, and she lets Skillet sit right on top of her while she’s curled up and sleeping! Skillet is only two years old and pretty energetic, but Kaida is almost seven, and she’s been with me through thick and thin. She spent a month in Iowa living the easy life with my family while Skillet and I visited the Great Lakes, and that’s the longest we’ve ever been apart.

The dogs and I have had a lot of adventures this year. In June, Skillet and I visited the source of the Mississippi River, where it’s just a stream, and we waded across it. In July, Kaida saved me from a wild animal attack. My dogs are the best!

Art by mail: The great American road trip

Message on postcard:
Hello Todd! This is Mike, reporting from near the end of my roadtrip at Steens Mountain, Oregon. It’s a good day. I got up before dawn and watched the sunrise from near the 9,700-foot summit of Steens Mountain. In the east the sky went from black to dark purple to orange, and once the sun peeked over the horizon I watched the mountain’s long shadow recede across Catlow Valley.

Steens Mountain stands about 5,000 feet above the surrounding desert, and out near the western horizon is Hart Mountain, maybe fifty miles off, although the Abert Rim is visible beyond it. The shadow receded across the valley at probably sixty miles per hour or so. Just uphill from me is the very top of Steens Mountain; it’s a rocky outcropping with some small radio towers on it. (Incidentally, I get great cell reception up here.)

I heard a rock crash while watching the sun come up, and that’s when I saw a huge bighorn sheep staring over the ledge. Pretty soon he was joined by another, and eventually I was looking at five or six bighorn sheep — they were far enough off that my photos of them look more like bigfoot than a sheep, and they blend in surprisingly well among the rocks.

One was a baby — or at least young — sheep, and two of the adults briefly locked horns at one point. I watched them for about an hour while they descended through the rocks and grazed on vegetation too sparse to see. This is a neat place. Yesterday, while overlooking a gorge on the mountain, I met a guy who told me about his fighter pilot nephew, who supposedly enjoyed doing inverted fly-throughs of said gorge on training flights. Wow.

Art by mail: We were cool, inside and out

Message on postcard:

Hello Ehren! I hope you had a good summer. I sure did. My summer stretched into October. I saw some impressive wildlife this last month of my travels. Back in July I was attacked by a wild pig. I’ve avoided writing much about it, because I’m not yet sure how to tell the story, and thinking back on it causes me no small amount of anxiety. In fact, large quadrupeds in general now cause me to tense up.

So my time at Hart Mountain National Antelope Reserve was interesting. My first full day there I saw a herd at a distance, cresting over a ridge and then disappearing into a valley. It was neat. My last day there I hiked out to a place called Petroglyph Lake, where there were maybe fifty antelope milling around the lake, grazing and drinking water. I kept my distance.

On the hike back, a group of about five antelope sped past me on the right, then crossed the path about a hundred meters in front of me. They joined up with another couple antelope ahead and to my left, and together the seven of them took off. The whole time I was envisioning the antelope getting territorial and aggressive, which wasn’t really a reasonable fear, so I tried to relax and enjoy the scene for what it was, even if I did have my hand on my knife while the dogs freaked out.

Art by mail: The story of the soaking cowboys

Message on postcard:
Hello Rachel! Here’s the story:

It’s near sunset at Hart Mountain National Antelope Reserve, and I need a shower. I got pretty good at the sponge bath method of personal hygiene while traveling this summer, but by the time October rolled around it was getting too cold for me to stand around in the wind, sopping myself down with a wet rag. So I decide that a soak in the hot springs is the next best thing to a hot shower.

I had spent the past couple of days wandering cross country, exploring the area. There aren’t many established trails at Hart Mountain, but the country is open enough that you can just pick a direction and tramp through the brush. This is a good way to see zillions of antelope, experience your maximum sweat gland potential, and smell bad.

So I walk down to the hot springs. There’s a primitive pool — just a hot-water filled hole in the ground — and a slightly more developed pool with a cement walkway and a wall around it. I decide to go with the primitive springs. But when I get there, there are a couple of naked older gentlemen soaking in the pool, with pants and cowboy hats piled up off to one side.

“How’s the water?” I ask.

“Depends on where you sit,” says one of the soaking cowboys. “Hotter here, colder there.”

The other cowboy adds his assessment: “Careful, he says, “it will scald your ass.”

I’ve made a few mistakes in my life, but one mistake I’m not keen on making is to experience a backcountry ass scalding after being explicitly warned about it. So I make my tactful exit: “Thanks for the report. I’ll use the other tub.”

The two cowboys have Oregon’s most neutral dispositions, and I can’t tell if my decision pleases or offends them. Regardless, I’m off to the other tub.

The hot water feels good after all the hiking, and I express my sentiments by vocalizing a few profanity-suffixed affirmatives. And then I realize that not only does the stone wall hide me from other people, it also hides them from me — which means that I would have been completely unaware of anybody who was passing by and heard me swearing to myself. Overall it was a good soak, even if I was plagued by a self-conscious feeling that a third-party observer might have identified me as the weirdest person there.

Art by mail: Big Bird, cartographer extraordinaire

Message on postcard:
Hi Amanda! You said you like maps and birds, so you’re in luck! This is the story of the biggest map in the world, and its creation by the world’s biggest bird — Doctor E. Biggums Birdsong the Third, known to his friends as “Large Bird”, and known to my ace team of lawyers as “an entity similar to but legally distinct from Big Bird”. Even though he prefers the name “Biggums” or “Large Bird”, I just shorten the lawyer-assigned name and call him “Big Bird”.

Our story begins on the rim of Crater Lake. The dogs and I had hiked up to a viewpoint named in honor of the 19th-century explorer Frederick Raggle. Frederick Raggle Rock, or Fraggle Rock as it’s known to the locals, is one of the finest places to experience the beauty of Crater Lake. And its expansive view also makes it the most logical place to begin any cartographic survey of the Crater Lake area. It was there that I was astonished to find Big Bird hard at work with his Playskool Big Boy Laser Cartography and Geospatial Information Systems Play Kit.

“Big Bird!” I said. “What it is!”

“Oh, hi, Mike,” said Big Bird. “I’m just working on my greatest project yet.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

Big Bird looked really excited. “I’m so glad you asked! It’s an educational life-size map of Crater Lake! Every letter and number in the world will be there, climbing the mountains and swimming in the lake. They’ll be tens of meters tall, and cloned from the DNA of ancient numbers trapped in amber!”

Big Bird’s eyes narrowed. “The Children’s Cartographic Workshop will be building the map at Area 51 in Nevada.”

“Holy feathers, Big Bird,” I said, growing uneasy. The dogs’ hackles rose.

“I call it Alphanumeric Park … Life will find a way.”

Clouds blocked the sun. Lightning struck the far rim of the lake. But in the end, everything was fine.

Art by mail: The story of the finicky bolt in La Pine

Message on postcard:
Hello Jason! This is the story of the afternoon I spent in La Pine, Oregon. But really the story begins the day before I was in La Pine, when I was camped up on Newberry Crater. It’s a big volcanic caldera that’s home to a couple of large lakes, some lava flows, a mountain called Paulina Peak, and lots of obsidian (useful in the construction of deadly arrowheads).  When I woke up in the morning I noticed a little green puddle of coolant under my engine compartment.

A little investigation revealed seepage from where a coolant hose connected to an aluminum coolant pipe. The pipe was loose and rubbing against my exhaust system. Well that was no good! The hose-to-coolant pipe connection was subject not only to the mechanical stresses of a rattling pipe, but presumably also an extra thermal load thanks to heat transfer from the exhaust. I have no idea if I used any of those terms correctly, but they all sound plausible to me, so let’s go with it.

Anyway, I snugged up a clamp on the leaky hose, and then I discovered that the metal coolant pipe is secured in place by means of a bracket that affixes the pipe to a mounting point in the engine block. And the bolt that connects the bracket to the block was straight-up missing! Zounds! So I grabbed some spare bailing wire and strung the tube in place until I could make it into town.

The next day I’m in La Pine, and I stop at the hardware store. I need a bolt and a washer. But what size? Using my patented “eyeball-o-metric assay” technique, I estimated and threw a dollar down on a gamble. And I lost. Fortunately, Ace Hardware has a reasonable return policy. After several trials, I was able to rule out 10 mm, 12 mm, and larger diameter bolts, so, yeah, okay, 8 mm it is. But what thread pitch? 1.50? 1.25? 1.00? Third time’s a charm. At this point the cashier just waves me through, preferring not to tally the four-cent differences in cost.

And then I installed the thing. Because the engine bay was full of hoses and sharp obstructions, this required me to squat over the engine with my hands plunged between my legs. The kind citizens of La Pine seemed to think I needed help, but they were wrong.

Art by mail: The importance of being prepared

Collage: A community of mammals in space.

Message on postcard:
Hello Patrick! This postcard is all about the importance of being prepared. I drove probably thirty thousand million billion miles this year, and by the time I set off on this last leg of travel I felt like I had everything down to a fine art: Throw all your stuff in the van and drive until you make it somewhere nice. Pretty simple formula.

But for this last bit of travel across Oregon I decided to build upon the lessons I’d already learned. I invested in a guidebook — by which I mean I threw all my stuff in the van, camped out in Oregon’s Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness my first night out, and then decided to stop in the tiny town of Welches to see what I might be able to learn at their public library.

And I learned two things. One, that they have guidebooks, and two, that they have a copy machine. And so I found the guidebook pages that described my planned destinations, and I xeroxed those pages. Boom.

The Welches library isn’t much bigger than a dentist’s waiting room. But it would be the waiting room for a very large dental practice. Where the patients are librarians and books. And also grungy travelers. And the work they do results in healthy smiles. Does that metaphor work? I think it works.