As I look back in time, I’ve decided the germination of my interest in Oregon’s High Desert began in 1952. Our teacher, Mrs. Ann Briggs brought to school a gnarled and twisted sagebrush sandal on a cookie tray, a fragile human artifact obviously made for a human foot. “No touching,” was her order to our fifth grade class as she carried the tray slowly by each of our desks.
And then she told a story of her cowboy brother finding the sandal in a cave in Fort Rock. Her brother never gets a mention in the recorded history of the Fort Rock Cave. Only the archaeologists who claim the find are mentioned, but I believe Mrs. Briggs nonetheless. After all, she had the sandals and the archaeologists didn’t…yet.
I never saw sagebrush sandals again until I walked into The Indian Village restaurant in Lakeview, Oregon in the summer of 1964, the first season of my firefighting days with the US Forest Service. There, in hermetically sealed cases, for all the world to see were sagebrush sandals made by the early people. A little brass sign on the case gave the estimated date of their creation as about 8,000 year ago. I don’t know to this day if those hermetically sealed sandals were the same ones I had seen as a boy, but they could have been. They looked the same, all gnarled and twisted, and they looked somewhat serviceable.
On the walls of the restaurant were dozens of big, glass covered picture frames protecting hundreds of beautifully crafted Indian arrowheads, spear points, scrapers, and what I guess to be obsidian knives. I was hooked. Instead of an empty desert, I could envision a land full of people busy living their lives as hunter gatherers.
And so in my spare time I went in search of the ancients. Over the years, I found rock blinds, ancient petroglyphs, rock art, a cave used by ancient people, and rattlesnakes. On one memorable occasion, my wife and I found a really comfortable rock surrounded by obsidian chips. I tried this ancient seat, and it wasn’t difficult to see what the artisan saw, sitting there, turning chunks of obsidian into tools, watching flocks of geese and ducks sailing in to feed on the salt grass at the north end of Abert Lake. Close by, a smooth, deep bowl in a flat six foot slab of rock bore testament to years of pounding and grinding wild grains to separate the husk from the meat. (My archaeology friend Hugh Bunten told me of archaeological evidence supporting the notion that about twenty wild grains had been part of the early High Desert Indian diet, but most of the wild grains were extinct now.)
I came tantalizingly close to parting the curtain of time and actually being there, in that place with that ancient person, the watcher, the obsidian napper. The artifacts that once adorned the walls of the Indian Village are gone now, housed in a museum most likely, but the rock at the north end of Abert Lake is still there. Maybe I’ll try that rock again one day, and maybe this time I’ll step back into the world of the Ancients.