I grew up in a little box of a house in an Indiana suburb. There were houses on either side of us and one across the street. As far as the eye could see was a flat landscape littered with driveways and asphalt. So when I moved West after college, I was in awe of the mountains and deserts. I still am: all this empty space and rugged beauty. It never grows old. Every year when May rolls around and the weather warms up, I feel compelled, like the great explorers of the West, John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to take a look around.
The month of May I call Desert Appreciation Month. The temperatures are still cool enough to make hiking pleasant–and all the wildflowers are in bloom.
May, with its warmer weather, not only beckons people, but other creatures too. Yesterday, hiking the Wilson Creek Trail I came across a long, patterned bull snake gliding peacefully through the grasses. The Wilson Creek Trail climbs the Owyhee Mountain front in Idaho. When I saw the snake of course, I jumped back, startled.
Bull snakes look similar to rattlesnakes and I’ve come across enough rattlesnakes in my desert wanderings that I try not to repeat that experience.
A couple of years ago I was walking in sneakers and shorts along the side of a dirt road when I heard a distinct rattle sound warning me away. I froze, aware of my exposed legs, and looked down to find a rattlesnake coiled not three feet from me under a sagebrush. I softly stepped back thinking I really needed to wear boots and long pants hiking around in snake season.
On the Wilson Creek hike I crossed several bends in the little ribbon of a stream known as Wilson Creek.
Apparently, the snow melt coming off the peaks of the 8,000 foot Owyhee Mountains formed the headwaters. Two hundred or so head of cattle drifted in and around the creek bed blocking my path. I walked through them keenly aware of bawling and nervous cows worried about their calves. Cows are generally docile animals but have been known to charge if they think their calves are being threatened. It was difficult to ignore the damage done to little Wilson Creek by this big herd of cattle. The banks of the stream were all caved in and the vegetation around stomped down, flattened, and covered with cow pies. I wondered what this oasis in the high desert would look like minus cows—or at least with fewer cattle feeding from such a fragile stream.
Above me, on the hillside, I saw neat planted rows of crested wheat grass. No doubt the Bureau of Land Management had tractors drill seeds into the soil, probably hoping to restore such a heavily grazed area. It always makes me shake my head when I hear ranchers complain about the federal government infringing on their rights. The government supports ranching in so many ways: including keeping grazing fees phenomenally low ($1.69 a month per cow/calf pair —this as opposed to approximately $25 a month to feed a cow/calf pair on private land). They not only plant hearty grasses to ensure better pasturing for cattle herds, they also fence miles and miles of pasture—free of charge.
Fortunately, away from the stream bed I noticed plenty of undisturbed native wheat and rye grasses. I watched their leaves blow gently in the breeze.
“Multiple Use” is a phrase, a paradigm for public lands today. Multiple use was everywhere evident on the Wilson Creek Trail. I saw hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the trail.
Off in the distance an RZR (a Razor, a crazy-fast, steep-climbing recreational vehicle) drove, dust billowing behind. Still, for all the uses made of the Owyhee Mountain Front that day, it was blissfully quiet the farther I hiked up into the mountains. I didn’t see a street sign or hear a car honk. I almost pinched my arm to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t still living in a dreary Indiana suburb. No, I was happily awake, enjoying the mountains and deserts of the American West.
Image Credits: Diana Hooley on the Wilson Creek Trail, southwest Idaho