Sunstone Day

Today, on Memorial Day, we are in Summer Lake Oregon where it is raining

Plush Oregon May 24 Sunny and cool High 60 Low 37

Day 2 sunstones_004DSC_0004Ahh, let’s sleep in.  Except no one told the dog and the cat.  Abby has this thing, she shakes so that her collar rattles.  Jeremy starts purring.  Loud.  Both of them begin this little ritual at exactly 5:30 AM. Not such an issue in a big house, but in a small RV?  I think we did manage to sleep till 6am at least.

Day 2 sunstones_001DSC_0001The skies were clear and gorgeous, but we had no desire to run off in a hurry.  Our plans for the day were to drive the 20 plus miles of gravel and dirt road to the BLM Sunstone Collection Area and root around for the Oregon state gem.  No need to get out there when it was still in the 30’s, no matter HOW sunny the skies were.

Point A is Plush, B is our boondock site, C is the turn off the hogback road E is the next turn and F is the digging area

sunstone mapInstead I made some rich, dark Seattle’s Best french press coffee, and toasted some of the sourdough bread we still had left over from the Bakkery in Mammoth Mountain to go with our yummy, leisurely breakfast.  We settled Jeremy in with the Fantastic Fan set to go on if it got warm, loaded up Abby and snacks into the Tracker and headed north with our shovel, bucket, and 1/4 inch mesh screens Mo built for this day.

Day 2 sunstones_007DSC_0007The BLM roads show well on the map, and we also had several brochures I picked up from the Interagency Office yesterday in Lakeview with varying degrees of clarity describing the route.  There are several private mines in the area around the public digging sites, but our first destination would be an area where we could just walk around and pick up the beautiful sunstones right on the ground.  Why look for sunstones?  Why not?  We knew the chances of finding anything particularly valuable were slim, but sunstones are lovely little feldspar crystals, most often a clear pale yellow and sometimes pink, green, or shades of red depending on the level of copper inclusions.

Day 2 sunstones_006DSC_0006The Hogback road goes north from our boondock site near Plush and eventually will hook up to Highway 395 near Abert Rim, famous for hang gliding jumps.  The Sunstone area is east of the Hogback, and the several roads and turns are actually well marked if you pay attention.  Nice sized signs saying “Sunstone Area” are at each turn.  The roads are all gravel, not dirt, and they are rough, with sharp stones.  We had a spare tire, but if we did this again we might think about bringing two spares.

UhOh.  We had just arrived at the shade shelter near the digging site when Mo saw the flat tire.  It wasn’t too difficult changing the tire, but we weren’t too happy about our plans to explore more rough roads later in the day without a spare.  We also weren’t too happy about the fact that the nearest place to buy a tire was a very long way back in the town of Lakeview.

looking for sunstonesNot to worry, we just decided to think about it later and get on with the adventure of looking for sunstones.  The brochure for the sunstone collection area says to just keep your eyes to the ground, looking for the translucent yellow stones lying among the rocks.  Of course, you can also dig, but are asked to fill in any holes you excavate. 

very tiny wildflowers at the BLM sunstone collection area that is my gloved fingerWe spent most of our time walking the draws, thinking that the erosion would bring stones to the surface, but found out later that there are often more and bigger stones up on the flat areas northwest of the shelters.  Large ant hills are everywhere, and sometimes they excavate nice sunstones and leave them lying around.

tiny sunstones and tiny flowersWe were a bit nervous about driving off into nowhere with a flat spare tire, so only wandered off less than a mile and took off walking again.  In some areas around the anthills the sunstones were so numerous it looked like the ground was covered with glitter.  Most of these stones, however are less than 1 or 2 mm in diameter.  We found as the day wore on it took a bigger specimen to get us to bend over and pick it up.  By the end of a couple of hours of exploring we had a nice little stash of glittering, lovely sunstones, and a few that were as big as an inch.

Day 2 sunstones_026DSC_0026We had planned to stop at the Spectrum Mine, just a couple of miles further down the road, but with the tire problem we thought it might be smart to stop at the Dust Devil Mine, located right at the entrance road to the BLM public diggings.  We knew that our chances of finding a tire any closer than Lakeview were really slim, but still we thought it might be good to stop and ask.  We had no desire to do what is called “Fee Digging” at the mine.

Day 2 sunstones_048DSC_0048We drove in and parked near the collection of old trailers and piles of mineral specimens.  In a few minutes, an older guy with a big gray beard showed up and when we asked him about how far to a town with a tire, he said, “I think I may have one that fits out back”.  Whew!  In the mean time, Mo decided to take the punctured tire off the rack and as she did another guy came up and looked at it and said, “I can fix that!” and off he went with our beat up tire.  Within moments he was back with a repaired tire and a warning to get it replaced as soon as we could.  At least we had a spare to get us back to civilization. No charge.

another nice guy from the Dust Devil MineWe all stood around and talked tires for awhile and they all insisted that we had to have 6 ply tires to drive these gravel roads without mishaps.  Included in the conversation were lots of stories about 2 or more flats on a single trip.  Hmmm, maybe a place for carrying 2 spares.  We didn’t even carry two spares on the back roads of Alaska!  They ended the conversation with an invite to watch how the fee digging worked.

amazing contraption separates and washes ore to find sunstonesThe equipment is all huge and crazy looking.  The sunstones occur in the clay layer below the basalt where the feldspar cooled slowly enough to form large crystals.  Varying levels of copper in the crystals lend the pink, red, or even combinations of red and green colors to the really fine stones.  For 50 bucks, you get a hopper load of ore dropped onto a moving belt where you pick out the sunstones among the basalt gravels.  Then you have to decide what pieces you want because you have to pay for “color” you wish to keep, at 1/3 the wholesale price.

picking for sunstones as the belt rolls byIt looked fun, and the couple that was doing the picking had come from Red Bluff, California.  They had found several pieces worth faceting in the past and the woman had some very nice sunstone jewelry to show for her efforts. Still, we hadn’t come expecting to pay for sunstones, we just wanted a little bit of collectible stuff and we already had that. After the belt was finished, the nice guy who had fixed our tire unlocked the main trailer to let us in to see some of the beautiful faceted sunstones they had for sale. 

Day 2 sunstones_040DSC_0040There are several “fee digging” mines in the vicinity of the public area, and who knows how to decide which one to visit.  Just on the basis of pure friendliness and fun I would highly recommend the Dust Devil Mine. Oregon sunstone was declared the Oregon State Gem in 1987 and the Dust Devil Mine started operating just a few years after that.  The sunstones are only found in the remote high deserts of Lake and Harney counties.  It is a great place if you like to rockhound and putter around in the desert.

Day 2 sunstones_035DSC_0035We had planned a different route home via a western route to the Hogback, but our guys (I can’t believe I never got their names) insisted that we shouldn’t attempt that route.  They said it was longer and rougher and meaner.  So we went back the same way we came, taking a little side road east to drop down into the Warner Wetland area and along the edge of Flagstaff Lake, one of the larger water bodies in the complex wetlands.

our sunstone stash from a couple of hours of pickingBack up on the 6155 road, we passed a beautiful basalt cliff tucked into a western hill that looked inviting.  Turning up the dirt road led uphill to another beautiful overlook site perfect for boondocking.  The view east of the mountains was gorgeous, but the site was fully visible from the road below.  The other down side is that this site was about an additional 7 miles of travel on rough gravel road.  For some reason, we don’t want to do that in the MoHo unless absolutely needed.  I laugh at this thinking about our 115 mile run on dirt  on the Top of the World Highway in Alaska, but why do it if you don’t need to?  If our current spot was filled, we might consider traveling north to this other site when we come back to this area.

Once back at camp we settled in for a lovely late afternoon.  Jeremy loves this site because he has free run of the desert.  There are some sage surrounding the site, but he does a pretty good job of staying close and rolling in the gravel. 

hand quilting and a campfireMo loves the desert tooWe kicked back on the chairs enjoying the cool sunshine and I even took some time to practice my hand quilting before Mo started up the bbq for supper.  Once again, we waited for a dramatic sunset, but the skies were subtle and the sun set in nothing less than a blaze of non-glory.

Day 2 Sunstones

Jeremy loves the freedom of hanging out in the desert, and even found a new toy

The Other Oregon

Currently we are in Summer Lake, OR in wild rain and hail

This was written from Plush Oregon May 23 High 52 Lo 32

Hart Mountain appears on the horizonThere is a mindset called Oregon.  Usually it revolves around lots of green and lots of rain.  Images of Mt Hood, the Oregon Coast shrouded in fog, verdant green valleys dotted with farms, vineyards, little villages with covered bridges are the epitome of beautiful Oregon.  But there is another Oregon, one that covers more than 2/3 of the state.  The East Side as we call it, is high sage desert, bisected by Highway 395, that mythical road so many RV’rs love to travel.  But even beyond 395 lies a wild and empty Oregon called by some the Oregon Outback. 

There is a Scenic Back Country Byway that exits east from 395 just north of Lakeview, following Highway 140 through the Warner Canyon and then leaving the highway to travel north and east through the Warner Valley, where the pavement ends, over Hart Mountain, and crossing the open desert toward the remote wild mountains called “The Steens”.

dropping off the fan into Plush with Hart Mountain in front of usIt is a huge, vast, silent land full of nothing and everything.  Several times in the last few years we have passed along the southern boundary of this wild country on our way east somewhere and looked up at Hart Mountain…saying…remember?  Remember how wonderful it was??  Yes, we remembered and finally decided it was time to return to Hart Mountain and the wild Oregon Outback.

Jeremy exploring the boondock siteOn this week long journey, we didn’t plan to go to the Steens, saving that for another time later in the season.  Our decision was a good one, since the upper reaches of the Steens are still deep in snow. We planned for three nights boondocking, and knew that we didn’t really want to get to the Plush area too early in the afternoon, so had to wait until noon to leave Rocky Point.  It was funny how hard it was to go slooooow, and take…our….time….before….getting….on the road.  Usually on travel days we are all hot to trot and want to get moving early.

hurry up Mom, get your shoes on!The route to Plush, Oregon, where we planned to find a boondock site, is a familiar one: traveling east on 140, through Klamath Falls, continuing east through my old survey area in remote parts of Klamath County near Beatty and Bly and finally arriving at the small town of Lakeview.  Even though we were only 1/3 tank down in fuel, it was important to make sure our fuel was topped off before heading into the outback.  There is no fuel out there, the distances are long, and we would need to use the generator.

Another important Lakeview stop was at the Interagency Office right on 395 just south of town.  I spent $4.00 on a Lakeview District BLM map, at a scale that makes navigating the desert reasonably easy. We also have the GPS unit, (sort of useless when most of the time it says “driving on road”), and the DeLorme Benchmark maps for the area.  The phone and the iPad are useless out here, since there are no signals anywhere.  Well, almost no signals, but I’ll share that one later.

miles and miles of dog safe walkingThe cold, snowy storms that blew through this part of the west were almost gone by the time we reached Lakeview, but there were still huge clouds and some snow flurries here and there as we crossed Quartz Mountain.  Once on Warner Pass, where we expected snow, we were blessed with only a little bit of rain.  The skies cleared as we climbed up over the pass, turned north on the Plush Cutoff and were awed once again by the long uplifted fault block mountain that is Hart.

I love Hart MountainHome to the largest antelope refuge in the country, with a western scarp slope populated with bighorn sheep, Hart Mountain rises from the desert like some kind of mystical dream.  Maybe it is only me, but this mountain calls my soul in ways that even the Steens don’t.  I know, I know, it wasn’t long ago that I was raving about the east slope of the Sierras.  Still, Hart Mountain looming above the Warner Valley is a sight no mountain lover should miss.

It isn’t a group of dramatic peaks.  Instead it is a long linear mountain, with a steep western scarp rising 3,500 feet to the 8,000 foot summit, and an east slope that slips off gently to the eastern desert.  The top looks nearly flat from a distance, but a closer inspection reveals many deeply cut canyons and cliffs that I have never seen except from the road. I think my days of exploring these rugged canyons on foot are long behind me.

back to camp after our evening walkOn this Thursday afternoon, the early beginning to the long Memorial Holiday Weekend, we were very nearly alone on the road into Plush, a tiny community best known for its tiny grocery store and bar and its rock shop.  Armed with our BLM map, however, we had no need to stop, and headed north through town on the Hogback Road.  Within three miles, the road turns to rough gravel, and a few hundred yards after that, road 6175 winds up Miners Draw into the Coyote Hills.  We unhooked at the turn to go check for a place to be.

Just up the road, on the crest of the hill overlooking the valley, we found a large rounded out area, flat as can be, protected on three sides by a low hill and facing the beautiful scarp of Hart Mountain in the east.  The site was clean and smooth except for a small pile of firewood someone had left behind, and we couldn’t believe what perfect luck to find such a spot.

mild sunset at our boondock site near PlushSettling in for the evening, we walked up the road into the hills for awhile, and came back to fix supper while we waited for the sunset.  The full moon was coming up at 7:30 and the sun was setting at 8:30. 

Spectacular, or so we thought.  Even with the clouds in the west, the sunset was rather dull.  I guess with zero pollution there isn’t anything around to refract the light and make color.  Our night was utterly silent, utterly dark except for the moon in and out of the clouds.  Boondocking at its very finest!