Starting at the Big Empty

The Seattle Times
August 25, 2002
By Alex Tizon

HARNEY COUNTY, Oregon — This is as vacant a place as you might find on the open road, the high desert country where the great rectangle of Oregon meets with the vast triangle of Nevada. It is an outback, a desolate plain that seems to say in its silence: Humans beware; you could die of loneliness here.

It is the Big Empty. There’s a spot here, north of Bluejoint Lake, said to be, by one measure, the most remote point in the Lower 48. Standing on that spot, you would be as far from an interstate highway as you could get. We’ve come to the Big Empty for a reason. It’s our first stop and our last calm moment, our one deep breath, before plunging into the road trip ahead. We’re driving back to New York City. We want to be standing at Ground Zero on Sept. 11.

We hope some of you will join us, in spirit, as many of you did last year. Some of you might remember that photographer Alan Berner and I got in a rented Ford Expedition the day after the twin towers fell. We crossed 15 states, met a lot of people, Americans of every stripe. When we got to Lower Manhattan, smoke was still rising from the rubble. The city was shell-shocked. Hollow-eyed survivors clung to the hope that their husbands or wives were alive in some undiscovered chamber.

There were no such miraculous discoveries. In the microcosm of the twin towers, destruction was complete. But out of the ashes rose the phoenix of a new America, or so it has been said, an America wounded and wary, taking stock, taking precaution. There’s a new vigilance in the land.

We want to know what Americans are thinking and feeling as we approach the first anniversary of what historian David McCullough called, perhaps hastily, the worst day in American history. We want to know how Americans spent their year, and how their lives have shifted or stayed the same. Chances are good we’ll meet someone on the road who feels the same way you do. Some of you can’t get enough news of the war on terrorism; many have reached a saturation point. You don’t want to talk about it anymore.

We invite you along just for the journey. More than anything, this is a road trip. A road trip in August, the last fling of summer. Our route this time will take us through the Southern edges of the country, regions that have known war and have bred their own versions of quirkiness and flavor. We, for example, would like to meet a real Southern belle.

We left Seattle on a sunny Monday morning, made our way in our newly rented Expedition over the Cascade range into the sagebrush hollows of the Yakima Valley, where our first encounter with another human was with a blue-eyed waitress named Gina Smoot who, we learn over lunch, has a birthday coming up: Sept. 11. She will turn 34.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Smoot says, but there’s a sense that “it isn’t my day anymore. For the next rest of my life, I’ll be sharing the day with the rest of the world.”

Her best consolation comes from her sister, whose birthday falls on Nov. 22, the day in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The sister called a weeping Smoot just hours after the attacks last year to say she was sorry and welcome to the club. With the weirdness of fate still on our minds, we wound our way southeast over rolling brown hills, across the Columbia River at Umatilla, and south into the sere beauty of the Big Empty where we spent our first night.

This is a part of the Northwest seldom heard about primarily because of our human bias toward news that involves other humans. There aren’t too many of us out here. We are far outnumbered by coyotes and jack rabbits. Seven thousand or so people live in Harney County, which is roughly five times the size of King County. Some residents, oddly enough, worry about congestion, especially during summer when tourists drive through as if they owned the place.

“We chose to live at the end of the road for a reason,” says an amiable Stacy Davies, a man of few words and much land. He runs Roaring Springs Ranch, a little spread of about 600,000 acres. “We’re starting to wonder whether we’re still at the end of the road anymore.”

Harney County, larger than some New England states, makes up the bulk of Oregon’s southeast quadrant, and functions in some ways like a small town. The residents, mostly cattle ranchers and farmers, all seem very neighborly, even though the nearest neighbor could be 20 miles down the road. A quick milk run could mean a 40-mile jaunt. We met a grandmother named Susie Hammond who was getting ready to drive her grandson, Dusty, to football practice in Crane, a mere 50 miles away. The first 4-1/2 miles is Hammond’s driveway.

Susie and her husband, Dwight, live in a spacious ranch home near the foot of Steens Mountain, the great green grandfather that overlooks this desert country. Even here, in as remote a place as the Hammond Ranch, up the 4½-mile driveway through a kingdom of scrub, the long fingers of 9/11 have reached in and touched lives. A family member whose business operation functioned partly out of the World Trade Center is now out of business. The family farm (mostly alfalfa) has suffered from the economic woes hastened by the terrorist attacks. And of course, it’s harder to raise and sell cattle when everybody’s broke or struggling.

In Burns, the county seat, officials have been told by “the feds” to implement a bio-terrorism preparedness plan, costing time and money, both of which are not in abundant supply in economically depressed Harney. What a waste! the county says. Most residents here would bet their first alfalfa harvest that if you look through all of Osama Bin Laden’s files, you would not find a single mention of Harney County.

So the grousing goes in the Big Empty. It’s neighborly grousing, spoken over coffee at the Broadway Cafe in downtown Burns, or between two farmers whose tractors intersect in a field of tall grass. But the sound of human voices doesn’t carry out here, not like the yelp of a coyote or the call of a wild goose.

There’s mostly silence, real silence, the kind you never hear in a city, the kind that can compel a personal emptying that a traveler might need before a drive into the Big Noisy. Our next stop, a universe away, is Las Vegas.