China Hat. Fort Rock. Christmas Valley. Crack-in-the-Ground.These are not the most popular Central Oregon attractions by a long shot, but their unique geology, relative remoteness, and desert orientation had captured my imagination. So when my friends and roommates, Fox and Rocklocks announced they would spend a Sunday touring through the area southeast of town, I jumped on the chance.
For Roxy the day was technically work, scouting a hiking route through the juniper and sage for an upcoming guided trip. I was tagging along for the volcanic caves and cracks, Forest Service/BLM two-track butte running, and hopes of a day capping cold milkshake at a very out of the way diner. I pretty much got what I was looking for, including a hand wringing period where our trusty steed “Plumy,” a twenty year old honda civic, nearly ran out of gas.
We did a little off trail hiking through the volcanics, sage, and juniper before arriving at Derrick Cave, a lava tube feature that unassumingly springs from the barren ground. This was my first Oregon cave. It is wide and tall enough to house a pair of subway tracks, gently sloping downward like a metro system itself. Early in the cave there are a few “skylights,” patches of the ceiling that collapsed upon initial formation and let you curiously view the blue sky and trees above. Deeper in the cave headlamps are of course necessary, and water seeps out of fissures, the cooler temperature creating bulbous ice stalagmites. When we reached the end of the cave, we turned off our lights and tried to picture our hands in front of our face. At the time of the cave’s formation, this tunnel could have continued 20 plus miles to the heart of Newberry volcano, the basalt at our feet an underground river of lava churning toward open air and solid state.
After leaving the cave, my friends went on their scouting mission while I ran up, around, and back up Fox Butte (6100′), the site of an abandoned forest service lookout tower. Unlike the cave, the weather outside was having a hard time deciding what to do. My run involved rain, sun, hail, sun, wind!, and repeat. The “climbing discouraged” sign did not deter me from catching views from the tower, nor was I discouraged by what I saw: desert and cinder cones in all directions under alternating sun and shadow, the snows of Newberry rising above all the rest.
Our final destination involved driving south to Fort Rock and east to Christmas Valley. On the map Christmas Valley had intrigued me as a collection of streets, houses, and even golf course located in an otherwise remote basin and range type valley. Was this some ritzy development or retirement community? I pictured immaculately manicured lawns drinking precious desert water behind ostentatious iron and brick gates, the Palm Springs of central oregon (or maybe that’s Bend). Instead, I was delighted to find a diffuse collection of ramshackle trailers and RVs, the type of place Edward Abbey would consider if looking for a dose of civilization. Turning north on a dirt road, thoughts of how much a Christmas Valley acre cost were soon rattled loose by the relentless washboards on the way to Crack-in-the-Ground. It seemed Plumy might find its limit, especially with how Roxy was driving. Jostled and a little dustier, we arrived at the empty BLM lot; nothing geologically novel seemed close. Crack-in-the-ground only appears once you’re about to step into it. A tension fracture in the surrounding basalt, the fissure opens to the sky and varies between 15 and 60 feet deep for 2 miles. While non-technical for humans, one section proved too difficult for their dog Spoons, who had to be lifted from one person to another over jumbled boulders.
Leaving crack-in-the-ground, I noticed we still had half a tank of gas left. Several minutes later Roxy declared Plumy is prone to quit at 302 miles, and we were sitting at 280. Palms begin to sweat, rough calculations commence. We’re going to get stuck in the middle of nowhere, miles from gas or dinner! I’ll admit I was fairly pessimistic, especially when we pulled into the crossroads of Fort Rock and discovered the gas station had been for sale for over three years. Luckily Plumy had enough fumes to reach an early season RV camp just at dark, which sold us five gallons at a premium $5/gal. “What was your plan?” the woman asked. Roxy was confident in some turn of fortune, but I had been preparing for a second run combined with weight training. With Plumy fed, it was time to find our own meal.
It was well after dark when we finally made it to La Pine where a truck stop diner seemed the open option. I only eat chicken fried steak about twice a year, and usually at places like this. Add eggs, hashbrowns, and toast, and you have yourself a sunday dinner. The strawberry milkshake tasted pretty good too.