Although Ellen Waterston grew up in a New England family that thought it was living the American Dream with a summer home on the water, she migrated to Oregon’s high desert as a young woman. After moving, she worked a couple of decades as a rancher. She has since worked as a writer, firmly planted in and dedicated to Oregon’s dry eastern side.
While in Oregon, Waterston has seen many changes come to her beloved “vast open.”
In a new book, “Walking the High Desert,” she strings together her observations as she explores the remarkable new Oregon Desert Trail, which zigs and zags about 750 miles across sagebrush flats. The trail runs through basalt canyons and gnarled juniper forests, and past buttes, escarpments and small towns.
The improbability of this trail existing is a testament to hard-won collaborations as environmentalists, ranchers, government entities and local communities were pushed aside. As Waterston says, “all the no can dos” found a common purpose.
While celebrating this “bouquet of rationality and aspiration,” Waterston ponders the different sides of issues that remain in the Oregon desert and across the country. Issues include habitat protection, climate change, sustainability, the protection of customary and sacred indigenous sites, water rights and competing demands by an array of folks including ranchers, recreationalists and militia members.
In the time-honored way that good neighbors try to practice a live-and-let-live policy, the author reports on and honors the widely divergent views of the far-flung residents of Eastern Oregon.
She has little patience, however, for Ammon Bundy, who led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days in 2016. The scion of a disgruntled Nevada rancher who owed the Bureau of Land Management $1 million in unpaid grazing fees, Bundy demanded that the federal government divest itself of its public lands.
“Privatizing federal lands in the high desert, as Bundy demanded, would ultimately mean only one thing: big money would come in, swoop up the land, restrict all recreational access (including hunting), control waterways, and in so doing, send small ranchers and farmers down the river,” Waterston writes. “American plutocrats are salivating at the idea.”
Politics does rear its head, even in the heart of this sparsely populated land. Waterston quotes local documentary filmmaker Richard Wilhelm, a resident of Oregon’s Harney County.
The answer, Wilhelm says, “is to understand that we all have to listen to people we may not agree with.”
“Walking the High Desert” braids together the challenges of rural and small-town America with the opportunities for and threats to wilderness conservation. It’s tied together with the ribbon of Waterston’s own experiences as a rancher, writer and resident. This book shares iridescent insights.