The Crown Jewels of our 51st state

For the first time in 8 months, I left Deschutes County. Not because I don’t like it, but to get away from all of the tourists who are inundating our town and bringing the corona virus cases here. It’s getting harder to social distance. Cases are on the rise. So I headed to the mountains of Northern California, not out of spite, but I thought that there would be less people (and less Californians) there. I discovered more than I expected to on this journey.

So, last Monday I left town with my buddy Tom to do some backpacking. We’ve camped together during the pandemic, but usually take two cars and maintain our 6 foot distance. But with a long drive, we only took one car. Therefore, we masked up and cracked the windows and sped southward. About half of the cars heading in the opposite direction towards Bend on Hwy 97 had out of state plates, mostly from California or Washington. We listened to some good tunes along the way. I almost finished reading the last couple of chapters of Angle of Repose, a novel by Wallace Stegner.

who is that masked man?

The sky was clear and the view of Mt. Shasta loomed high over the sagebrush plateau as we passed the border into what the sign said was California. But the real California lay hundreds of miles to the south. In actuality we had entered the state of Jefferson!

Mount Shasta, Jefferson

We stopped in Weed to refuel. No, I don’t think the town was named for cannabis, even though it is legal there. But we did see anti-establishment signs everywhere once we passed Klamath Falls, OR. Most were from farmers protesting about water rights in the Klamath Basin. Lots of Trump 2020 (no more Bullshit!) signs which lined the highway. California is thought to be a democratic stronghold throughout the rest of the country, but certainly not in the northern counties. It is culturally, economically and politically different than the rest of the state, which leads us to the state of Jefferson.

lots of flags and signs like these in the State of Jefferson

For those of you in the East, who are not familiar with the state of Jefferson, let me give you a little background. First, there are no cars driving around with the state of Jefferson license plates. The California Highway Patrol is found here on the interstates, but they shy away from the back roads. The state of Jefferson has no senators representing them in the United States Congress. The land here is mostly mountainous and forested, with some cattle ranching in the valleys between the mountains. It is rural and populated by hard-working, independent minded folk who don’t take a liking to outsiders telling them what there rules should be. Some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States can be experienced here, but the area is prone to fire in the late summer and fall.

The idea for an independent state goes all the way back to the 1850s, when mining was key to the economy. Due to its geography, the area is poorly connected by road and rail, which leads to a sense of isolation, fostering a deep spirit of independence. Many of the counties of Southern Oregon share a similar geography and culture, so later initiatives incorporated some counties in Southern Oregon to be a part of the proposed state of Jefferson.

One of the leaders in the early days was L.F. Mosher, a pro-slavery and anti-Indian sympathizer. The perception was that if allowed to become its own state, Jefferson would become a slave state in the Northwest, so the movement failed initially.

The idea didn’t go away, fueled by the perceived injustices of remote politicians managing affairs from far away places such as San Francisco and Sacramento. In 1941, the proposal was again renewed, and subsequently unrealized again.

But now back to our excursion…..We drove a few hours into the mountains to a trailhead in a National Forest to begin our backpack trip of 14 miles to a couple of beautiful lakes (so we heard). The roads were twisted and we stopped for road crews (California D.O.T.) to remove some roadside brush. We crested the road summit and crossed the Pacific Crest Trail, where I had walked a few years ago. We finally came to the trailhead an hour later and started our hike in the hottest part of the day. It was 3PM and the thermometer read 98 degrees!

The profuse sweating dripped salt into our eyes as we slogged on the trail, which was up and down, but not gaining much overall elevation yet. We found a nice campsite along a creek and settled in for the evening after only a few miles. Tomorrow would be a big climb up to one of the lakes in the area. After discovering the beauty of both of the unnamed lakes the next day, we would decide that they were jewels, so we’ll name them Ruby and Amethyst lakes.

After a couple of mochas in the morning (nothing like instant coffee and Swiss Miss Chocolate in the wilderness!), I was ready to go in the cool of the morning. The weather was beautiful. We crossed many creeks and climbed ever higher. I saw a small rattlesnake on the side of the trail and stopped to give him time to climb up a rock and get out of my way. Higher up, we came across a meadow, where we could view the majestic mountains surrounding us on three sides.

slow moving rattler struggling up the rock
Wilderness of Mighty Jefferson!

It got hotter and the trail became overgrown the higher we climbed. We saw only a few people, most of whom were on their way out after a long weekend. Finally, we got to Ruby lake, where we camped in one of the last remaining patches of trees before we hit timberline. Tom set up his hammock and I put up a tent and we waited for the sun to get lower before we did a day hike further uphill to see Amethyst Lake. A nice time to take a short nap and then eat a good dinner. We looked forward to hiking the last two miles without a heavy pack.

Looking back at Ruby Lake….campsite is the farthest patch of trees on the far side of the lake

The hike to Amethyst Lake requires some scrambling, as the trail is mostly scree and large broken boulders. Tom spotted something big moving in some bush about 60 yards away. We paused to see a black bear moving ever so slowly, mostly hidden by bush. We stopped and watched for 15 minutes as she finally climbed a rock to come into full view. The wind was in our faces, so we could hear her rustle the brush, but she could not get out scent. Good thing…..since we had been sweating for a couple of days already. Even a squirrel with a head cold and a stuffy nose should have been able to pick up our scent!

Great time viewing her and no Bearanoia!

After our bruin friend disappeared, we made the final climb to Amethyst Lake, really the crown jewel of the whole area. The trail ended here. The lake filled a glacial cirque which was carved out in the last ice age. Remnants of century-old mining activity lay strewn around the lake shore. There were no humans around. We soaked in the beauty of the area and took some pictures. As the sun was getting low, it was time we headed back to Ruby Lake camp.

Old mining equipment at Amethyst Lake

Just as we headed back, the wind changed and we detected smoke. A forest fire is the thing I fear most when backpacking. I’ve been face to face with bears, nearly stepped on big rattlers, and had coyotes howling near my tent in the past, but that’s nothing compared being in a remote forest during a fire. Even though it might seem futile, one could fight back against a bear with a buck knife, but there’s no way to outrun a raging fire. The smoke was pretty thick by the time we got back to Ruby Lake and the wind started to pick up. Thankfully, it changed direction again and it blew the smoke back down the valley, so that we hiked the next day without much smoke or fear of fire.

We started the morning hike back out at a pretty good speed, but I still cannot keep up with Tom. My legs were moving just as fast as his, but I kept losing ground. What his long strides are to hiking are akin to the boost of horsepower that nitrous oxide gives to a car engine. Besides that, he is younger and in better shape. There are a couple of Hollywood movie titles that would fit a movie about hiking with Tom. One stars Vin Diesel (the Fast and the Furious); the other stars Nicholas Cage (Gone in 60 seconds!). But he is good about often waiting for me, and it gives him time to take a swim or relax. I’m very grateful to have him as a hiking partner.

It got hotter again and I slowed down. I didn’t get to the car where Tom was waiting until about 3PM. All we could think about was a cold drink to numb our scorched tonsils. It took a long time to reach the first country store. We wore our masks and went inside, since due to Covid-19 it was the law in both California and Oregon at the time. The ladies behind the counter were not wearing masks, probably because we weren’t really in California, but were in Jefferson! I got a liter bottle of lemonade and Tom got some Gatorade and some snacks and we went outside to enjoy them. Just across from the store was this sign………

The dream lives on!

It took us several hours to drive back to Bend. We started the trip listening to Willie Nelson tapes and country music. The further from Jefferson we drove, we switched music and listened to Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. When we finally got back to Bend, we found ourselves halfway between Oregon and Jefferson. At home that night watching the news we found out that Bend had made the national news about a protest against the abduction of illegal immigrants. Teargas was dispersed on the crowds. We’re not quite up to Portland standards, but culturally we seem headed in that direction. You might say that Bend is geographically and culturally at the border between Jefferson and Oregon.

So, I’ve now been to all 51 states. How many have you visited? Did you know that there is an initiative trying to get on the ballot in Oregon where the Eastern counties would like to secede from Oregon and join Idaho. If that happens, then I’ll have to revisit Harney and Owyhee Counties to visit our 52nd state (the state of Greater Idaho)!

If we are to continue to work toward creating a more perfect union, we must at the very least try to listen to each other, to at least start a dialogue. The Balkanization of our republic may keep like minds together, but I fear that it will diminish the nation as a whole. Change is inevitable, but growth is optional…….

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