Unfold the Oregon state highway map from your car’s glove-box and visually divide the state into four approximately equal quarters. In the southeastern quadrant of the state—which largely coincides with the limits of Lake Harney, southeastern Deschutes, and all but the northern-most tip of Malheur counties—the map shows no interstate highways and very little land that is not owned by the federal government. It shows an isolated region with very few towns of any size, none of them over 3,500 in population, no interstate highways, and no railroads other than one dead-end spur line that penetrates only the southern fringe of the region. However, your map probably does include a number of large stippled areas, some of them colored white and bounded by dashed lines—sand dunes, vast alkaline flats, bone-dry ancient lake beds set among a broken expanse of sagebrush that hint of a dramatically different climate in the region’s past.
Included as a warning to travelers, the forbidding words “Great Sandy Desert” were etched across a portion of southeastern Oregon on an 1881 map of the state. National Geographic magazine’s 1996 “Map of the United States, Physical Landscape,” features the identical phrase “Great Sandy Desert” for the very same area. Over the past century and a half, popular perceptions of southeastern Oregon have been marked by strong continuities such as these. To many twentieth-century automobile travelers, speeding across the region on their way to and from seemingly more inviting spaces, southeastern Oregon seems little more than a long day’s blur of sagebrush and scattered junipers. Breathtakingly bright clear skies perhaps, but a desolate-looking stretch of highway.
In a real sense then, particularly in terms of its current population numbers—less than 1.5 percent of the state’s total—and density—well under one person per square mile—southeastern Oregon is indeed the state’s Empty Quarter. In recent years, promoters and journalists have coined more alluring catch-phrases for the region: “Oregon’s Outback,” “the Great Wide Open,” “Infinity of Sagebrush and Rimrock,” “Oregon’s Cowboy Country,” and—the more historically accurate—“Buckaroo Country” are a few of them.
But it was not always so. Southeastern Oregon possesses a dynamic landscape wherein past cycles of climate change and other conditions have supported widely fluctuating numbers of people. It is a place where as recently as the 1910s and 1920s hundreds of homesteaders’ cabins dotted the now-“empty” sage plains. Whether the numbers of people in the high desert country at any one time have been comparatively many or comparatively few, the story of their adaptation to an isolated region’s challenges—from its earliest human arrivals over 13,000 years ago to the ranchers and townsfolk of the past half-century—is a story worthy of knowing, worthy of telling.
© Jeff LaLande, 2005