GWL – Malheur Refuge, Oregon Outback & Back to Nevada

Day 47 – Virgin Valley Campground - 4,025 miles traveled

The mozzies did us in during the night and we couldn’t wait to pack up and head out in the morning. Any vulnerable body part not covered or slathered with insect repellent, like my scalp and neckline, for instance, was victim to multiple bites. Somehow, David managed with only a bite or two and he thanked me profusely for sacrificing myself to protect him. I had bite upon bite and hoped none of these sucking monsters was carrying any of the various fevers we read about so often. So far, so good.

 Malheur Wildlife Refuge - Three bachelors out for a morning browse.

Malheur Wildlife Refuge - Three bachelors out for a morning browse.

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was just a short distance down the road and since Blue was already a mess, another few auto tour miles on a gravel road wasn’t going to make much difference. We weren’t more than a half mile down the refuge road when we spotted a mule deer, then another and another … three bachelors out for a morning browse.

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There were several turnouts and stops along the route, but the best by far was Benson Pond. A trumpeter swan was gliding peacefully on the pond as we parked Blue and headed out along the willow-lined dike. A nighthawk was our first find. His camouflage was so perfect, he was hard to spot as he sleepily opened an eye to check us out, then dozed back off.

 Common nighthawk

Common nighthawk

The refuge brochure mentioned a great horned owl that was resident in a willow grove further down the path. We searched and searched. A northern flicker landed nearby and posed long enough for a photo. red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds flitted about in the cattails, but I was looking for the owl.

 Northern flicker

Northern flicker

My continued search finally paid off. On the other side of a hunter’s cabin, a ways off the path and in an old willow tree apart from the other trees, there sat a great horned owl. Despite his size, he blended in well with the tree branch and was occluded by leaves, but still observable. He eyed me warily as I tried to find a photo angle without a branch or leaves in the way, which I couldn’t manage. Bah! Still, the thrill of seeing him made my day … and it was still early.

 Move those leaves, please!   Great horned owl

Move those leaves, please!   Great horned owl

We were back on the road heading south on OR-205 through sagebrush country. Open range cattle wandered along side and sometimes on the road. Pronghorns grazed in the far distance. I sang “Home, Home on the Range”. David ignored me.

An odd tree caught my attention … a shoe tree … and it seemed kind of out of place here in the ‘Oregon Outback’. I mean, who wants to toss their shoes up in a tree in the middle of the desert? Lots of people, I guess.

We passed through the tiny town of Frenchglen … population ~117. There’s a small hotel and a mercantile there that have been in operation since the early 1900s. We stopped for diesel (a rather expensive miscalculation on our part at $4.35/gallon) and a look-see. It’s an eclectic kind of place with a few outbuildings, a no-spitting sign and deer horns nailed to the exterior walls. The inside was a potpourri of everything from boutique jewelry and canned goods to antiques and animal pelts … all with an ample supply of dust and cobwebs coating them.

We passed through the scenic Pueblo Mountain and then into Nevada. We’d originally planned on a night in Winnemucca, NV, but a little research indicated the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge was kind of on the way and the Virgin Valley Campground with its rough terrain and nearby opal mines sounded interesting.

 The campsites were dusty, dry and barren.

The campsites were dusty, dry and barren.

Virgin Valley Campground was definitely not our favorite. On the plus side, it had a picnic table and fire ring, fresh water, a natural hot springs pool and shower, clean vault toilets and it was free. On the con side, the sites are dry, dusty gravel surrounded by low sage, so there was little privacy. A large family group had apparently settled some time ago and there was no escaping their presence. They were foul-mouthed, loud and obnoxious. But, it was just for the night and we survived.

We took a long, dusty walk to explore some of the canyons and geologic formations nearby and then headed to the natural springs pool which had an attached private shower. Lovely!

Day 48 – On to Winnemucca

In the morning, we explored several of the refuge's local ponds to check out the flora and fauna. The fauna wasn't bad; the flora wasn't much; and we never did get to the nearby opal mines.

We decided on a hotel night and made our way to Winnemucca. A small northern Nevada city (population ~7,500), it is ‘the only town in Nevada named after a Native American’, Winnemucca, a Paiute chief. This lazy little town once thrived on mining booms and several ghost towns in the area are reminders of the mining busts.

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We stopped at the tiny visitor’s center and picked up a couple of brochures. A self-guided walking tour of the ‘historic sights’ in town took about 30 minutes. The convention center also housed ‘The Buckaroo Hall of Fame’ which honored local cowboys and we browsed there for a few minutes. There was also a large display of taxidermied animals which was not of interest and another display of mined local gemstones which was only mildly interesting.

 Checking out the Buckaroo Hall of Fame in Winnemucca

Checking out the Buckaroo Hall of Fame in Winnemucca

Legend has it that Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch robbed Winnemucca’s First National Bank back on September 19, 1900. They got away scot-free and eventually sent a portrait of the gang to the bank president with their thanks. The bank is now a tax preparer’s office, but a sign noted the robbery and the local saloon still bears the robber’s name.

We interrupted our sightseeing by giving Blue a much-needed bath and cleaning … inside and out. He seemed lighter spirits with all the caked on dust and mud removed. AND … he was blue again.

Winnemucca is also famous for its annual Basque Festival, which we missed by just a few days. We thought we might enjoy some Basque food while in town, but after checking the menu selections of lamb, pork and beef, decided that Mexican was a better choice for our palates … and our budget.

Day 49 – Elko, Nevada – 4,306 miles traveled

Rain, rain and more rain. It was 50F, raw and blustery when we left Winnemucca. Thunder roared and lightning lit the sky. Rain came down in drenching sheets. The local forecast called for more of the same, clearing tomorrow. Another hotel night seemed prudent.

During a brief respite, we stopped at the California Trail Interpretation Center just outside of Elko. What an awesome place! Well-presented exhibits, videos and dioramas displayed and explored the many trails west to California … many more than we previously realized. Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the center was how real the people and experiences became by the use of firsthand quotes from the emigrants themselves who traveled these routes by wagon train and recorded their hardships and heartbreaks.

The Elko Quality Inn was warm, clean, dry and welcoming ... in fact, the best hotel we'd stayed all throughout our entire trip. Tomorrow promises to be a fine day. We haven’t decided on a destination yet. Check back on Monday to see where we end up. Don't worry ... you're always welcome to travel with us.