My Portland poker friends and I were sitting around the table one Saturday night, talking about going camping sometime, when the quietest guy of the bunch spoke up. "Well," said Duane, "I've got this hot springs place we could go to."
After a stunned silence, questions ensued. "You have a hot springs place? What does that mean, exactly? Is there a place to stay there? Is the water, like, hot or just warm?" And Duane, in a soft-spoken manner you have to experience to understand, said, "Well, it's 143 acres out in the high desert by Summer Lake and it's got five springs that are 113 degrees, and other than the bathhouse and my house and unlimited camping, I've got these vintage Airstream trailers, so if you guys want you could stay in one of those. There's a trout stream nearby and a national forest just up the hill and all kinds of migratory birds going through "
Duane kept talking, but by then the rest of us were arguing about which weekend to descend upon the place.
Sure enough, our quiet friend Duane owns Summer Lake Hot Springs near Paisley, which, by the way, got its name from Paisley, Scotland. And that part of Oregon looks more like Scotland than the Oregon most people know. Whereas western Oregon is essentially rainforest (and home to 80 percent of the state's population), eastern Oregon is high desert: sage, rock buttes, alkaline lakes, and wind that seems to blow everywhere all at once. To get there from Portland, you go through one of the more dramatic and sudden climate changes on Earth, from rainforest to desert in about an hour of driving.
Our convoy of pickups made the run on a recent weekend, and for some of us Portlanders, it was a shocking experience. Some stopped to see such geological features as Hole in the Ground and Crack in the Ground; Oregon pioneers weren't necessarily clever in their naming of things. Summer Lake is an alkaline lake, so it's not a recreation destination, which means the hot springs still feel like they're way the hell out there. It's 92 miles down State Highway 31 after you turn off U.S. 97.
When we arrived, Duane showed us around. He showed us Airstreams from the 1940s in excellent condition, then he pointed out where some people had seen bighorn sheep on the hillside across the road. He took us to the 1927 bathhouse, where a 104-degree swimming pool awaits. He pointed out a meadow atop Winter Ridge (4,000 feet above us) where hang gliders start a flight that ends in Duane's yard. He showed us his private tubs (which you get if you rent the house) with their secluded setting by a pond littered with birds. He even showed us the wooden half-pipe which a skateboarding caretaker made in his spare time.
As one might imagine, we managed to have a decent time in this place.
We chose our campsites and went for a soak, then we grilled up some dinner and sat around the fire swapping lies and exaggerations. Then the stars came out. You have no idea how many stars there are until you look at them from the desert. It's downright humbling, a bright shining analogy for how far mankind has gotten from nature. Lying back in my sleeping bag that night, trying to find the Northern Cross and Scorpius and Hercules, I realized I was looking at the same thing nomadic tribes saw 2,000 years ago. And they came to these hot springs, too.
In the morning, being guys, we all had to go "do something." We chose a combination hiking and fishing outing into the Fremont National Forest, which starts right across the road. We drove from sagebrush country into the realm of the lodgepole pine, up to 6,000 feet elevation, where we hiked an easy half-mile up a babbling brook to Slide Lake, where some of the guys would catch 15-inch rainbow trout. It's called Slide Lake because it sits at the foot of Slide Mountain, an 8,000-foot remnant of a volcanic caldera. Half the volcano eroded away, leaving a semicircular ridge which some of us, being guys, were determined to climb.
Not that there's a trail or anything; we just picked a direction and went for it. We started through forest, got onto some rocks, and then scrambled like marmots up the face of Slide Mountain. We gained 1,000 feet in elevation in the last half-mile. But then we were on top with a staggering view back down to Summer Lake and seemingly a million miles in every direction. It was like we could see that whole "other" Oregon from up there.
We went back down to the lake, at times lunging down the loose-rock slope, and plunged into the ultracold waters. Nothing beats cold water after a tough hike. But then nothing beats driving back after the hike and sliding into 104-degree water in a tub by a bird-filled lake. And then nothing beats a grilled steak eaten by the fire under a starry sky, surrounded by friends, one with a guitar.
Basically, nothing much beats that "other" Oregon.
For more information, check out www.summerlakehotsprings.com.