Oregon's Outback

The barely inhabitated southeast corner of the state has been dubbed "Oregon's Outback." For anyone who hasn't been there, that moniker might seem like a public relations move to cast an exotic and appealing light on a dry, dusty, desolate place.

Whether Oregon's Outback can compare to Australia's famous region is doubtful, but it does have plenty to see and do.

The Fort Rock formation and a nearby ghost town sit about 50 miles southeast of Bend on the western edge of Oregon's Outback. The formation &

created 100,000 years ago when molten rock oozed up, hit groundwater and caused a steamy explosion &

rises from a sagebrush-covered desert.

It rightly triggers comparisons with Australia's Ayers Rock. From Highway 31, Fort Rock looks like a solid mass of stone. But following the access road that hooks around to its base, the view changes to reveal that it's actually a horseshoe-shaped protrusion with a relatively flat interior.

The formation and surrounding land make up Fort Rock State Park. There are restrooms and parking spaces at the beginning of a trail that loops around the inside curve of Fort Rock. There is no fee. Dogs must be kept on their leashes.

Cougar sightings were reported in February and April, so don't allow children to explore ahead or lag behind.

The loose sand and gravel of the trail is a reminder that the low-lying land in the park was once under the waters of a giant lake.

Side trails jutting off from the main trail allow visitors to climb up several parts of the formation.

One offshoot leads to a large cleft in the rock. The spot is sheltered, with the sound of wind rushing past the other side of the rock like the ocean's roar. Dust devils twist on the desert floor far below.

Fort Rock is an important archaeological site, so nothing, not even rocks, can be removed. In 1938, a cave excavation revealed 13,200 year old sandals woven from sagebrush fiber.

The American Indians who first settled in the area did so when it was still marsh land next to the ancient lake. Fish-net weights have been found at the site.

Those first people continued to live there long after the lake had dried up.

When European settlers arrived, they found a difficult environment with no nearby streams or rivers.

Groundwater was only yards away, but it was so alkaline that cattle had to be forced to drink it.

The difficulty of life back then is made clear at the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Village Museum and ghost town just a few miles from the rock formation. The museum features American Indian artifacts such as sagebrush fiber sandals and obsidian arrowheads and tools.

The ghost town is home to a windmill, churches, houses, a blacksmith shop, a post office, a doctor's office, a one-room schoolhouse and other buildings that contain antique furnishings, clothing, kitchen supplies, medical equipment and various items from the era.

In the Sunset School, a posting sternly warns students of the consequences for numerous infractions. Boys and girls playing together warranted four lashes, playing cards meant 10 lashes, making swings and swinging on them led to seven lashes and the number of lashes for climbing a tree was determined based on how many feet up the child had climbed.

A 1918 contract on the wall shows the teacher was paid $90 per month for nine months of the year. A chalkboard lesson instructs first-graders on the proper spelling of "cat," while the eighth graders were challenged with words like "contemporary" and "calculation." In Dr. Thom's cabin, a small back room contains two cots where he treated patients. The label on a vial of "Family Laxative" reveals the main ingredient was alcohol, with ingredients like senna, rhubarb, hops, aloe and dandelion rounding out the mixture. During the deadly 1917 flu outbreak, Dr. Thom saved countless lives.

As the nation prepared for World War I, jobs in Bend drew the men of the town away. They only returned to the women and children who were left behind once or twice a month. Eventually the cabins and buildings were abandoned altogether.

Today, the small community of Fort Rock has a store, a surprisingly large restaurant and the museum and ghost town where friendly caretakers are happy to share information and tell stories about the area's past.

The museum carries pamphlets describing a range of other attractions deeper into Oregon's Outback.

Highlights include the Hart Mountain National Antelope Range northeast of Lakeview, the Abert Rim geological fault north of Lakeview and hiking and mountain biking trails in the Fremont National Forest.

The Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Village Museum is open through September from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. For more information, call (541) 576-2251 during operating hours.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .

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