A Quiet, Beautiful Space

Honora Englander is an internal medicine physician and leader in health reform at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and Central City Concern’s Old Town Clinic in Portland, Oregon. Last fall, she explored the Owyhee Canyonlands for the first time. Here, she recounts her memorable trip.

A photograph of glassy waters reflecting the cathedral walls and limitless blue skies of the West Little Owyhee canyon serves as the backdrop on my laptop. I carry it with me through busy workdays, where I rush from early morning phone calls to a bustling clinic to afternoon health policy meetings. The image serves as a reminder of a quiet, beautiful space nested between Oregon, Idaho and Nevada.

Last September, I received an email titled ‘Long-shot Oregon backpacking’ from Elisabeth, a friend of a friend who I’d met at a bachelorette weekend the year before. She was writing a story for Backpacker and looking for a last-minute companion into the West Little Owyhee canyon. We would descend from vast open desert into a canyon flanked by rock pillars and hike, bushwhack and swim a 30-mile stretch of the river. Elisabeth remembered that I was adventurous and lived in Oregon. Maybe I wanted to join?

Eight days later – after emails detailing our travel and safety plans, health histories and bourbon preferences – we set off. We were to meet a work crew in Jordan Valley, hop in an all-wheel drive vehicle and meet up with our guides and travel companions at Anderson Crossing before heading into the wilderness. Dusk arrived before our companions due to a road that no longer existed, so we spent our first night at Anderson Crossing, where we were welcomed with open arms (and a generous dinner) by volunteers. It was there that we started to get a sense of this land. Our eyes were opened and hearts filled as we sat by the fireside and heard tales of bottomed-out trucks, barbed wire fences and battles for protection of this precious wilderness that lay before us.

In the light of day we met up with our guides, Chris and Blake. And our group of four became fast friends as we descended into a crack in the earth towards the West Little Owyhee River. Our experience was nothing short of stunning. We waded through pristine pools, scrambled up rugged sidewalls, and carried packs overhead as our chins reached watermark. In the evenings we read Mary Oliver by fireside. We traced the moon’s silver shadows, startled at the sound of a beaver plunking into the cool water, and fell asleep to the sounds of owls hooting overhead. The canyon filled me with a sense of peace and wonder. I emerged feeling connected to nature’s rugged beauty and indebted to the people who dedicate their lives to conservation.

In the months since stepping out of the canyon, I often reach for that sense of calm that was so present in the canyon. A book of Mary Oliver poems now sits in my living room where I drink my morning coffee. “A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life,” she reminds me. I smile, remembering the clear water and deep canyon of the West Little Owyhee.

— Honora Englander