Appreciating wide-open spaces

Christof and Ursina Teuscher now live in Portland but originally hail from Switzerland, a tiny country where solitude is rare. Since moving to the U.S. in 2004, they have fallen in love with the Wild West, favoring the freedom and open space of the high desert. Here, they share their thoughts and images.

In 1922, Hemingway wrote that, “Switzerland is a small, steep country, much more up and down than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo clock style of architecture.” Having grown up in Switzerland, we certainly agree with small and steep. But not just that, most green spots are populated by grazing cows, fences, houses, and people. Countless mountain tops can be reached conveniently by air trams, and you can find the most amazing restaurants in the woods that serve you goodies right from the nearby farm. Looking for solitude and some vast open spaces? Good luck! You’re more likely to find a cuckoo clock.

We immigrated to the United States as postdoctoral researchers in 2004 and first lived in San Diego. As much as we loved the ocean, we started doing more and more adventure trips to the nearby Anza Borrego Desert, which to us was new and exciting territory. Later, we moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and became very much enchanted by the high desert, the countless days of sunshine, and the magic skies. When we moved to Portland in 2008, our eyes — now used to all shades of terra cotta and adobe — first had to adapt to the omnipresent saturated green and to the rainy winters. Well, at least until we lost our hearts once more to the desert — this time to the vastness of eastern Oregon.

Over the last years, we’ve done numerous backpacking and road trips to Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert and most recently the Owyhee Canyonlands. We’ve developed a deep appreciation for the open vastness of the Oregon Wild West. No matter what time of the year, eastern Oregon has beauty to offer in so many different ways.

We’ve backpacked up to the Steens rim through Big Indian Gorge for Thanksgiving and ate turkey from a backpacker’s pouch. We’ve camped out in the Pueblo Mountains and saw sunshine, snow, hail, rain and lightning — all within one hour. We’ve soaked our tired legs in the Alvord Hot Springs one early morning after returning from an overnight trip high up in the Steens. We’ve backpacked in the Owyhee Canyonlands in bitter cold temperatures but with the most amazing starry skies, free of light pollution.

Our first Owyhee trip led us on an overnight backpacking trip near Three Fingers Rock. This aptly named rock formation is a very impressive sight and its three round peaks are visible from far away. While stomping along over the dry grassland, between rugged peaks and deep canyons, we found it hard to believe that we were still in Oregon rather than in a remote wilderness of Utah or Arizona. We expected to see snakes and scorpions, but saw hoards of wild horses instead, along with some of their skeletons here and there, clean and sun-bleached.

Reaching the Owyhee’s “trailheads” can be in itself an adventure. Navigating endless dirt roads that transform into treacherous terrain with the slightest rain requires the right vehicle and skills. The Owyhee is the only place in Oregon where we have ever taken a jerrycan of gas because it offers some of the most isolated locations in the state that can be still reached by regular vehicle. It is a place that feels rough, remote, and wild, exactly as we like it.

The vastness, the solitude, and the magic beauty of eastern Oregon keep attracting us like an oasis in the desert. Undoubtedly, part of this attraction is the fact that — compared to small and steep Switzerland — the feeling of freedom in these vast open spaces is quite tangible. We’ll be back!

— Christof and Ursina Teuscher

Ursina is an adjunct professor in psychology at Portland State University with her own decision-coaching practice (http://www.teuscher-counseling.com). Christof is an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering at Portland State University. He’s also an avid photographer and ultra runner (http://www.teuscher.ch/aagaa).