Where the Deer and Antelope Play
By Merri Melde
“Oreana—Population 8, Maybe 9.” That hand-painted sign tacked to a telephone pole greeted me as I drove down the hill into the little community of Oreana for the first time in 2005. I’d come to this fairly isolated corner of Owyhee County in southwestern Idaho to visit some endurance horse-riding friends for a week. I stayed on for a month. It took that short a time for the high desert sagebrush country to get under my skin, because two years later, I was back to stay.
That humorous population sign, painted by an Oreana resident I came to know, wasn’t far from the truth. There’s no store or post office, neither city hall nor town council nor mayor of Oreana. Technically it’s not even a town, but an unincorporated community. Since its beginnings in the late-1800s, the Oreana community has generally encompassed the valleys of Bates, Pickett, Hart, Catherine, Browns, and Castle Creeks, while carrying the same zip code as the nearest “unincorporated census-designated place” of Murphy, twenty miles away by road, and the seat of Owyhee County.
At an altitude of around three thousand feet on the Owyhee Front, below the Owyhee Mountains to the west (Hayden Peak reaches to 8,402 feet), it’s a desert of rolling hills and rather spectacular cathedral-like red rhyolite canyons—none of which a tourist will see zooming by on Highway 78. From the hill above Oreana, two miles off the highway, you can see a hint of several cliffs below the Owyhees.
The average rainfall is eight inches per year and average snowfall is seven inches. The water table used to be higher in the 1800s and in recent years, despite the occasional flash flood that can come ripping down from the mountains, the area has flirted continuously with drought conditions. Consequently, wildfire is an ever-present threat in the summers. Last year the Soda Fire, one of the largest wildfires in the country, came within fifteen miles of Oreana.