Stranded amid the Pioneers

Story and Photos by Diana Hooley

The temperature outside, according to my car dashboard, was 95 degrees.

I muttered to myself as I stalked through the Owyhee Desert. Why hadn’t I brought a hat and some water for emergencies? How could I be so stupid? What was I thinking? The famous scientist Louis Pasteur once said that chance favors the prepared mind. I guess I’m no Louis Pasteur—and let’s not talk about my unprepared mind.

I was taking pictures of solar arrays on a farm in Bruneau to go along with an article I was writing for an agricultural magazine. Despite everything, the hike back to the highway was diverting, if not interesting. Bare, white alkali patches streaked the desert and below them were cornfields. Nothing grew in the chalky alkali. Rivulets of irrigation water drained through this waste ground, which had created the mud bog my car foundered in.

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The cemetery Diana visited in the Owyhee Desert.
Pioneer headstone.
The solar array she had come to write about.
Diana's vehicle stuck.


I wondered how long people had cultivated this land, and why they would ever choose to farm here to begin with. Beyond the fields were barren knolls, fertile enough to grow scraggly sagebrush. The farmers around must have substantially improved the soil in order to raise this corn. In the distance, the Owyhee Mountains shimmered ominously in the heat.

My mouth was paper dry, and I began to think about heat stroke: how much time would it take to get it, and what were the signs?

As I trudged along I whisper-sung that old ‘70s song by the rock band America: “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain …”

Rain would have been nice right about then. At least I wore a good pair of sunglasses. I looked, up hoping to see a passing cloud, but the sky was empty except for the blazing sun. Finally, I climbed a rise and saw the house I’d passed thirty minutes earlier. Ahh. The front yard was lined with shade trees.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Dawn, the home owner, when she came to the front door and heard my tale of woe. She let me use her land line to call for help and then offered me a glass of water to drink and a paper towel for my sweat-stained face. Together we sat under her shade trees waiting for help to arrive.

“My family homesteaded this valley in 1864,” Dawn told me when I asked how long she’d lived here. That was the last year of the Civil War. Her ancestors must have been desperate to get away from the fighting back East. Why else would they choose to move way out here and live in this hot, dry valley?

“Were they ranchers?” I asked.

“No, I think my great, great, great-grandfather, Abraham Roberson, tried to farm here. The land was virtually free if you improved on it. He hid in a cave with his family when Indians attacked. They’re all buried at the Hot Springs Cemetery.” She pointed southeast from where we sat.

We chatted a while longer, and then Dawn returned to her house. I continued to wait, and soon my unprepared mind wandered. I thought about how people make homes in the most inhospitable places, how often we don’t realize the history that’s happened right under our feet. When I saw a service pickup coming down the road and knew rescue was at hand, my last thought was about how tough and determined those pioneers were. They’d never let a little problem like being stranded in the desert rattle them.

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Diana Hooley

About Diana Hooley

Diana Hooley spent several years as a professor at Idaho State University before returning to journalism and freelance writing. She has written recently for the Idaho Statesman and the Twin Falls Times-News as a guest commentator on environmental and agricultural issues. Visit her at www.middleoftheriver.com

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