30 Shades of Gray Butte


10003767_10155260219345570_6277634744370110355_oI turned 30 last year. Nothing really happened, that is to say, I did not die. Not that I thought I would die…

I did hike the tallest butte in Central Oregon…which is a little like dying. More on that later.


I’ve played around Gray Butte a lot. The first time was on May Day and our dogs brought home a collective 27 ticks. I’d never experienced ticks before and to be honest, I didn’t notice the little buggers for a whole week. I was petting my lab Cash and felt a hard lump. A white colored Corn Nut is what it looked like. (Mmm, Corn Nuts.) I thought it was a cancerous growth and freaked out. Upon closer inspection it turned out to just be a tiny blood sucking arachnid. No big deal, right? I expunged 9 more ticks from under Cash’s ear. He happily gazed into my eyes the entire time (I love Labs). My long-haired Chihuahua, Bogart, was a different story. Bogey was a looker, with long luxurious fur, and a rotten attitude. If you pissed him off, he’d poop in your shoe.His aim was surprisingly accurate. He loved to sunbath on rocks and the ticks took advantage of this, 16 of them burrowed into his ‘mane’ of fur that day. It took 3 people to hold him down and pull the final tick from his jugular. I’m certain  we all stepped in shit for that one!

Mr. Tick-Bag himself, I miss his cute face!

After the tick incident we decided to only visit Gray Butte in ‘off-tick-season’. This works out pretty good for two reasons: rattlesnakes are active at the same time as ticks and the apples in the pioneer orchard come on about the time the ticks die off. Yup, I just said pioneer orchard.

The Julius & Sarah Mccoin Orchard, located directly across from the Gray Butte trailhead, is a 130 year old apple orchard. The Mccoins claimed the 160 acre parcel during the Homesteaders Act in 1886. The Homesteaders Act was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln during The Civil War to encourage western migration. The vision of the yeoman homesteading on the prairie was offered by  Republicans to contrast the degeneracy of slavery in the South. The act allowed homesteaders to claim 160 acres in exchange for a small filing fee and 5 years active residence. Unfortunately, most of the land available was rotten farmland, especially in Central Oregon. The Mccoins land however, has a functioning spring, seen today filling old tractor tires along a barbed wire fence. At the time the spring ran as a stream through their property. Julius founded a freight hauling business that ran from Prineville to The Dalles. While on his route he collected fruit tree saplings and planted them along his homestead stream. Sarah passed shortly after the homestead’s foundation in 1888 at, she was 33 and left behind 4 children. The apple trees grew and her children picked and canned the fruit while their father hauled freight, leaving them alone for up to two weeks at a time. A visit to nearby Gray Butte Cemetery paints a grim picture of everyday life for homesteaders like The Mccoins. They were lucky to have water and fruit in a desert grassland full of rattlesnakes, ticks, and freezing temps.

The homestead itself was demolished by The Civilian Conservation Corp during Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1934. The land was sold after a ten year drought by the oldest son of Julius to the federal government for $1,200. The community of 700 homesteaders around Gray Butte was flattened and turned into graze land. All that stands is a line of pioneer poplars.

Mccoin Homestead sight (or what’s left of it). Gray Butte in the background.

And the orchard of course. It is rare that an orchard should remain so long and still bear fruit. It must be a testament to the undying spirit of The Mccoins. It breeds prolific reverence each Fall. Not every year I’ve visited has been the same, this last September there was only one apple to be had. It had been an unseasonably warm year with much less snow and rain. I scrambled to the top of the tree to pluck the puny offering, suffering a stinging scratch. The wound took forever to heal and I still have a scar. It’s probably not a good thing, to pick the last apple in an immortal pioneer orchard.

In 2012 the orchard floor was littered with fallen fruit. My friend Jordyn and I had just visited the pumpkin patch in Terrebonne and brought my daughter out here to pick apples. Every tree bore ready, red spheres of autumnal delight. We went home and baked two apple pies. Haunted apple pies, we called them.

The area also hosts a make shift pet cemetery and a home made memorial to a pair of brothers named Murders. They weren’t murdered, that’s just their name. In the orchard, I’ve also stumbled upon human mutilated deer carcasses and fresh cougar tracks over my own footprints. The creep factor is strong out here, but hey, that’s why I love it.

Driving out to Gray Butte

Which brings me back to where I began, my 30th birthday and my ascent up Gray Butte. I went with my husband and dear friend, Nicole Brown. Now, buttes are my Swami. My master, teacher, friend. My ‘one who knows’. It’s a religious thing for me; sweating till you see God. Pushing outside of yourself to get to something, literally, higher. Tackling the tallest butte in Central Oregon as a right of passage into 30-ness, it just made sense.

A right of passage it was, my birthday is in late February; a great time to avoid ticks but also the height of ‘Gray Gumbo’ season. I didn’t coin the term, it’s an actual thing. Gray Gumbo is clay sand slurry and it will add ten pounds to each of your boots. The first steep incline left all three of us gasping for air and covered in mud.

“That was a bitch.”

How many more times would we have to do that?

By the time we reached the summit it was agreed, Gray was officially a ‘3-bitch-butte’.

Cowboy Oasis_ Natural Spring.jpg


My 3-bitchbutte, if you will, because once  you climb a butte into ‘supposed adulthood’ well, it becomes iconic. Gray Butte is my symbolic dirty thirty. I got dirty and the number of times I cussed was let’s just say, 30. Not a day goes by that I don’t drive North on 97 and think, there’s my butte- my own little rise into this next chapter of life. I think back on what it took to get to the top of that butte and to where I am now, swear a little and say, “yeah, but isn’t the view great.”


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