The events of the first day in the desert in Oregon were memorable for sure. What I found out that evening of what would happen in the next several days stirred my consciousness.
Sitting next to the camp fire with Bill and his three friends who had come to help with the art project, I heard for the first time that Bill wasn’t going to be painting. The art project that they were going to make would be an ancient design carved into the dry lake bed, ‘a quarter of a mile in size.’
After reaching Mickey Basin, we set up my tent and unloaded the ice chest and other items from the school bus. We walked out into the lake bed. The soil Bill called ‘playa’ was completely bare of vegetation and was made of brown, sandy type soil. As we walked across it, some areas crunched under our feet while our foot prints only slightly made impressions. Bill said it only rained here a few times a year. This place was not like any wilderness area I had ever seen. The mountains had been created by volcanic eruptions and lava that had flowed down and formed the basin. No trees could be seen anywhere. Other than the miles of dry lake bed before me, there were only scattered patches of sage brush and piles of lava rocks that looked like sea sponges. This area could have been another planet.
Just as we returned to camp, Bill’s friends who had come to help with the project pulled into the camp. I was introduced, and we helped unloading their tents and supplies. Later, we all sat around our campfire, and Bill laid out the next days’ plans.This was really the first time I actually understood the scope of what would be created.
The design to be made was called a ‘Sri Yantra.’ Blueprints made would be used to create it. I was truly amazed at what they were about to make. The magnitude and complexity of it, and its size of slightly over a quarter of mile square was breathtaking. Bill and his three friends, me and Bill’s son Miles would work to carve the design into the playa using only a garden plow. I, of course, was there to film the creation but would help plow when time allowed.
In the early morning as the desert began to heat, Bill prepared our breakfast that he knew would sustain us along with a daily amount of gallons of water to keep our bodies in good working condition. Around 7am we all walked out into the dry lake bed carrying the equipment needed to begin the work.
Bill had decided that ancient principles would be used to correctly lay out and then make the Sri Yantra design. He first decided where the center called the ‘bindu’ would be. A pole was placed into the playa and a circle was marked and then dug around the pole. As the sun moved from east to west during the day, marks were made as the poles shadow reached the circle and marked a true east-west axis. While that was being done, the crew using spools of thousands of feet of aluminum wire began marking lines and distances from the center pole out one-eighth of a mile in several directions.
With the temputure reaching 100 degrees Farenheit at about 1pm, we returned to camp to have lunch and rest under the bus to get out of the sun.
We began work again at 4pm and worked until 10pm that night with a full moon giving us great light and evening breezes we all welcomed.
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If you were asked by a friend you trusted to travel 60 miles into a barren desert and camp for two weeks, would you go?
In late May of 1990, I got a call from a friend, Bill Witherspoon, who asked me if I would go to the Oregon Desert in July. He wanted me to film an art project he was going to do so that we could use some of it in a video about his art. Little did I know then that saying yes that day would change my life forever.
I met up with Bill Witherspoon and his 10 year old son, Miles, in a town called Burns, Oregon on the afternoon of July 24th. Bill decided that because of the time, we would only travel about 70 miles that day before camping that evening. The next morning we would continue into the Alvord Desert Range, a part of the vast Oregon Desert that stretched a hundred miles in several directions.
Once off the road, we drove slowly through sage brush on what appeared to be a wagon trail at best. Bill had used this trail many times to reach remote areas of this desert where he would camp for weeks and sometimes months while painting skies and landscapes.
I was driving a rented Subaru 4 wheel drive SUV, and Bill and Miles drove their school bus that Bill had remodeled as a studio for trips into the desert.
The bus got stuck an hour after we left the hard road, and it took us several hours to free it from the sandy soil. Back on the trail and with the sun slowly dropping in the West, Bill suddenly stopped again. I pulled to the side to see if he wanted to talk, but instead, to my amazement, I saw eight wild horses crossing in front of his bus. They had come off a small hillside and were heading into the flat desert land to our right. A dark brown, unkempt but majestic stallion stopped and turned to us. He stamped his hoof and threw his head up as if to say ‘I am in charge, and do not bother us,’ then turned to join the rest of his group. All of the horses had manes and tails that almost reached the ground.
I knew then this would be an adventure like no other I had before. We continued through the sage brush on the trail and around a mountain to our left. The terrain opened up to reveal miles of flat land with only sage brush surrounded by mountains with no vegetation, just gray and brown rocks that covered them. The trail ended as Bill moved onto the dry lake bed where we would make our main camp.
After stopping on the edge, close to a stand of high sage brush, Bill, Miles and I stood and marveled at the scene in front of us. The dry lake bed stretched for several miles across the basin. The sun was falling behind the mountains to the West rimming them with a soft orange glow. Shades of blue sky and white clouds hung over the lake bed and surrounding basin encircled by mountains of brown, gray and yellowish orange colors.
I was excited to be there, wondering what tomorrow would bring. Bill was right, this was a magical place. This was Mickey Basin.