Growing Up in Central Oregon: Water in the Desert

This is part of an ongoing series of articles that I’m writing on Central Oregon and growing up here; you can view the introduction here.

Growing up on the desert, water takes on a special, almost symbolic, significance. You are constantly surrounded by sand, sagebrush, juniper trees, dry vegetation like bunchgrass and cheat grass, all of it broken up by undulating mounds or ridges of dark lava rock… and not a drop of water in sight.

…I was going to write some pithy metaphor about how the mind grows to reflect the desert environment around it and consequently understands water to be as precious as it is to the ecosystem, but you know what? I’m not that high-fallutin’.

There’s no easy source for water, living in Alfalfa. Every household has to have water trucked in, or have access to a well—either way, water has to be in the cistern in order to do, well, anything—drink, bathe, wash dishes, do laundry, water lawns and gardens and plants…

We were fortunate to have our own well. I say “our own” and most people would likely take it for granted that yes, it was ours, what’s the big deal, but in fact for the first number of years we lived there, we were on a shared well with two or three neighbors. I suppose you could liken this to the old party lines on telephones—who remembers those? (We were on a party line, too.) The well and pumphouse were on our property, but there was free access for the neighbors sharing the system who would show up from time to time unannounced to fiddle around with it, not unlike picking up the phone and hearing someone in the middle of a call.

This of course meant you had to be considerate of other people’s water and you really couldn’t go nuts with trifling things like watering a pasture or large vegetable gardens. As it turned out, both of those things were part of our long-term goals, so ultimately we had our own well put in.

Interestingly, you don’t just “put in” a well. First you need to find an aquifer underground, and this apparently consists of wandering around the property with a divining rod, dowsing for water, and then drilling several test holes before settling on the final spot. Then of course, you need a pumphouse to actually, er, pump the water out of the ground and into your house, and a cistern to hold the water. In theory, the cistern should always contain enough water for whatever might be needed, and when it drops low enough, it would be refilled from the well. In practice, there were times that the cistern got dangerously low on water because there wasn’t enough in the aquifer to keep it filled (or so I assume).

(An aside: That cistern was a remarkable source of fascination and quite the playground for us kids. What’s not to like? A giant cube of concrete with what were essentially dull steel blades protruding from the sides in regular intervals—these were fantastic to use for scaling the side of the cistern to reach the top, I mean who needs a ladder anyway?—with a plunge from the top that ranged from maybe five feet on one side to, oh, ten feet on another. You could practice your climbing skills with various approaches—scale the fencepost next to the cistern, or use the blade/handholds on the high side (who cares if they hurt the hands a bit and they’re rusty? If you’re quick you’ll be fine)—or you could play “stuntman” and jump off the high side with a running start—you know, for practice—and be careful to avoid the slabs of leftover concrete and lava rock below when you land. And since the top was the only hard, flat, outdoor surface we had, it made a great court for various sports and activities, or even fireworks.

…In retrospect, I wonder how we didn’t end up dead more often.)

Still, we were living in the desert; even a well isn’t a sure thing. The water table, if you’re lucky enough to hit it, is several hundred feet below the surface. Often through a lot of hard basalt. You wouldn’t otherwise even know there was a water table, since the surface was as dry as a bone.

That’s not to make it sound like we were living in the Sahara; there was water to be found, of course. The farms were all well irrigated. And then there was Reynolds Pond, for instance. And the irrigation canals. Smaller irrigation ditches and occasional ponds, here and there.

But none of those are natural water sources. There are no natural water sources in that section of the High Desert where we lived, except for rain puddles—and believe me, we looked. The Quest for Water was always a goal, however secondary, in our various Adventures into the Wilderness. I was always on the (eager) lookout for a spring, or a creek, or an oasis of some sort… but the very few times I happened on something new, it was invariably a cow ditch.

Take Mayfield Pond, for instance. This is a body of water that actually exists, between Alfalfa and Bend. But to us desert kids, its existence was a whispered rumor that achieved legendary status in our Mythology. (You know about this Mythology: every social knot of kids tied to a particular area—often geographic—develops their own. For city kids this often manifests as urban legends, for instance. We’ve all had our own particular Mythologies.) The possibility of a heretofore-undiscovered pond amid the desert elevated Mayfield Pond in our minds to some sort of Avalon, I suppose. The conversations would usually go something like this:

“There’s a pond around here somewhere, called Mayfield Pond.”

“Nuh-uh. How do you know?”

“I heard.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Where’s it supposed to be?”

“Just around here. It’s just, like, this pond just sittin’ there, out of nowhere.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, it’s like, a secret, or lost or something.”

To kids, “I heard” is incontrovertible evidence. So on more than one occasion we organized expeditions into the Wilderness to search for the fabled Mayfield Pond—modern-day Ponce de Leóns on bikes. The one time we actually did discover what we thought was a pond looked in reality to be a field some farmer had flood-irrigated.

Years later we found the real Mayfield Pond. It wasn’t much to look at. And one day, out of curiosity, I decided to follow the small stream that fed the pond… only to figure out that the stream was a cow ditch. Foiled again!

One of the results of the moisture scarcity was that, as kids, we were quite indiscriminate in our consumption of found water. Now, we knew better than to drink from obviously contaminated water, or water that was stagnant or muddy, but as often as not we would think nothing of stopping at the nearest irrigation ditch when out riding bikes and taking a long drink.

…I know! I’m amazed we didn’t wind up with beaver fever or something worse.

(And, this was a habit that persisted; I remember a friend of mine, Martin, freaked out when, while hiking the Todd Lakes trailhead up near South Sister, I stopped to drink from a cold stream/runoff that we had to cross. I was at least 18 at the time, but hey, it was fast-running water and we were near the source, what can you do? And I still didn’t get sick from it.)

A favorite summertime activity was the building of a pond, the perfect all-natural playset for toy cars and boats and Star Wars figures and dinosaurs and more. We would dig up the area, build up various mountains and roadways and fortifications, and drag the hose over and fill it up. This could take a while, depending on how much digging we had done. And of course, during this time, further construction was still going on… the sand made excellent mud for shaping and building and digging—not quite beach sand quality, mind you, but very good nonetheless.

There were inlets and peninsulas, canals and open expanses of water, shallow sections and rather deep trenches… an entire microcosm devoted to metal and plastic toys. I suppose in a way you could liken it to building model railroads.

To outside observers, it likely looked like a big pit full of mud and brown water. Be that as it may, there was a level of creativity born by necessity that I’ve not often seen elsewhere that occupied us for hours in constructing waterworks. Or perhaps most kids’ parents were less tolerant than ours in letting their children dig large holes on the property and turning them into lagoons.

To this day I still have fascination for large bodies of water, and streams and creeks and rivers. Springs, with water bubbling up out of the ground, might as well be magic. And the ocean is something else altogether. It’s a mindset that’s hard to change; I think that even if I lived on a river or a lake, I’d still wake up every day amazed that there’s all that water, just there.

And I’d still likely drink from it.

3 thoughts on “Growing Up in Central Oregon: Water in the Desert”

  1. I love your growing up stories, as they just remind me so much of my childhood.

    We were lucky enough to have our own well growning up. We lived close to the little Deschutes, so the water table wasn’t hard to reach, so most folks had their own private well.

    But we, too, never seemed to have problems drinking from water sources that now people would freak out about. And I’m still alive.

  2. this is cool 🙂 good stories! I’m a city kid, and i tell ya, water in it’s natural environment still fascinates me. We had the ocean, in fact lived less than 5 miles from it most of my life, but things like rivers and lakes, well that’s different. Lakes were manmade in LA, and the LA river was encased in concrete for 75% of it’s route. "Creeks" for my friends and i were runoff routes through the fields that were mostly slow moving and dotted with trash. And in those runnoff canyons we built things similar to your muddy holes in the ground for our trucks and army guys.

  3. My husband grew up in Bend and he and his siblings do the same thing — they drink what water they find. For them I think it’s because they know where it came from. I mean, they could pretty much see the source. They never got sick, either.

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