I was sitting in a leather armchair inside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge late last Saturday night, watching three guys play with “optics,” when I was informed I was no longer welcome.
Optics, in this case, are scopes and laser sights that can be attached to a rifle. One of the men sitting on the floor in front of me had brought out a box full of optics and was showing his collection to two younger men. The younger men were delighted by the box of expensive accessories, and one of them started attaching redundant optics to his AR-15 just to see how cool he could make it look. I was laughing along with them when the door to the outside opened and a tall man dressed head to toe in snow camo entered and looked at me. He slipped the hood off his head and walked over to stand in front of me as I sat looking up at him from the chair. I had seen him coming and going throughout the evening, but I hadn’t yet made his acquaintance, and I assumed he had decided it was time to introduce himself to the newcomer. He extended his hand, told me his name, and asked for mine. Then he asked whom I was with.
“Nobody. I’m just here for myself.”
He nodded, then said, “I’ve been instructed to ask you to leave.”
I blinked at him, not sure what to say. The other men got quiet.
All I came up with was, “Really.”
“I’ve been instructed to ask you to leave,” he repeated. “I’m not going to tell you who issued those instructions. I’m not going to tell you why. I’m just going to ask you to leave.”
And, of course, he wasn’t asking.
I could have argued with him, I suppose. I had been invited to stay the night at the refuge by a couple of the women and had earlier eaten dinner with everyone. I had met Ammon Bundy and his wife and played with their children. The guy telling me to leave was one of the few people there with whom I hadn’t interacted during the previous 22 hours.
But it wasn’t totally unexpected. The longer I spent among these people, the more obvious it must have been to them that I was not one of them. I had been evasive and cagey, quick to divert the conversation away from myself, my views and beliefs, but much of the talk was, of course, about politics, and quite a bit about religion as well. I may have avoided expressing my liberalism and atheism, but I also was not joining enthusiastically in their expressions of conservatism and religiosity. Furthermore, I asked lots of questions, and some of them were questions a true believer wouldn’t ask. As the night wore on, people who at first had been open, talkative and friendly started avoiding eye contact with me, stopped smiling at me and stopped initiating conversations with me.
Whoever had issued the instructions was right: it was time for me to leave.
So I stood up, gathered my things, said some awkward goodbyes and went out to my car. I drove the half-mile or so back to the front entrance, which was guarded by two men standing next to a campfire and blocked by a small tractor with a snow plow mounted on the front. One of the guards jumped on the tractor to back it out of the road and let me through, but it wouldn’t start. Eventually, I had to get out and help them push it far enough back that my rented SUV could squeeze past.
I started the 30-mile drive north to Burns to look for a room. Driving along the frozen 205 highway, I wondered who had issued the instructions. Most likely, I decided, it had been the ghost of Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
I had first arrived at the refuge at midnight the night before, after having driven for nine hours from my home in California. For the trip, I had rented a Hyundai Santa Fe because it had four-wheel drive and I didn’t know what kind of weather I would confront in eastern Oregon.
On the last leg of the journey, heading north from Winnemucca, traffic thinned out quickly and soon I was alone on the road. I moved slowly along the icy highway winding through the mountains, crossing unknown territory in darkness, my iPhone showing “No Service,” the radio offering nothing but static.
The sense of isolation was unsettling. I expected to see vehicles coming and going as I got closer to a place that had drawn national attention. I expected to see patrol cars or even checkpoints on the way up. Instead, I arrived at the refuge turnoff not having seen another person or vehicle for hours. I drove the last six miles up to the entrance, where I imagined I would see the glow of lights, television vans, and dutiful reporters standing in the cold, drinking coffee. Sure, it was midnight, but the reporters would want to be there in case the Feds made a move, which could happen at any time, right?
I got to the entrance and there wasn’t a single soul or vehicle in sight. The only thing to see was the famous sign, lit up by my headlights, draped with an American flag.
I left the engine running and the headlights on, got out of the car and walked over to the sign. I stood there for a moment in the sub-freezing cold. Then I saw a flicker of orange firelight in the darkness beyond the sign, and I moved a few steps in that direction, trying to see more. Then I heard something move directly to my left.
They had been watching me from the darkness. When I stopped and turned towards them, they stepped forward and greeted me warily.
They were two young guys, Bobby and Bill. They had sidearms, but otherwise there was nothing unusual about their appearance. They weren’t wearing camo or military gear, and they weren’t toting long guns.
I had my camera dangling from my neck, and I had to immediately correct their assumption that I was a reporter. I described myself as an “amateur photographer.”
Bobby was more talkative, and while he and I talked, Bill turned and disappeared back into the darkness.
I told Bobby I had come to see the situation for myself, unfiltered and unmediated. He was glad to hear this, because he knew the media were misrepresenting them. He said they were peaceful protestors, they were armed only to protect themselves, nobody wanted violence, and everyone inside was really nice. He struck me as a kid who was feeling a little overwhelmed, and was grateful for the kindness and support of his comrades.
I asked him if the police or FBI had shown themselves, and he said they hadn’t, but people had told him that drones were flying overhead. He hadn’t seen them himself, but, he said, there were people here who knew a lot more about such things than he did.
Then Bill returned with the ghost of Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
He said his name was Jason Patrick. In the light of the next day, his resemblance to the actor would be much diminished, but at our first meeting it seemed uncanny, and his voice added to the illusion. It wasn’t the sad, shy Hoffman of Magnolia or Boogie Nights that he conjured, but the Hoffman of Charlie Wilson’s War or The Master. He was serious in a way the younger men weren’t. He was intense but low-key. He examined me carefully as he introduced himself and asked about me and my reasons for being there. Bobby helpfully interjected that I wasn’t a reporter, but an amateur photographer. Jason Patrick looked like he wasn’t completely buying that.
I played my only card. I told him I had been at the Bundy ranch last April for the first annual commemoration of the “Battle of Bunkerville” – which is the name they’ve given to the infamous standoff between Cliven Bundy and the Feds in Nevada. It’s true, I was there, and I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. It’s also true that I didn’t belong there either, and I’m pretty sure Cliven Bundy’s security detail had me pegged for an FBI agent before the event was over.
Still, having been to the Bundy ranch gave me a modicum of cred, and I would play that card repeatedly over the next 22 hours. Jason Patrick asked me questions that helped me establish that I really had been there, and he seemed to relax a little. I decided it was a good time to ask if it would be possible for me to enter the refuge. He said it was too late at night, that he’d have to wake people up and he wasn’t willing to do that, but I could come back tomorrow and something could be arranged. I told him that would be great, and I’d head on into Burns and get a room for the night and return in the morning.
I started to say goodbye, but he stopped me and said, “You should take a picture of the sign.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, although there seemed to be something strange about the way he suggested it. I turned and pointed my camera at the sign, then said, “I don’t think there’s enough light. My camera sucks in low light.”
“Use your flash,” he said.
“Right.” The thing is, I never use the flash. I don’t like the way pictures look when you use a flash. So I fumbled with the camera controls for a moment, trying to remember how to turn on the flash. Then I snapped a picture but there was no flash. I remembered that I needed to push a button to make the flash pop up from the top of the camera before I could use it. I poked around with my frozen fingers until I found the button and the flash popped up and I was finally able to take a photo of the sign illuminated by the flash.
I turned back to find Jason Patrick watching me with a weird, humorless smile on his face. He held my gaze for a long moment without saying anything. It occurred to me then that I had just been tested, and that I had failed the test. The “amateur photographer” didn’t know how to operate his camera.
He turned and, as he disappeared into the darkness, he said flatly, without looking back, “See you tomorrow.”
Bobby and Bill, who seemed to think the meet-and-greet had gone swimmingly, talked about how good it would be for me to get inside and see what was really going on. I told them I should let them get back to the warmth of the fire, and I got in my car and headed back to the 205.
As I drove, I thought about Bobby and Bill, and how they seemed like such nice, sweet-natured kids. On the other hand, Jason Patrick was a little scary.
I reviewed my interaction with Jason Patrick in my head and told myself I was being paranoid. Maybe it really had been nothing more than a friendly suggestion. Maybe I was misreading the mannerisms of a man I had only just met. On the other hand, which was more likely, that I was paranoid, or that the guy occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was paranoid?
Then I thought, how does his suspicion make him paranoid? I wasn’t being open and honest about who I really am. If he suspected I was hiding the truth from him, he was correct. He’s not paranoid, he’s discerning.
But, damn it, I never use the flash. If it was a test, it wasn’t a fair test. Still, that’s probably beside the point.
I quickly found a room in Burns, but the heater was noisy, my thoughts were noisy, and I didn’t get much sleep that night.
I’ve decided I’m going to write about my experiences last weekend in a series. This will be the first of three, maybe four stories. I took lots of pictures and will post some of them. I feel there’s a lot to write about, but I don’t have a lot of time because my work has been demanding. If I don’t break it down into installments, I will never post anything.
I’ll be using some real names and some names I’ll change. I’ll do this based on my own private criteria, largely based on my sense of who sees himself or herself as a public figure, and who does not. Jason Patrick is a real name. Bobby and Bill are not.