Discovering the power of resilience in Oregon’s high desert

National Geographic series "Tasting Wild" explores the power of resilience in Oregon’s high desert with Land Trust Stewardship Director, Amanda Egertson, at Whychus Canyon Preserve.
By Sarah Whalen
NationalGeographic.com

From active volcanoes to frozen tundra and arid deserts, nature is filled with varied environments. Exploring these landscapes often challenges us and our limits while giving us a whole new appreciation for the land.

In the five-part content series “Tasting Wild,” acclaimed chef, entrepreneur, and winner of “Top Chef: Los Angeles All-Stars Season 17” Melissa King teams up with National Geographic photographers and explorers to immerse herself more deeply in nature than she ever has before. Experiencing some of the most dynamic and unspoiled terrain in the United States by way of the first-ever MAZDA CX-50, King pushes herself, her creativity, and her cooking.

As a chef, King combines modern California cuisine with Asian flavors, drawing inspiration from her life in San Francisco and her Asian-American heritage. Her culinary creations are often a reflection of her experiences, and she’s on this journey to see new things and create new dishes that tell her story of each place.

King heads to Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park in a sand-colored CX-50 that blends in with the area’s high desert landscape. Thirty miles northeast of Bend, the park spans 650 acres and features a 3,200-foot vertical ridge that overlooks the Crooked River. Since the 1980s, climbers from around the world have come here to experience the parks’ myriad routes.

Here, King meets National Geographic Adventure Photographer and rock climber Irene Yee (she/her). Yee is a passionate adventurer who uses photography to highlight and uplift BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) women. She often ascends alongside her subjects, encouraging and photographing them as they scale massive rock walls together. “When I grew up, I didn’t see a lot of women or folks of color in these outdoor spaces, and so, being able to showcase those people … I think there’s no better way to create art. Because photographing what means the most to you, will always be your best work,” she says.

King and Yee stop at an observation point and gaze out toward the park’s towering rock cliffs. At first, King feels intimidated—she has never climbed before and has a fear of heights—but she reminds herself that she came here to try something new, and gain new inspiration from that experience. King grabs her pack and climbing gear from the cargo space of the CX-50 and heads out with Yee.

As they hike to the rock face, Yee shares an overview of the route with King, and reflects on how she has learned to manage feelings of doubt and uncertainty when climbing. “Fear is a perfectly normal human response. It’s not ‘Let’s get the absence of fear.’ It’s ‘How do I personally deal with my fear in a situation?’” she says.

At the base, they gear up in climbing shoes, helmets, and harnesses attached to long ropes. They’re sport climbing, meaning the route has a series of anchor points drilled into the rock face to which they can connect their gear and hook their ropes.

They begin scaling the rock face, and King realizes that starting was the hardest part. “Even just taking the first step onto that mountain is pretty scary. The second your feet lift off that ground, you’re in it. And you start kind of questioning yourself and realize that you have to keep going,” she says.

Yee stays close to King as they climb, reminding her to breathe, think about her foot placement, and take it one step at a time. “[The climb] always feels a lot bigger than it actually is and the minute that you do it, you have that feeling of, oh okay, maybe it wasn’t that far,” she says.

When they finally reach the summit and climb over the top, King feels an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Yee knows the feeling well. “Seeing somebody new experience that joy for the first time—there’s nothing like it,” she says.

On top of the cliff, they rest and soak in a birds-eye view of the park. To Yee’s delight, King pulls out an assortment of snacks from her pack: berries, charcuterie, and a jar of sea beans and ramps that she pickled. As they refuel, King asks Yee about the foods she loves most.

Yee is third-generation Chinese-American and says that food has always been what connects her most to her heritage. She especially loves the tradition of making dumplings because of the way this brings people together.

For King, dumplings also represent family and tradition. As a child, she made dumplings at home with her mom and grandma, which contributed to her love of cooking. “I understood at an early age that food connected us,” she says.

When King and Yee finish snacking, they reconfigure their ropes and rappel down the rock face. King descends confidently, with a new appreciation for her strength and this dry and rocky landscape.

Back on the ground, they hike to the CX-50 and drive the dusty, dirt roads to the Whychus Canyon Preserve to learn more about Oregon’s high desert. Located northeast of Sisters, Oregon, the preserve is a 930-acre expanse of rimrock canyons and uplands along the Whychus Creek. It’s protected by the Deschutes Land Trust which conserves and cares for over 17,000 acres of land across central Oregon.

There, King and Yee meet with Amanda Egertson, Deschutes Land Trust stewardship director, to explore the varied forms of life they can find in the desert. It’s hot and dry, and the landscape seems too harsh for anything to thrive, but as they look closer, they see flowers blooming, berries growing on bushes, and yarrow and chamomile sprouting from the earth.

They hike down toward Whychus Creek, where the temperature cools. Plants are in bloom all along the path, and Egertson leads King and Yee to her favorite place to scout for butterflies.

They wait quietly until nickel-sized butterflies reveal themselves between the flowers. King holds out her finger and one climbs on, soaking in the salt and minerals from her sweat. The butterfly is called a “Melissa Blue” and as it rests on her finger, King feels a powerful connection with nature. “This is the best day of my life,” she says with a smile.

Reflecting on their journey so far, King is inspired by the resiliency of the ecosystem. She’s ready to create a dish that captures the essence of everything she’s experienced in this dynamic landscape.

Back in the CX-50, King and Yee pull a camper—packed with everything King needs to make her dish—on the trailer hitch. They drive to a spot with a stunning view of the cliffs and unload the camper. King removes a wok, a large bowl-shaped pan commonly used in Asian cooking, from the trailer and reveals to Yee that they’re going to make her favorite food: dumplings.

King makes a filling with ground pronghorn, a type of antelope native to the region. The meat has a mild flavor with a hint of sweetness. She adds salted Napa cabbage, scallions, grated ginger, sesame oil, and a pinch of white pepper, measuring by eye and mixing until the combination looks just right. As a final step, she adds an egg white to bind it all together.

King rolls the dumpling dough into circles that are around four inches wide, and she and King spoon filling on top. They fold the dumplings, each using a technique that was passed down to them through their families and generations before them.

The oil in the wok is hot and bubbling, ready for frying. King carefully drops the dumplings in one at a time, and swirls them around with a bamboo strainer until they are golden brown like the surrounding desert. As the dumplings cool, King prepares a botanical tea with yarrow, tulsi, and flowers she gathered at the Whychus Canyon Preserve.

King thanks Yee for joining her on this journey and expresses gratitude for the opportunity to explore new places, gather new inspiration, and push herself and her craft.

Watch the full episode and the entire “Tasting Wild” series on Hulu and National Geographic YouTube.