It wasn’t supposed to be that hard! Everyone said the Steens Mountain area is beautiful in November. There just hadn’t been a November this wet in decades. 600 miles to get there and my windshield wipers do not get a break from the rain. Neither do I!
I hate camping in the rain. Everything gets wet. Packing up a wet tent (or in my case a tarp), running around in damp cloths, trying to dry out socks with the truck’s defroster… it sucks. Two days into this adventure and everything in the back of the truck is damp. I it still have 150 miles to go. When is the good part?
The appeal of the Steens Mountain area is that there is not much around it, at all. Burns, Or. is the last real town I’ll see for the week, next stop is at the north end of the wilderness, a little dot on the map called Frenchglen. A historic hotel, a tiny general store and one working gas pump. Grab a couple jugs of water, fill the truck and spare Jerry cans. It may be awhile before I see Fields, the only other spot on the map with gas and supplies down at the south end.
As I set up camp at Page Springs the sun is finally braking through the clouds and this promises to be a great trip.
The Donner und Blitzen, a beautiful little trout stream, runs right through Page Springs campground. The fall colors are magnificent and a small herd of deer have made this campground their home. Everything is starting to look up as I lay my head down under the tarp, shaking off the last of the dampness.
The Steens Mountain area is made up of 170,200 acres and was designated as a wilderness area by congress in 2000. Today’s plan, follow the mountain loop, a gravel road up to the summit, find a cozy place up top to spend the night and enjoy an evening by the fire under the stars.
The sun is shining bright, the sky is cloudless and blue. I’m making good time driving the gravel loop as it works it’s way up into the hills. Continuing to gain elevation the road is showing light but increasing snow cover. Passing Jackman park, the snow on the road is around six inches deep with no tire tracks. I realize as I continue to drive, it is unlikely anyone will be coming along behind me if I get stuck. I tell myself, it will be fine, just keep it slow and steady. Around Kiger Gorge lookout, the truck is starting to fishtail back and forth every once in awhile in the sloppy snow now 10-12 inches on the road. Time to consider my options.
The easy choice, the safe choice, is to turn around and call it a day. But I’m not known for hitting the easy button. I weigh the risks, consider various ways I could die on the mountain and come to a decision. Time to chain up.
Chains and mud tires were never meant to go together, The tire lugs are making it a pain in the ass to get the chains lined up and tight. At 9,000 ft(ish) I’m getting winded with all this work, humping chains around, setting up camera shots, shoveling snow to clear the tires… Should have packed an oxygen bottle instead of that extra pound of bacon. Time to get back in the driver’s seat.
The FJ Cruiser is motoring along great but the snow drifts are quickly getting deep. The rear wheels push the truck forward but the front skid is riding up like a toboggan in the deep snow and lifting the front off the ground. Progress is limited to push forward 10 feet until the front lifts off the ground and before the rear tires lift, back up, get a running start and push forward another 10 feet. Rinse and repeat for the next 20 minutes and hope the truck doesn’t high-center in the snow that is now about two feet deep.
I’m walking sections of the road to see were the edge is before charging forward. I’m shoveling areas to clear the pile of snow my front-end pushes up. This is frustratingly slow and taking a toll on my mental state. We’re close to the top but it is getting late.
A couple more long pushes and I’m moving free again. This is it. Now hike the last bit… Cold, windy, and getting dark. So worth it!
The flat spot if found for the night has a great view but the idea of setting up the tarp with the wind hollowing is more than I can manage. I’ve napped in the truck’s front before… how bad could it be.
As night falls I sleep a few hours, wake up, try to find a less uncomfortable position that doesn’t require master yogi skills and sleep a little more. It’s a rough night.
First light lets me know I’ve survived the night. Time to get off this mountain. But first… Breakfast!
Episode 2 – Steens Overland Adventure on to the Alvord Desert