Steens Overland Adventure – The Desert Floor

steens mountainOh my hell the Steens mountain was hard, but it feels so good to have done it!  The desert is the easy part of the adventure…  or so I thought.

Coming off the mountain is a pleasure. Sunshine, blue sky, the day is beautiful.  It’s taken a bit more fuel on the mountain than expected so a stop at Frenchglen to top off the tank is in order.  The trails go everywhere, and I’m just going to explore.

The trails don’t have markers, I’m all turned around.  I know I saw that clump of trees before.  This is okay right…  it’s why they call it exploring?  Motoring slowly down this two track looks promising. No markers, not on the map but it is going the direction that the wild mustangs are reported to hang out.

Dammit. The two track comes to an abrupt stop in the middle of no where at a fence line.  The sign is marked research area.  hummm

Climbing on top of the FJ Cruiser to get a better vantage, I see what looks like horses. They’re in the distance hills but the hike might be good for me. Hopping the barbed wire fence with the camera, tripod and an desire to get up close and personal with the wild horse I start hiking.   A mile later and I’m getting close enough that the mustangs are paying attention to me.  Time to channel my inner horse whisper.  Slowly walk 30 feet, stop, look away from the herd, stand still until they decide I’m not a concern and then move forward another 30 feet.  It’s taken me an hour to go a another quarter mile and now I find myself surrounded by wild mustangs peacefully grazing.

It is an amazing feeling being this close one of the most iconic symbols of the wild west. A little excitement, a little tranquility and a whole lot of these are 1,000 pound wild animals that could take me out at anytime if they decide. Sitting quietly I’m taking in the mountains, the mustangs and the complete wildness of the area.  The horses move about, occasionally looking my way but mostly paying attention to the other horses wondering all about.  It is a privilege to be a part of this scene.

The sun is staring to drop low and I am heading back to the truck trying to decide what’s next.  On the map there is a sort-of-marked 4×4 trail that looks like it heads in the direction I want to go so why not.

Driving trails in the dark is one of my favorite things.  The night is quiet.  Rabbits dart out, crossing my lit path and then disappear on the other side into the darkness.  Coyote howls are carried on the breeze and every once in a while I think I see something big in the shadows.  It is eerie and calming all at the same time. There is no reference to where I am.  The satellite puts me in a big gray space with no roads and there hasn’t been cell service for hours, but I’m still making slow steady progress over the 4×4 trail.  And based on the map…  I should pop out on a road soon(ish).

It’s 11:15pm. A light from a barn is coming into view.  This 4×4 trail has skirted much of a rancher’s land and is now depositing me on his door step, 20 yards from the highway.  Not exactly where I thought I was headed but it has been so much fun I didn’t care.

It’s late, my last meal was breakfast and I’m getting tired.  Looks like it will be best to head back to Page Springs for the night.  Three days I’ve ventured out…  and three nights I’ve returned to Page Springs, must be something in the water.  Tarp on the ground, stars over head, I’m asleep as soon as my head goes horizontal.

The Alvord hot springs have become a bit of a tourist attraction.  There is a caretaker, a parking lot, surplus MASH unit containers converted to cabins and a fridge with cold drinks.  $8 buys you a day in the hot springs, access out onto the playa (the dry lake bed that once extended a 100 miles) and use of a flush toilet, all of which I plan on taking advantage of.

The caretaker smiles, she gives me the run down of the area. “Drive in any direction, stay clear of the hot springs tail out, the gate closes at 10:30pm”.

The playa is dry and cracked.  It appears to go forever.   Heat rising off the playa make the hills in the distance dance.   Driving on the lake-bed is intoxicating.   I aim the FJ Cruiser north and drive, lazily serpentine loops back and forth until I reach what feels like the middle. Nothing in all directions for a couple of miles.  This is camp!

It is so quiet I can hear myself think…  that is not always a good thing.   Setting up the tarp, cooking dinner, and hanging out by the fire this is how camping alone is meant to be.

Some where in the very dark, very early morning, I wake to what Dorothy and Toto must have experienced on their ride to Oz. I had staked the tarp down but not for this.  Scrambling to find a light, the tent stakes, and hammer I get to adding guy lines and cinching the tarp down.  Each pull on the guy lines changes the harmonics from wild flaps to the taught hum of a snare drum skin. This wind storm is going to make for a long night.

Morning finds an eerie silence over the playa again.  The sun is warming on my face.  A quick inventory shows everything is still here in one piece. This may be a desert, but it is chilly.  Breakfast by the fire and a cup of camp coffee is what I need to set the world right again.

A week has gone by in a blink of an eye.  It may be time for a bath.  I’m definitely getting pretty rank. The crowds at the Alvord hot springs may not provide a mind blowing existential solo experience but soaking in the still waters is so worth every bit of that $8 price tag.  105+ degree water pulls the aches and pains out from deep in my bones. Literally four hours later I’m finally forcing myself to get out and head back to camp on the playa.

Packing up I can’t help but believe the night spent on the frozen Steens Mountain, wheeling through the night, meditating with wild horses and desert solitude have changed me a little… for the better.  Right now, right here, my soul is at rest.   I can’t wait to get back here.