November 21-26, 2022.
I always take Thanksgiving week off of work. Not to honor the holiday in the traditional way, just because most people will cancel that week and there’s no sense in me sticking around town for a few stragglers who may show up. So after taking care of a few errands in town Monday morning, I started the 5 1/2 hour drive to the edge of the Black Rock Desert.
Day 1: Getting there
As the sun was getting ready to set and I was less than 20 miles from my destination, I noticed a truck in the ditch on the side of the road. A man waving his arm stood up from near the truck. So this is how my week of solitude was going to start.
Long story short, this man was a long ways from his ranch house, his cell battery was dead, and the chance of someone else driving by was very slim. I drove him home as he thanked my profusely and I refused the seven dollars in his wallet. Once he was safe, I got back on track. The sun had long since set, and I rolled up to the free BLM cabin under a pitch black sky. Home.
Car emergency karma secured, I brought my stuff into the cabin, which smelled musty despite looking very clean. I built a fire in the fire pit outside and got to work setting up my camp kitchen. The cabin didn’t have propane or electricity but that was okay with me! I made stir-fry on the camp stove and lost myself in a book by the dancing flames by my feet.
Day 2: A hike to the top of a thing
As I get older and spend more time outdoors, I think less and less of what accomplishments I can achieve and get internet points for. Instead, I think about what brings me joy? What adventures can I go on? What can I learn from this place? Why would I want to rush through the experience as fast as I can so I can brag about it to others?
I still love chasing summits, but they don’t have to be long, epic, technical or notable in any way. Finding those little USGS markers is like succeeding at a scavenger hunt. And it helps me narrow down the endless options of where to go. So, I saw one summit within walking distance from my cabin and I packed my bag to head in that direction.
Since there are no developed trails or routes in the area, I planned on trekking cross-country to get there. But much to my delight, I found a gravel road that followed the broad wash that led up and into the hills. I walked the road network most of the way to the top, following tracks from rabbits, deer and other unknown critters. A thin layer of snow covered the ground. And although it was well below freezing the night before, I ended up reaching the summit in a t-shirt and sunglasses. It was warm, clear and quiet.
As soon as I sat down on a pile of rocks to start painting, a thick cloud blanketed the sky and the temperature dropped significantly. Despite that, I completed another watercolor, one step closer to my 50 days of plein air painting in 2022 goal, then packed up to retrace my steps out.
On the walk back, I stopped to admire all the shiny black rocks on the road: obsidian. I was surprised to notice how dull and drab the rock looked in the places where it wasn’t broken open. Although I felt I should have known that by now, it was an interesting thing to observe, just one of many pieces of knowledge I’d gain in my trip to the desert.
Day 3: Welcome to Sheldon
I sadly said goodbye to the lovely cabin and drove up towards the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area/ Dark Sky Sanctuary. This part of the country is one of the most remote places from urban areas (read: light pollution.) It was especially dark this time of the month, during the new moon. I was excited to poke around this new-to-me area. But I couldn’t find much information online, so I had a loose plan to find a gravel road, disperse camp, and explore on foot for a few days.
It was not to be. I drove all along the southern and western borders without a single enticing road to follow. Plus, a low cloud of frozen fog hung above the dry lakebeds where I’d presumably camp. Since it didn’t look inviting, I kept driving into the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.
I’d briefly visited Sheldon before, but it had been such a long time ago and there is so much that I hadn’t seen yet that it deserved a second trip. I stopped at the welcome signboard to note the camp locations and chose one that had a pit toilet as my destination. On the way to camp I stopped to do a short hike to another viewpoint summit, where I saw a few deer, a female sage grouse and a cluster of juniper trees.
The juniper trees are worth noting because I needed to harvest juniper berries (cones) for my Thanksgiving meal, and I hadn’t seen a single juniper since reaching camp Monday night. The hills were dotted with sagebrush as far as the eye could see, but the juniper were nowhere to be found. It had not occurred to me that this was possible, since there’s so much juniper in the Oregon high desert. I harvested enough berries for my recipes, plus a few more, since I had no idea what to look for in a juniper berry.
Each year, I question and redefine a new element of the Thanksgiving story. I’ve ditched the family obligations. I’ve re-learned my history. I deepen my connection to the land and my place in it. This year I decided to honor native foods and learn more about native cooking, by reading cookbooks and learning about Pacific Northwest foods. More on that tomorrow.
I settled into a very cold night at camp and went to bed really early. Not before attempting some night sky photography.
Day 4: The big meal reveal
It was difficult to get out of my cozy bed burrito. But eventually, the warm sun lured me out. I did a mellow hike to the summit, er, the gentle rise above my camp, did some painting and returned by lunch time. During the afternoon I did a ton of reading and splitting wood, then made a game plan to juggle all the dishes I wanted to prepare for dinner.
My revised menu consisted of my family foods (listed first) and foods native to the PNW. The list:
- carrot and parsnip mash
- meat stuffing
- jellied cranberry sauce
- green beans
- corn pone
- salmon patties with juniper berries
- cranberry sauce made with local honey
For dessert, I brought a pumpkin pie to complete the Three Sisters theme (beans, corn, squash) as well as some heavy whipping cream to give me something to do after dinner.
The corn pone was dry, but otherwise it was an enjoyable meal. I’d make the salmon patties again! And while I do enjoy turkey, I didn’t miss it and I was not willing to pay the inflated prices this year. I think there’s a lot of value in assessing why we uphold the traditions that we have, and doing something because “that’s just how we’ve always done it” is poorly reasoned.
Without Aaron around, I had to whip cream myself for the first time. It took forever, as you’d imagine, in a tiny bowl with a plastic fork. But, I did it. It partly froze as it splashed against the side of the bowl, and it tasted absolutely fabulous with my pumpkin pie!
Day 5: One more hike
Determined to rescue my hockey-puck-like corn pone, I heated up some butter and heavy cream in a pan, dropped in my corn pone and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Then I added huckleberries (from my freezer, waiting since summer!) and some maple syrup. That first bite was pure heaven. It was the tastiest breakfast I’d ever made. You can take that idea for the next time you overbake your corn bread.
I turned to hike up the road from my camp towards another highpoint, about 5 miles away. Again I got lucky that the roads led me nearly to the top of the hill, so I was able to get there in a reasonable amount of time. It was cold and windy, however, so I didn’t linger at the top to paint. I ate some Pringles and took in the views before returning.
It was nice to be able to hunker down in place for three days instead of having to constantly pack and unpack my camp. I again spent my free time reading, painting, napping and enjoying the fire. I noticed how relaxed and at peace I felt in this space. A space most people would call “empty,” “desolate,” “boring.” I loved that I only saw one vehicle in three days. That I only heard an airplane buzzing overhead occasionally. And that the stars shone so brightly and intensely each night.
Day 6: What does the cold do to an old battery?
I awoke to a gentle snowfall and grayish-white skies. It looked like the weather was finally closing in on me. I built a nice warming fire as I made breakfast and packed up my camp. It was time to go home.
But when I tried starting the car, there was no juice. Ah, a dead battery. I immediately regretted not moving the car every day. Normally, we’re much more mobile on these kinds of road trips. Lacking a time machine, I grabbed my InReach and texted Aaron about my predicament. The battery pack car-charging device that we have was not in the top box but instead in the garage. I was too far to walk anywhere for help and it was unlikely anyone would be driving by today. Drat.
Eventually Aaron decided to buy a new battery and hop in his rental car to come bail me out. Remember the drive time between here and home is over five hours. It was about noon.
By this time, the sun had returned and it was turning out to be a lovely day. Minus the stranded in the desert part. But I had all my camping gear, so much food and water, and plenty of reading to do. I re-kindled the fire, set my tent back up, and prepared to occupy myself at camp for the rest of the day.
Just in case someone was out and about, I walked to the main road and drew a big arrow in the snow pointing to my camp. I wrote “help” facing each direction and placed a piece of firewood vertically in the middle of the road. One of those clues should grab anyone’s attention.
At about 1:30, I noticed a truck. I booked it down to the road, flailing my arms in the air. He saw me and drove into my camp. After 20 minutes of futzing around with battery packs and jumper cables, we got the car started. I thanked him, thinking about how crazy it was that I cashed in my car karma so quickly. To be safe, I left the car running as I broke down camp. I messaged Aaron to turn around and began the long drive home.
Every trip teaches many lessons. This time, they were about car maintenance (our five-year old battery needed replacing!), not freaking out, and trusting in the kindness of strangers.
And that is just one of many reasons why I love solo roadtrips. They always keep me learning, keep me humble and inspire introspection. This year I enjoyed the choice to keep the week free of goals an agendas. My only intentions were to: walk every day, paint every day and look up at the stars every night. From that very basic framework, I had all that I needed to enjoy a restful and meaningful desert adventure.