All about the Steens

June 30, 2008.

The sky was pink when I peeked out of the rainfly. It must have been no later than 5:30 am but I raced out of bed. The stark beauty and stillness of the morning moved me–both physically and mentally. I packed for a short hike and took off up the gravel road into the unknown.

It was the dark canyon nestled between the soft mountainsides and sage that compelled me to walk. Each calculated step up the path rewarded me with progressively more expansive views. Behind me, the flat desert landscape unfolded. In front, the flat hill blocking the view from camp melted away, letting my eyes feast upon more of the surrounding country.

I had no worries here. I was not concerned about time or distance, since I had no reliable way to gauge either. As part of a large, slow moving mob I knew I’d be back before they’d have even considered moving along. This is exactly what I’d needed to clear my head. It felt so good to just walk. I basked in the pleasantness of going off on my own. I savored the adventure of exploring an unfamiliar road in an out-of-the-way place. I cherished the freedom I felt, walking my own way.

The only “wildlife” I saw on my walk was a herd of cattle grazing in front of the canyon. As I approached them, the road curved to the left and the surprised cattle lay straight ahead. They stopped and stared at me, probably quite interested in this strange being entering their territory. They became agitated and mooed as I slowly crept forward. I could see from here that the canyon was a long way off. The road continued to bear left and there appeared to be a branch of the road that traveled to an overlook before the canyon proper. I’d need two good knees, a full pack and several days’ time to dive straight into the canyon. I lacked all three, but I had a deep desire to press on. I succumbed to reality eventually and turned my back to the mysterious, dark beyond.

Facing the desert, I descended steadily along the road until I reached camp. After polishing off a Clif bar, I set myself up for some physical therapy and topped it off with a quick yoga session that helped relax me even further. I felt as if I’d finally started taking care of myself on this trip. I felt amazing. And utterly happy.

Minor setback

The group decided to go back to the playa before moving on, since many people hadn’t gone down there yet. Before we could even make it there, however, one of the cars got stuck in the loose gravel on the side of the road and needed a tow. Several ideas were tossed abut, phone calls were made, and finally one van headed into town to find help. Fortunately, they ran into a nice guy just a few miles up the road who was able to pull the car out with his big, manly truck.

So off we went, back down to the playa, again taking in the sights and sounds of a very unusual place. The wind was not as ferocious as it had been the previous night. People drove figure eights and dough nuts in their cars before dumping out their passengers to frolic and play barefoot on the cracked earth.

All of this had taken place so far, and it was barely 10 am.

Next, we headed into Fields for a planned milkshake stop. By now, people had worked up an appetite so many ordered food as well. I had a luscious black raspberry milkshake, which was incredibly thick and tasty. We lollygagged here for a bit. The town of Fields is as rural as rural can be. The local K-8 school has an enrollment of 13 and teenagers are shipped off to one of the last remaining public boarding schools in the U.S. It sure is remote country out here.

More driving lay ahead as we rounded the corner and began heading northwest, back towards home. We had one more stop on the west side of the Steens where we’d spend our last planned night. Greg had left for home yesterday so it was just Kristi and I in the car. We gawked excitedly at the mountainous scenery surrounding us. We each took turns pointing our cameras out the window and taking pictures of whatever caught our attention. On and on we drove until we hit the Steens Mountain Loop road. In another couple of weeks, the entire loop is navigable with a decent four wheel drive vehicle. However, snow still blocks the upper reaches so we planned only to drive to the South Steens campground. Along the way we interrupted some cowboys on horseback rounding up their cattle. But at last we arrived at the campsite, changed into bathing suits, and turned towards the river.

The river was running c-o-l-d right from the mountains. I stayed in, thigh deep, as long as I could stand it, then laid in the grass reading my book. We hung out here for an excessive amount of time, no one paying any mind to the rumbling thunder inching ever closer to our waterside perch. At long last, we retreated to the campsite, where we were shortly overtaken by pea-sized hail. Sitting in a safe, sheltered location in my raincoat, I waited for the temporary craziness to pass.

Chilling out

The rest of the day was very lazy. We were all beat. People munched on snacks, read books, took long naps, had mellow conversations, and went on short jaunts. I spent most of my time writing and stretching my leg muscles. It was a pleasant afternoon in the shade.

Dinner that evening was followed by a quick hike to a trailhead at the edge of the campground. A group of people walked up the trail a ways, while Katelyn and I casually walked back and swapped rehab stories. Fresh crackles of thunder made me nervous about my tent, since I didn’t bother to rig up the rainfly yet. By the time we returned, it had gotten dark. I situated myself in the comfort of my tent and began reading. The wind picked up and shook the tent violently. Roaring claps of thunder threatened to move even closer as the night pressed on. I could see flashes of lightning, and my tent neighbors asked if it was safer to be in the tents or in the car in case of an electrical storm. I had no idea, but I was cozy in my tent so I was willing to risk it. We weren’t in a wide open area or anything. After reading NOAA’s advice, I guess I made the wrong choice. Living dangerously, that’s my game.

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