Author Archives: Jess B

Van Patten Butte

August 28, 2023.

10.7 mi | 3320′ ele. gain | 8 hrs.

Van Patten Butte from the saddle

Photo album

If you are looking for a route description for the Van Patten Butte scramble, this isn’t it. Check out these resources from Oregon Hikers, Summitpost and Peakbagger. This is a story about how to take a straightforward, half-day route into an all day, nail-biting adventure. I would not recommend, however I feel that if you are a person who likes testing creative routes in the mountains at all, some of your days will inevitably turn out like this. I’d say about 85% of my exploratory adventures are neutral to good, 10% are excellent and 5% are gnarly. This was one of the gnarly ones.

We were back at the Anthony Lake Ski Area for a few days so Aaron could get some work done. Since Van Patten was such a short route, I decided to hike to the trailhead from the parking area 3 miles away to begin the day’s adventure. It was all downhill, meaning an easy approach but nothing to look forward to at the end of the day.

The night before, I’d read through all the resources listed above. I eyeballed the topo map and Google satellite images. It was my usual prep routine. I thought I’d take the suggested route up the mountain and circle back down a different ridge, then either rejoining the route in or bushwhacking to the road to cut off some extra walking. On the hike down to the trailhead, I studied the landscape, trying to visualize what would make a good route back. I felt ready for a fun day in the mountains.

Once I reached the trailhead, I had a short, steep climb to Van Patten Lake. The lake was pretty, but the water level looked pretty low. While having a snack, I pictured how gorgeous it would be when it was full. I found a pair of sunglasses sitting on a rock near the lake; lately I’ve been finding these on nearly every hike.

Forget something?

From there, I walked around to the north side of the lake, where I followed an inlet stream up the vegetated slopes. As I climbed, I was presented with more and more options. I chose to follow a line where giant boulders occasionally punctuated the forested canyon walls. The route required a little bit of poking around, but it was generally straightforward and safe. Along the way, I found another pair of sunglasses that were hung up in a tree; they must have fallen off of someone’s head as they were scrambling the route. Once I gained the ridge, I had to navigate around a few obstacles to get to a wide, flat saddle. From that point, the summit of Van Buren was just a quick and easy walk away.

When things were going well

The highpoint, a pile of sloped boulders surrounded by thick and twisted trees, was not a great place to hang out. So I tagged the top and wandered around the high ridgeline, looking for a nice place to sit and paint. There, I also scoped out my options down. None of them looked good. My original plan, which looked okay on paper, most definitely did not look possible in real life. This sometimes happened, and I knew this was a possibility. The NW ridges looked mostly do-able, but there were enough narrow, loose and cliffy sections separating the good stuff that made it unsafe. That was out. The NE ridge was very knife-edgy, atop sheer cliffs. That was out. Even the gullies looked too loose and steep to want to attempt solo with no gear. My last option was to retreat the way I came.

I started along this path, the best and most intelligent choice. But then I got the idea to follow the ridgeline adjacent to my ascent route, the one that would take me right back to the lake! That seemed like a good idea. I veered off the beaten path and on to the ridge.

Just like the NW ridge, this one consisted of a jumble of tall, impossible boulders choked with vegetation, making it difficult to see far ahead. I poked along very slowly on and near the ridge, mostly on the west side to avoid the intimidating cliffs. The terrain was mostly loose and steep, with a mixture of rocks, dirt and trees. Occasional cliffs became frequent cliffs and my options were very limited. I was really struggling to find a line that would go.

After much frustrating zig-zagging around, I found an escape gully leading to a giant talus field. It was steep and loose, but with enough firm footing and trees to hang on to in order to be safe enough to descend. Without knowing what happened in the trees below the talus, I decided to just go for it. I needed to get off that damned ridge.

Down the gully I go

Once safely on the pile of rocks below, I sat down for a while to let my nervous system calm down. I ate some food, drank some water and thought about options from here. I was so annoyed with myself for making the stupid decision to try a different ridge despite having a perfectly good way to go down and also knowing that all the other ridges were too rugged for me. (So why would this one be any different?)

But, being annoyed with oneself doesn’t lead to better decision making. I had to snap back into rational problem-solving mode and I could berate myself later.

Below that talus, I could hear running water. No problem, a little stream. Unless that stream turns into a waterfall. Can you guess? Of course it did. I was having flashbacks to last year’s debacle getting off Chief Joseph Mountain, where it took hours to go less than a mile through similar terrain. I cut right away from the creek, where I began traversing a steep, forested hillside. But I kept getting cliffed out. Each time I reached another cliff, I could feel my heart race and my breathing get shallow. This was clearly type 3 fun.

As a strategy to move safely and efficiently, I settled into a way of movement that felt a lot like bouldering. I tested each hand and foothold before committing weight to it, I only moved when I felt in balance and I hyper focused on the task at hand. I was not (literally and figuratively) out of the woods yet.

Despite the shitstorm, I still stopped to enjoy the flowers.

Even though I had made it below the ridge and “just had to get through the woods,” the landscape was relentless. I desperately sought paths of least resistance through rocks, creeks and soggy hillsides. Once I finally reached the road, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and chugged some water. Then, I had nearly 3 miles of walking uphill on the road in the hot afternoon sun to wrap up this debacle.

On the return hike, I passed by what looked to be a promising huckleberry patch. I dropped a pin on my GPS app so I could come back another day. A silver lining, perhaps.

Lessons learned? I fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy. The further I traveled down the terrible ridge, the more committed I felt to that route. At any point (especially early on), I could have backtracked up to the saddle and taken my original route back down the mountain. Even though it would require going back uphill, it would have been faster, safer, easier and way more fun. A reminder that nature is indifferent to our hopes and dreams. And that respect and humility in the mountains is paramount to help ensure you can go back and explore another day.

Sumpter Dredge State Heritage Area

August 27, 2023.

Photo album

Situated 30 miles west of Baker City, 57 miles northeast of John Day and 108 miles south of Pendleton, the Sumpter Dredge sits in a pond of its own making. Once used to sift for gold along the banks of the Powder River, it now serves as a tourist attraction and reminder of a piece of Oregon history.

I was surprised to find several other visitors there at this fairly remote and off-the-beaten-path site. Aaron found a volunteer ranger who was available to give us a tour of the dredge (you can also just walk through on your own). He shared quite a bit about how the dredge was built and used as well as some of the greater context around mining in that era. The visitor’s center and signage within the dredge echoed the details from the guided tour. It was helpful for me to see the photos and illustrations, since I am a visual learner.

The dredge essentially housed a rotating line of huge buckets that dug up the rocks and dirt, then dropped the slurry through a series of sifting devices that separated the gold from the remainder. The non-gold material, or “tailings,” got left behind in rows behind the dredge. You will notice these tall piles of tailings as you drive past Phillips Lake on Route 7. Alternatively you can see them clearly on Google satellite view, where they look like intestines!

In the process of sifting for flakes of gold, the dredge literally flipped the underground layers upside down, leaving the rocks on top and the soil on the bottom. As a result, the mining dramatically altered the naturally functioning landscape . While nature slowly takes its course, there are theoretically some habitat restoration projects happening. When I searched for more information, I found some reports dating to 1984, 2006 and 2017. Sadly I found more references to restoring the railroad than the actual habitat.

Thinking back to my bike ride around Philips Lake, I remember seeing lots of wildlife utilizing the area around the tailings. I have no idea how much more volume or diversity of wildlife would be there had it been in a more natural state. I’m also curious how the use of mercury on the dredge impacted the environment. When we asked the volunteer, he was absolutely certain that the mercury was not found in any amount in the surrounding area, which I had a really hard time believing.

The impact of resource extraction is one that we will continue to deal with as our changing technologies require more and different minerals. I’m beginning to learn about lithium and cobalt mining, as these impact us both locally in Oregon and our fellow humans abroad. I am glad that our state parks work to preserve these historical sites. I just wish they addressed all of the impacts in a more transparent way, instead of focusing on the things like “what a cool piece of technology” and “how wonderful for this local economy!” I’d rather hear a more complex and nuanced story than that.

After our tour, we walked around a few of the trails in the park. In total, there are less than two miles looping around the area, so it’s just a nice place to stretch your legs. A few steps away in town, we wandered into the Sumpter Municipal Museum, which is also worth a visit. And to top it all off, a friendly guy in a food truck across the street sold us some corn dogs to fuel us up for the rest of the afternoon. It was my first time eating a corn dog, and I must say I quite enjoyed it!

Elkhorn Crest Traverse

August 8-11, 2023.

Some okay views from here

Photo album

The Elkhorn Crest Trail had been on my to-do list for many years. I had an opportunity to spend 4 days on the trail while in Northeast Oregon, so I researched the route, made a list, packed my backpack and hit the trail.

Day 1: Orientation

5.4 mi | 1130′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

Moody clouds

Upon seeing the weather forecast, I took my packraft and paddle out of my backpack. Highs only in the 70’s and mostly cloudy? That didn’t feel like it was worth the weight of a boat. I had mountains to climb, anyways, and I already hate backpacking. That decision would make the next few days slightly easier.

Hate backpacking? That can’t be right? Sure looks dreamy on Instagram. However, my body has never adapted to carrying an overnight pack, ever. No matter what shape I’m in, how much backpacking I do (which, arguably is never that much), what pack I have, how much weight is in it, etc. I just feel awful. It’s not just the “I’m working really hard” kind of awful, it’s the blisters and tweaks and aches and rubbing of pack against skin over and over and over that makes me ask, couldn’t I have just done this as a dayhike?

Sure, there are some humans who can cruise the Elkhorn Crest in a day, but that was never my intention. I wanted to move at a pace at which I could really experience and enjoy it. Besides, there were side objectives I wanted to see. Mt. Ruth, Rock Creek Butte and Elkhorn Peak were all on my agenda in addition to the trail.

I set off from the parking lot at Anthony Lakes Ski Area after a long, slow breakfast and packing session. The morning was overcast and chilly, so I was in no rush to get out the door. The start of the trail wasn’t terribly remarkable. There were lots of tiny huckleberry bushes and just past prime wildflowers. The forest opened up near Angell Pass to provide a preview of the views I’d enjoy for the remainder of the hike. I then made my way down to Dutch Flat Lake, a pretty little lake with some giant campsites that indicated it got heavy use. After eating my lunch there, I decided to scout out a campsite away from the lake shore just in case a group decided to show up and be obnoxious.

Hammock camping

I was right about a group showing up but I was not right about how far away from the lake I’d have to go to not hear them literally yelling for 8 straight hours after setting up their camp. I put my headphones in and laid in my hammock, alternating between napping and crossword puzzles until dinner time. Wanting to enjoy nature, the whole reason I came here, I briefly took my headphones out to try and identify the various lovely bird songs filling the air. But they soon got drowned out by more yelling, so the headphones went back in.

Day 2: Finding a rhythm

9.8 mi. | 1765′ ele. gain | 5:20 hr.

Morning sun

Bright rays of sunshine brought me out of my quiet slumber. Ah, the sun! It was a beautiful sight to see after yesterday’s thick gray cloak. I had coffee and pop tarts and watched the clouds flitter across the sky. I got packed up to leave, and just about when I took my first steps, the group starting roaring awake. It was just in time.

The clouds eventually overtook the sun, which meant the air was cool and refreshing for hiking. I made my way up the trail to the base of Mt. Ruth’s northwest ridge. There, I switched to a tiny day pack and picked my way past granite boulders and twisted whitebark pine to the summit. The top of the mountain provided a comfy place to sit and enjoy the view for a bit. I munched on a bag of salty-sweet popcorn from Bend Popcorn Company; this was an excellent trail snack!

I returned to my pack, continued along the Elkhorn Crest trail to a very confusing trail junction, then found the path to Summit Lake. A mile of ups and downs led me to a picturesque lake surrounded in part by dramatic cliffs. I found a nice, well-established camp spot with trees for my hammock near the lake and settled in. I could hear a small family nearby but they mostly kept to themselves. This camp was a stark difference from the previous night. I didn’t mind having these folks as neighbors!

I read a bunch of my book and did a little painting at the lake. Dinner was a delicious dehydrated chili with crumbly cornbread topping. I do miss having access to a dehydrator, as I used to make all my backpacking meals from scratch. This one tasted pretty good, although it was expensive and it wreaked havoc on my digestive system later.

Summit Lake

Briefly, I caught a glimpse of a mama and baby goat racing through my neighbor’s camp. But in a flash, they were gone. I was promised goats on this hike, and so far it was pretty disappointing for wildlife sightings.

Day 3: The longest, hottest day

14.8 mi | 2640′ ele. gain | 8 hr.

Little pink buckwheat

In preparation for this trip, I used various mapping apps to calculate my daily mileage and elevation gain. Although there are many write-ups on the internet for the Elkhorn Crest Trail, none of them did exactly what I was planning to do. Today’s estimated mileage was 9.5, with a summit of Rock Creek Butte towards the end of the day. Anything under ten feels pretty doable with an overnight pack for me, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about getting an early start or getting psyched for a big day.

However, my calculations were wildly wrong. I figured out after I was done with the hike where I had gone wrong with my math, but that didn’t matter in the moment. The weather was much sunnier, which made for prettier views but hotter hiking conditions. The heat sapped my energy and I stopped for multiple breaks in just the first few miles. At some point, I saw a large cairn just off the trail, and it was not indicated on my map as a junction or point of interest. I had to see what it was though.

A phone to God? I immediately remembered seeing pictures of this thing while researching trip reports. I would love to know the whole story.


I looked ahead on my map and chose a spot that I thought would make a reasonable lunch destination. I just needed to keep moving until then. As I rounded my final turn towards the spot, I saw a pair of eyes staring back at me. A cow. And her whole posse. I’m familiar with cows, as I frequently end up biking or hiking where they’re grazing. Generally they just get annoyed enough as you get close to them that they walk away. But this band of cows wanted to stand their ground. I managed to herd them away from my precious lunch stop for about 20 minutes, but then they were stubbornly piled on top of the trail headed my way. No amount of yelling, waving my poles around, walking towards them would get them to move. So I had to walk a big semi-circle off trail to get back on course on the other side.

Also not helping: foot pain and afternoon heat. I had no idea why my foot was hurting so badly, but nothing I did seemed to make it better. I did manage to figure out how to make it worse, though.

As I complained loudly about my ungrateful foot, I passed under peak after peak after peak. And at each one, I asked myself, “is this it?” The trail felt interminably long. How far have I gone, anyways? It had to be over nine miles at this point. And this is when I realized I’d messed up my planning. I sat with my map, using the distance calculating tool in CalTopo to help me re-orient for the remainder of the day’s route. I was so annoyed about this error. Had I known I was in for a nearly 15-mile day, I would have mentally prepared for that.

But, there was nothing to do but trudge ahead so that’s what I did. When I finally arrived at the base of Rock Creek Butte, I almost blew right by it, thinking it was just another blip on the ridge. I left my backpack under a large tree right above the trail and slowly hiked uphill. I was so tired that I used the step-counting method to help keep my pace. 1-2-3…15. Rest. 1-2-3…15. Rest. I repeated that on the steepest parts, then increased the number of steps to 20, 30, 40 as the grade mellowed out.

At least there were flowers along the way

At last, I collapsed near a huge cairn at the top and paged through some of the thousands of entries in the summit register. Apparently, this is a very popular place! I felt lucky to have it all to myself at this moment.

But, my day wasn’t done. I had to keep walking to the junction with Twin Lakes trail and then hike the horribly long and flat switchbacks to the lake. These were the most insanely gradual switchbacks I’d ever seen, and the last thing I needed to end a frustrating day. As soon as I found a campsite that had a couple good hammock trees, I called it good. I immediately dunked my feet in the lake and started chilling a beer.

At dinnertime, I got my stove set up to boil water, then I received my first visitors.

Mountain goats. A dozen of them. They barged right into my camp, so I cautiously backed away to give them space. They were not at all frightened or impressed by me, so they kept pushing towards me. I backed up, they came forward. Over and over again. I knew there was one other party camped at the other end of the lake, so I decided to hustle over there and find safety in number as the goats were clearly not afraid of me. When I arrived, I met two kids who were standing around a campfire (don’t even get me started). We stayed together until the goats moved past the lake. I thanked them for letting me barge into their space and retreated to my camp.


The goats visited me again that evening, but I was comfortably bundled up in my hammock and was too tired to be bullied out. I yelled and waved at them and waited until they left to fully relax into my book. Then I reminded myself that I wanted to see goats…

Day 4: The long walk home

10.5 mi | 1410′ ele. gain | 5 hr.


I awoke early, with the sun, and slowly began preparations for breakfast. The goats wouldn’t have it, however. This time, twice as many animals appeared and completely overran my camp. I desperately tried to give them adequate space as I hurriedly shoved food in my face and packed up what I could. Being completely acclimated to people, they did not give me any space and practically ran over all my supplies. I aggressively shooed them away so I could load up my bag and get out of there. The whole encounter felt so ridiculous.

No zoom needed

But the baby goats were so cute.

I put my head down and marched up the horrible switchbacks. At the saddle, I stashed my backpack and headed up towards my last summit: Elkhorn Peak. Although it is the namesake peak of the range, it’s not the highest (that’s Rock Creek Butte). However, I found this scramble entirely more interesting and fun than Rock Creek Butte. At the top, there was no summit register. But I did find an odd, makeshift beacon-looking thing. I just never know what I’m going to find at or along the way to all these highpoints. One of many reasons why I love chasing after them!

Back at my pack, I knew I only had a few more miles to hike before reaching the other end; the end of the trail, not of my hike. I still had many miles of road walking to do to get to a place where Aaron could pick me up in the van. Tales of the shittiness of this road have traveled far and wide.

I barreled though this last part as fast as I could, slightly annoyed that I couldn’t enjoy it. The Elkhorn Crest Trail, famously one of the best high routes in Oregon, according to hikers on the internet, and here I was just trying to get it over with. But I reminded myself that there is no “best” and “top ten lists” are meaningless.

A hike is an entire experience. It’s the trail, sure. But it’s also the weather, the conditions, the wildlife, the solitude, the companionship, the frame of mind, the physical state of your body, and so many other things. And just the idea that I was supposed to enjoy this trail more than other spectacular trails I’ve been on felt a bit silly. I’m very fortunate to have spent time in so many incredible spaces across the state of Oregon. As nice as this was, it wasn’t quite the standout that I expected. And perhaps the expectation set me up for feeling this way.

On the way to the trailhead, I encountered two groups of mountain bikers and two pairs of backpackers. These were essentially the only people I saw on trail in fours days. It was wild that they all came in a sudden blast. I knew a shuttle ran on Friday mornings, dropping people off at this end. I assumed that was the result.

Elkhorn Crest, traversed!

I took a break at the trailhead, airing out my feet completely. Meanwhile, I sent Aaron a check in on my Garmin InReach to let him know my progress, then began the questionably long road walk past the bad sections of road. I estimated up to a 6-mile road walk, so I screwed my head on for that. Based on previous flubs, I checked my estimate multiple times before embarking on this last leg!

To my great surprise, a beautiful wildflower display greeted me along either side of the road. They were the best flowers I’d seen on the entire trip! What a treat. I had not looked forward to the drudgery of a road walk, but it was actually one of my favorite sections. What was that about expectations?

Roadside bouquet

About 5 miles down the road, I stopped near a rushing creek. The road surface had been consistently good for at least a half a mile, so I felt confident that Aaron could drive the van there. I sent one final check in, dunked my feet in the ice cold water and laid down with a book. A couple hours later, my chariot arrived, loaded with fresh wood-fired pizza from Anthony Lakes!

In sum, I turned a 28-mile trail into a four day, 40-mile adventure with three highpoints, three lakeside camps and some mountain goat encounters I’ll never forget. The wildflowers didn’t wow me, but so many other things did. I am just glad to have these opportunities to spend multiple days alone on the trail as we travel full time in the van. And I can’t complain about a warm pizza upon pickup.

Steens Mountain wildflower hunt

July 24 – July 31, 2023.

How many different wildflowers can you see?

Photo album

One of my must-see destinations for my cross-Oregon wildflower hunting trip was the Steens Mountain. Located in Southeast Oregon, the Steens is a unique fault-block mountain rising up from the expansive desert. It’s shaped like a wedge, gradually ascending from the west to a highpoint of nearly 10,000 feet. Then it drops abruptly in a series of craggy cliffs about 5,000 vertical feet to the Alvord desert. In most years, visitors can drive a loop road up from Frenchglen to the summit of the mountain and back, passing by multiple scenic viewpoints overlooking glacially carved canyons. And at the right time of year, you can marvel in an explosion of wildflowers, many of which grow nowhere else but there.

It was that time of year.

Unfortunately, a landslide and subsequent road work closed a portion of the loop road. We had to make a choice about which way to go. For me, it was a no-brainer; we drove the north side of the loop, which was open to the summit and several miles down the other side. That gave us the most opportunities for exploring, camping, hiking and hanging out.

Page Springs campground

Our trip began at the base of the mountain, elevation 4200″. We’d camped at Page Springs before, but only in the fall/winter. It’s a different experience in the summer. The heat of the late July sun was absolutely brutal. The only respite we had was the cold Blitzen River running along the edge of our campsite. At every chance we got, we plunged into the refreshing water.

Western clematis seed heads along the river trail

I attempted to take a hike along the river trail that emerges from the campground, but I ran into two problems: voracious mosquitoes and a trail long abandoned by the BLM. It’s too bad, because it has the potential to be a lovely place to walk. I’d hiked it back in 2013 and I even described it as brushy back then. Despite the challenges, I made it about a mile up before turning around. On the way I found some pretty flowers and even saw teasel (invasive but whatever) in bloom for the first time.

Iconic viewpoints

One nice thing about Steens Mountain is that it is an experience right from the car. You don’t even have to go on any massive hikes to have an enjoyable experience. Of course, if you are able to and want to go hiking I strongly recommend it!

Aaron and I pulled off at every signboard and marked viewpoint along the north loop road. We learned about history, geography, weather and more as we putt-putted along the drive. It became refreshingly cool as we ascended the road. I had to put some layers on as temperatures dipped into the mid-fifties at time. It was a far cry from the 90-degree weather we had down below.

Fields of yellow as seen from the loop road

With each gain in elevation, we got to see new and different wildflowers. Aaron’s favorite is the elk thistle. This unusual plant grows up to 6 1/2 feet tall, has long leaves covered in spines and produces bright purple flowers. It is one of the more aggro plants I’ve seen in the world.

Elk thistle

My favorite is quite the opposite. It’s a subspecies of cushion buckwheat that is made of a low-growing mat of leaves, from which long stems protrude. Each stem is topped by a pink pom-pom looking thing that is a cluster of tiny flowers. Many of the plants lie prostrate, like they are resting. Others stand tall and look like they were invented by Jim Henson (the Muppet guy). They are cute and precious and I just want to stop and touch every one.

Cushion buckwheat ala Steens Mountain

We saw both of these flowers growing right by the road and at our feet at the highest elevation pullouts. Other high mountain finds included silky phacelia, balloon-pod milk vetch, orange sneezeweed and the tiniest little lupine.

At the tops of each U-shaped valley, we tried to imagine a time where they were filled completely with ice. Over time, glaciers carved the incredible landscapes we see today. It fascinating to learn the geologic history of such a special place.

View from the Steens summit trailhead

Freedom to roam

In my opinion, the best way to experience the Steens is on a cross-country adventure. And with such a wide-open landscape, this is easy to do. I did a few hikes on my own while Aaron worked. I plotted routes that led down into the canyons, across vast meadows, along stunning creeks and up to the rocky ridges. Despite the elevation, the days still got pretty hot so I tried to stay near water whenever possible.

I was impressed both by the number of different types of wildflowers as well as the overall volume of flowers. In places, the ground looked as if it was painted yellow or purple or a collage of colors, simply due to the density and number of plants in bloom at once. Any creeks or wet patches were easily identified because of the deep green adjacent to whatever was flowering there. In the span of a couple minutes, I could walk from a boggy swamp to a dusty, dry desert. And back again!

These pretty yellow paintbrush were everywhere.

It was on one of these excursions that I ran into my most unusual hiking find yet. Below the summit, on some random, rolling ridgeline lay what appeared to be a death mask. I didn’t have the heart to touch it or get too close but I took some photos and video of this object. People seem to think it was someone’s art project. I thought it was utterly creepy without any explanation next to it. Although I hike alone a ton, I’ve never felt as weirded out as I did at that moment. I hurried out of there to get back towards the road, which is when I discovered a little cliff. It took just a couple of rock climbing moves to get up over it, which made that find feel even more out of place. Whoever left that mask there really wanted to get to that spot.

Go ahead, you explain it.

What I wanted to see was bighorn, but no luck. That’s the thing with wandering around outdoors. You never can be quite sure what you’ll find.

Wildhorse Lake

Our friends Kevin and Casey joined us up in the Steens for the last few days of our visit. We took them to all the scenic pullouts as well as a couple of short hikes, including this one. If you’ve been up to the top of Steens Mountain, you’ve likely done this one too. It’s only 1.2 miles to walk to the lake, but it’s nearly 1000 vertical feet downhill. That’s a lot of climbing up to get back out to your car.

So close, so far away.

I was not going to waste the opportunity to get our packrafts in the lake, so I took my 60L pack and loaded both rafts, paddles, picnic supplies, art supplies as well as the usual ten essentials to make for a fun day. It was worth the effort. Once we found a nice spot on the lakeshore, we settled in for the afternoon. Aaron swam, Kevin read, Casey painted and I dreamed up a plan for rafting. A strong wind blew across the lake, which was not ideal for our flatwater boats. But I decided we’d hike to the opposite side of the lake, put in and let the wind blow us back to our beach. And that’s what we did. For an added bonus, the hanging meadows we saw from our put-in spot were astonishingly beautiful.

We had to stop many times on the hike up to catch our breath, which meant lots of time for wildflower watching! There were many varieties of paintbrush, buckwheat and penstemon. We also saw bog orchid, desert parsley, field chickweed, asters, thistle and a variety of GDYC‘s.

Nature’s bounty

Steens summit

I visited the summit twice on this trip, once alone and once with Kevin. By far, the best native plant on this walk is the balloon-pod milkvetch. I’m usually not a big fan of the plants in the vetch family, but this one is a stand out. I’m not even sure what the flowers look like, but the seed pod it creates is so bizarre. Picture a hollow kidney bean that’s translucent yellow-green in color with mottled red spots. Now picture thousands of them covering the ground in clusters, dangling from vetchy leaves. When new, the pods are plump and squishy. When they dry out they become hard, detach from the plant and shatter as the wind blows them into surrounding rocks. This spreads the seeds and thus spreads the plant. What a weird, alien life form!

Balloon-pod milkvetch

But this is not all there is to see on the Steens Mountain summit. Buckwheat grow in great profusion. Some form rather large mats with flowers embedded between the leaves, sprawling out like tentacles along the ground or spiking tall above the plant. Clumps of yellow composites, some with ray flowers and some without. In stark contrast, beautiful purple penstemon blooms nearby. All with the surreal backdrop of the vast Oregon desert.

Steens Mountain is one of Oregon’s treasures. Whether you visit for an hour, a day or a week; whether you hike, bike or drive; whether you know your wildflowers and geology or not, you will have a novel and beautiful experience there. Anyone who’s spent any time living in Oregon should make it a point to journey there. For tips on planning a trip, check out ONDA’s Steens Mountain region guide. Or, post your questions in the comments. I’ve visited several times in different seasons and I’ll likely go back and visit again!

Dixie Butte

July 19, 2023

12 mi. | 2690′ ele. gain | 6 hr.

Dixie Butte lookout tower

Photo album

Dixie Butte is home to one of the few remaining active fire lookouts in the state of Oregon. It’s also known for its summer wildflower displays. Despite there being a road to the top, I decided to walk up the road and make it a day hike.

I left early in the morning, knowing it was going to be another hot day. I appreciated all the shade that the trees alongside the road provided. It didn’t take long to get most of the way up the road. There weren’t many wildflower distractions until I was about a mile and a half from the summit. Once I reached the blooming meadows, I could barely take a step without stopping to squat and take another photo. The flowers were gorgeous. Some of my old favorites colored the hillside along with new friends.

One particular flower caught my eye: the beautiful pink, trumpet-shaped blooms of slendertube skyrocket. I’d first spotted this wildflower last year in the Wallowas, at the end of a long day. I was delirious with dehydration and fatigue. Yet, it stopped me in my tracks. It was one of the prettiest, most delicate plant I’d seen in the alpine. I was delighted to see it again.

Slendertube skyrocket

As I got closer to the lookout tower, I heard a dog barking. Lovely, I thought. Being allergic to dogs, I’m used to people yelling “(s)he’s friendly!” My two least favorite words. Friendly dogs get all up in your business, licking you, rubbing their noses in inappropriate places and generally being a nuisance. So I dreaded the all-too-familiar conversation where I’d have to explain that I’m allergic and to get your damn dog away from me.

But before that, I had to walk a loop around the lookout. I wanted to spend more time with my flowers before getting into it with the dog owner.

As the road crested up to a high shoulder and then curved back towards the lookout, I passed through a blanket of subtly colored flowers. Alpine knotweed, green-flowering paintbrush, coiled lousewort. Most of what I could see was a field bursting with greenery.

Green flowers

I paused at a rock outcrop to enjoy the view and to look for wildflowers that preferred that exposed, rocky habitat. Here were lanceleaf stonecrop, bush penstemon and wild buckwheat. Plus long, blue ridges as far as the eye could see.

Eventually I had to approach the lookout. As I did, the dog charged towards me as predicted and I stopped short, pretending to look around and catch my breath. The person working as the lookout stepped outside and asked if I had enough water, to which I responded yes. She invited me closer and that’s when I told her about the dog. She immediately called her dog in, which I appreciated, and we had a nice long chat.

On the way down, I made a lollipop loop by walking along the adjacent ridge top. I wanted to do some painting while also giving the lookout some privacy. So, I found an equally awesome rock outcrop bursting with wildflowers and sat there for an hour.

The ridge naturally drew me back downhill to the road, but not before leading me through gorgeous meadows dotted with white mariposa lily, sage and abundant colorful wildflowers. The sun had really kicked in by this point and I was grateful that it was all downhill from there.

White mariposa lily

Although the return hike took me back the exact same road I hiked up, I saw so many flowers that I didn’t notice in the morning. My eyes had been primed for the native wildflowers of this area, and now they were seemingly everywhere. Their accompanying pollinators, notably butterflies, also dominated the previously hum-drum landscape. It was a joyous romp downhill.

Since the sun was basically overhead, I lost my long stretches of shade and took any opportunity to stop and rest in a shade patch I could. By the time I got back to the van, I was nearly out of water. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon resting in my hammock in a cluster of trees.

Diamond Lake bike trail

July 9, 2023.

11.2 mi. | 550′ ele. gain |2.5 hr.

Photo album

On a warm, sunny summer day, Aaron and I took our bikes out on a lovely paved bike trail around Diamond Lake. While clicking and zooming around my favorite mapping app, I found the Dellenback Trail, which encircles Diamond Lake in the course of about 12 miles. This was perfect for a casual outing. Most of my memories of this area involve fighting crowds; this goes for winter and summer! It’s a popular destination for a number of reasons, and therefore it’s rarely on my shortlist for places to visit.

Since most folks head to Diamond Lake in the summer for pizza, ice cream and water sports, I thought maybe the trail would be a little less crazy. And I was right. We chose to start the loop at the South Shore picnic area and rode clockwise. This was strategic, since that would mean we’d finish our route at the ice cream shop!

We started pedaling as the day was heating up. Soon, we reached a wooden bridge crossing Silent Creek. We hopped off our bike to admire the pretty water and wildflowers. But in that short pause, the mosquitoes found us. Back on the bikes, we rode just fast enough to prevent them from biting.

The trail is generally fairly flat, but it does gain a few hundred feet over the loop. Therefore, we had to ride up and down some hills as we circumnavigated the lake. As we rode, we made sure to take many different kinds of breaks: wildflower, view, breath, and snack, to name a few. The purpose of the ride was to spend Sunday afternoon together, not to break any speed records. So we traveled at the pace of Sunday. At the north side of the lake we pulled out our picnic lunch and relaxed in the shade of a large Ponderosa pine. From there, we watched the numerous folks on watercraft traverse the lake.

The east side of the lake was a little less scenic since much of the trail crossed through one of the biggest campgrounds I’ve ever seen. It was packed with RV’s, trailers and massive tents. Enormous trash cans overflowed with garbage. As in, people walked up to a full garbage can and decided to pile their trash on the ground next to it instead of find another can or bring it home. I could not believe that even those huge containers were not enough for the amount of trash produced by campers. What do people bring camping?! We fill a couple tiny bags each week. It was disturbing.

But I knew we had ice cream ahead, so I put my head down and kept pedaling. We couldn’t have arrived soon enough. We were both feeling pretty hot by the time we rolled up at the ice cream window at South Shore Pizza. Aaron found us a shady picnic table while I ordered us a couple of cones. It was cold, refreshing and delicious. We were among only a handful of people there. After that, it was only another half mile or so to the parking area.

All in all, we saw maybe a dozen people riding all day. The route was well-marked, well-graded and accessible to beginner riders. With plenty of options for starting and ending, as well as services on the south and east sides of the lake, I can recommend this bike ride for just about anyone. You can even rent bikes at the lake if you’re traveling without bikes. Glad we made this stop during our travels.

Pilot Rock and Porcupine Mountain

July 7, 2023.

8.5 mi. | 1965′ ele. gain | 5.5 hr.

View of Pilot Rock

Photo album

Since we were getting ready to head north, I prioritized one more highpoint before we left Southern Oregon: Pilot Rock. Based on my research, it would either be a death-defying scramble or a yawner of an after-work hike. My guess was it was something in the middle, but I took the warnings seriously and hoped it was easier than it looked. I wore my approach shoes with sticky climbing soles and planned to assess the route as I went, ready to turn back if I didn’t like the idea of soloing up the rock.

Pilot Rock

In an effort to beat the heat, I got an early start. It took no time at all to hike the mile of trail to the Pilot Rock junction. From there, I hiked up a series of steep switchbacks to the base of the rock itself. The route was completely in shadow, which helped my body temperature but upped the intimidation factor. It was steep and dark and there was no one else around. I left my poles at the base of the route and started up.

What you can’t see might hurt you.

Decades of rock climbing experience has made me more hesitant to climb without a rope, even on a “scramble” route. Having spent a lot of time in high consequence terrain has made me very conservative in my decision-making, especially when I’m alone. So, I took each section of the climb seriously, choosing the most solid line and anticipating challenges I’d have on the way down (turns out, you’ve got to go both ways!). I had to pause after each vertical section to let my heart rate slow down and feel good about making the next decision. There were two short, steep sections that required a chimney move or two to get up, followed by what I’d consider more normal steep scramble parts. The rock quality was generally good, which made me feel secure in my footing and decision-making. However I would never take any of my non-climber friends on this route, nor would I recommend it to them.

Before too long, I stood at the summit. I was in no rush to get back down, so I poked around the summit area looking at wildflowers and trying to identify the mountains off in the haze. I also studied the map for the next section of my planned hike to Porcupine Mountain.


I dreaded the downclimb. I’ve never liked unprotected downclimbing. I would have felt much better with just another person there, to say things like: there’s a good foot two inches to the left or, you’ve got this! But no one had come up since and I felt incredibly alone.

So, I gave myself a pep talk and slowly made my way down. At the top of the first tough spot, I miraculously found an easier slab to climb down right next to it. When I turned around to look at what I’d just accomplished, I realized that I hadn’t gotten to one of the hard parts yet. Dammit! Still two challenging sections to go.

When I actually got to the two spots I struggled with on the way up, I sat down and took a few deep breaths before analyzing the route and making a plan. I had to do some weird sideways chimneying and take some mega big steps, but I made it through unscathed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I reached my poles because I knew I just had hiking ahead of me from there.

Porcupine Mountain

It was already getting hot, and I wasn’t sure if Porcupine Mountain would even be worth the effort. I started walking in that general direction just in case, but in the back of my mind I was willing to turn back and do some painting instead of a bunch more hiking.

As I walked along the PCT, it took me around to the backside of Pilot Rock and then dove into a shady forest. Oh, how I much appreciated the shade. And then the wildflower show turned up to 11: paintbrush, coyote mint, columbine. But what’s that? A phantom orchid? I took a bunch of photos of the first solitary plant I found, then proceeded to hike among hundreds of these beautiful and unique flowers. Just like me, they love a shady forest. Suddenly I felt like I was surrounded by friends.

Phantom orchid.

In order to get up to Porcupine Mountain, I bushwhacked off trail to find an overgrown old road leading to the peak’s south ridge. There I picked up another road/trail that rambled over a few bumps to the summit. Along the way, I hiked through a desert landscape decorated with hardy buckwheat plants, owl’s clover and mountain mahogany (one of my favorites). The actual summit here was unclear, so as usual I walked around until I felt like I hit all the possible highpoints before picking a shade tree to relax under for lunch. I had good cell service there, so I shot out a bunch of messages to friends and stretched out my shade break as long as I could.

Plein air painting

If an opportunity exists to create a loop, I’ll take it. While on my break, I noticed a trail on the map leading east from my road junction that connected to the PCT. It would add nearly a mile to my hike but it was on trail and it was over gentle terrain, so I went that way. On my hike back I crossed paths with 5 or 6 people hiking the PCT. They were all headed north, all walking singly, all wearing roughly the same uniform. Sun shirt, sun hat or ball cap, light hiking pants, sunglasses, beard. Some had poles, some didn’t. One guy had a Hawaiian shirt instead of a sun shirt. None of them stopped for the flowers.

Thru-hiking has never appealed to me. To each their own. On my hike back, I stopped at a killer viewpoint of Pilot Rock, where I picked a small patch of shade to sit and take out my painting supplies. My new little watercolor pad, it turns out, has poor quality paper in it, but I did my best to capture the scene. If anything, the mere act of stopping to paint is valuable in and of itself. The actual finished painting, to me, is the least important part. The process of painting in plein air requires attentiveness and curiosity. As I’ve said in many previous posts, just being still is enough to see more, feel more, hear more and notice more. Painting is sometimes just an excuse to take an extended break. Walking constantly has its benefits as well, but I’m finding that striking a balance between motion and stillness is providing me with an experience that just one or the other cannot provide.


The rest of the hike breezed by. Later that afternoon, we headed into Ashland for First Friday art walk, dinner and a stay/soak at Jackson Wellsprings. That’s a story for another time.

Mt. Ashland to Wagner Butte

July 5, 2023.

15.2 mi | 4012′ ele. gain | 8 hr.

Pointing to Mt. Ashland

Photo album

I wanted to do a big hike along the Siskiyou Crest while we were in the area. It appeared that I could hike from the Mt. Ashland parking lot up the east side of Mt. Ashland, down the west side, follow NF-20 to the Split Rock trail all the way to Wagner Butte and back. I didn’t calculate the miles because I knew it would be longer than I wanted it to be, but that I’d go anyway. So, on this warm July morning I gave it a go.

Mt. Ashland

The trail up Mt. Ashland gets right to the point. It is short and steep and breathtaking (in the literal and figurative sense). I took many breaks to look for wildflowers and observe the absurdity of being on a ski hill off season. All the lifts and machinery and such. At the top, I found a building in the shape of a giant soccer ball and a bunch of other structures. I found the summit marker, took a short break and then began down the road on the other side.

While I saw a ton of wildflowers on the hike up, I didn’t find much that was new or unusual. After reading so much online on the special flora that exists on Mt. Ashland, I was a little disappointed. But I would make a complete change of attitude on my road walk off the mountain. Almost immediately, I noticed something only familiar from the images I studied online the night before: Henderson’s horkelia! I audibly squealed, then dropped into my wildflower squat and took a bunch of photos. I touched its fuzzy leaves and searched for a “good” looking flower. They all seemed a little roughed up or withered. I wasn’t sure if that was just their look or if they were going out of season.

The rest of the road down was a cornucopia of flowers, shrubs, rocks and birds. Something to look at around every corner. While I generally try and avoid road walks, this one was rather pleasant.

Split Rock Trail

From the base of the Mt. Ashland service road, I needed to make my way to the Split Rock Trail. This required a bit more road walking, although I short-cutted one big switchback by tromping straight up a hill in the forest. Near the trailhead, I encountered my first snow patch of the day and made a mental note for later. It wasn’t hot yet, but I knew it was coming.

I loved hiking the Split Rock Trail. It traversed on or adjacent to a beautiful ridgeline, with the occasional steep up or down segment. I walked through meadows, rocky outcrops, shady forests and sagebrush desert. As the environment changed, so did the flora. Wildflowers were profuse and diverse along the trail. And the butterflies! So many butterflies flitted and swirled around me, hardly stopping for a second before heading to their next destination.

View from Split Rock trail

Along the way, I took short detours to the summits of McDonald Peak and Split Rock. The last item on my agenda was Wagner Butte. On my map, a trail went to “Wagner Butte Lookout” but not the butte itself. I decided I’d hit both of those. At the time I had no idea that the lookout was anything more than a nice viewpoint. But I figured if a trail went there, then it must be worth checking out.

Wagner Butte and Lookout

Weighing my options, I decided to cruise the trail to the lookout first, then walk the ridge back to the true summit and then return to the trail. By this point, it had gotten very hot and I appreciated every moment I got to spend in the shade.

Near the end of the trail, I found myself scrambling up huge granite boulders towards what appeared to be a handrail. At the top, it all made sense. It’s an old lookout site! A very faded sign shared the site’s history, and what a fabulous viewpoint it was. An old ammo canister contained a sign-in book, and it was filled with names from people visiting just this year. I’m glad I didn’t go on a weekend! I was the only one on top at that moment. With not a shade tree in sight, the direct sun completely zapped my energy. I sat down for a few minutes, but quickly got back up. I still had to bushwhack to the summit and hike many miles back to the van. At this point, I was 10 miles into my dayhike.

Lots of stonecrop. Stonecrop loves sunny outcrops.

On the map, it looked straightforward. How many times have I made that mistake…

I walked back down the trail to a point where I could easily gain a saddle on the north ridge of Wagner Butte. Then, I pushed through forest debris. First it was chinkapin, then snowbrush, then manzanita. The trifecta. Plus, there were tons of downed trees, piles of huge boulders and tangles of thick vegetation. When I finally made it to the summit area, there were three major pinnacles, of which any one could be the true summit. In order to make sure I got the right one, I made my way to the top of each one, then retreated to the pile that offered the best lunch rest stop. I was really hungry and very hot by this time.

I sat down and ate my lunch in a state of delirium. Out of nowhere, a bright green caterpillar appeared on my leg. Or was it a delusion? Nope, I’ve got video to prove it.

The return

Re-fueled and ready to get out of the sun, I began thrashing through shrubs again to get back to the trail. At least it’s easier to push through manzanita on the way down than it is on the way up.

Back on trail, I moved at a comfortable pace and made sure to pause at every shade stop after a sunny stretch. My body felt so hot. I sipped on my water regularly and calculated how long it would take me to get back to the snow patch. Back on Wagner Lookout, I’d messaged Aaron a pickup location that would save me a few miles of hot, exposed road walk to get back to the van. So, I also had that to look forward to.

All my shade stops turned into flower and bug-watching stops, too. I sat in one meadow, mesmerized by the bees buzzing around a particularly stunning monument plant. It was better than any Netflix documentary I’d ever seen. A good reminder that stopping can be good for a number of reasons, but one is certainly that I see so much more cool stuff when I sit in place for a while.

Monument plant and bee

The highlight of the hike back was reaching the snow patch. I threw off my pack, turned around and laid down flat on the snow. How refreshing! I stuffed my pants pockets full of snow, put a snowball under my hat and filled my water bladder with snow: I had plans for that later. With fresh energy, I finished my hike back to the van.

Cool down

Aaron had the AC running in the van, which felt so luxurious. I stripped off my sweaty clothes, filled a mug with snow and poured cold tea over the top. Iced tea in the AC! It was a fabulous way to finish off a hot summer hike.

Compared to the dozens of people I’d seen on the PCT section we hiked the day before, this place was completely deserted. I saw one person near the Wagner Butte Lookout and one person near the Split Rock trailhead as I was finishing up. For the rest of the day I got to hike in quiet solitude. Those big-name trails attract people like bugs to a nightlight, but the less well-known trails are no less worthy of a visit. If you like to hike alone, skip the things you’ve heard of and venture onto a neighboring trail. You’ll get all the wildflowers and views and natural beauty without the crowds and noise.

How to plan a wildflower hike

The famed balsamroot bloom on Dog Mountain

Got wildflowers? I’ve spent the bulk of the last three months chasing wildflower blooms across Oregon, and I’d like to share some things I’ve learned about how to plan a wildflower hike.

Timing is everything

Flowers are in bloom for a specific time period each year. Some kind of wildflower is generally blooming somewhere between early spring and early fall. But if you’re looking to see a specific type of wildflower then you’ve really got to get the timing right. So, if I want to see the lupine blooming on the rim of Crater Lake, I’ve got to go in the middle of summer. Or if I want to catch the western pasqueflower before it goes to seed, I’ve got to hit some mountain slopes just as the snow is melting.

Frosty western paqueflower

For most people, just seeing any splashes of color along the trail is just fine. And the good news is, there’s no “best time” to see a wildflower bloom if you’re not particular about what you see. There are always the early bloomers, mid-season bloomers and late bloomers. Some wildflowers are only open for a few days and others will go on and on. Consider the climate where you’re looking to visit and that will give you a good sense of when to see the best flowers. For example, spring is best in the desert since it gets very hot and dry during the summer. But summer is ideal in the mountains because the ground will still be snow-covered in spring. Or, search on the internet or on social media to see where people are going and what they’re seeing on the trail.

Here’s a tip for social media research: join a local wildflower group or follow the land management agency for the area you intend to visit. There, you’ll see what’s blooming and where and you might learn about upcoming guided flower walks or nature presentations to fuel your wildflower stoke.

Diversify your habitats

If you’re looking to see a wide variety of flowers, choose a trail or route that travels through different types of habitats. So for example, if your trail follows a stream, crosses a meadow, climbs up along some exposed rocks then travels to the base of a mountain, you’re going to see different things blooming in each of those specific areas.

Notice that some plants prefer full shade, some like dappled sun filtered through the trees, others grow in the blasting sun. Notice that east facing slopes often display different plants than west facing slopes. The more you hike, the more you’ll recognize the factors that determine which flowers grow where. You’ll learn about what to expect when you head outside and you’ll be more likely to find it when you know what you’re looking for.

Roadside corn lily bloom

Elevation matters

Similarly, if your trail includes a significant amount of elevation gain, you’ll see a greater variety of wildflowers. When I’m huffing and puffing up a trail that climbs up a mountain, I think of it as traveling back in time. Since snow melt begins at lower elevations and gradually makes it up the mountain, you’ll see later season blooms at the base of the trail and earlier season blooms closer to the recent snow melt! That’s how you can continue to see early bloomers like trillium well into July; you just need to go up high to find them.

Trillium in July at 6500′

Stop and smell the roses (duh)

When you’re out on a wildflower hike, give yourself enough time to stop and see what you are after! This should go without saying, but if you really want to see a lot of flowers, you’re going to need to spend some time moving slowly, investigating spots that look interesting, crouching down to find the little guys and taking lots of pictures.

Notice how when you stop to have a snack or take a bathroom break that you suddenly begin to see more flowers. Take a seat every now and again, and look around. Things will appear to you that you would have overlooked while in motion.

You might even build time in to flip through a guidebook or scroll through a plant identification app to learn about what you’re seeing in the field. There are many quality and free apps available to download to your phone so you don’t have to carry a book on your hike. My favorite for Oregon is simply called Oregon Wildflower Search and I’ve found similar apps for several states. Just search for “state name” + “wildflower search” in the app store. Steer clear of the ones where you take a picture and ask the app to ID it; they are notoriously inaccurate…at least for now!

Leave no trace

Finally, remember to leave no trace. That means staying on trail in popular areas instead of trampling wildflower meadows to get a sweet pic. Look at, but don’t pick, flowers. Instead, take photos, sketch or paint them! Plan ahead and prepare for the conditions the day of your hike by carrying appropriate gear, wearing appropriate clothing and researching your route. For more information on Leave No Trace, check out the series I wrote on my Hike366 blog.

Questions? Leave a comment below. Happy trails!

Life on the road: update 1

July 19, 2023.

Soon after we hit the road, people asked, “How does it feel?” And my reply was, “ask me in 3 weeks.” At that point, I thought, we would have been gone for longer than our longest vacation, so it would feel like a real shift had happened. Well today, it’s day 83, and I still feel like we’re on an extended vacation.

It’s past time that I sit down and record some thoughts about how things are going. What’s on our minds, what’s working, what’s not working, etc. I know that folks living in homes that stay in one place are very curious about how mobile living works. While I have no intention of starting a YouTube channel to capture every moment of our travels, I do think it’s fun to occasionally check in with a snapshot of road life. This will likely be the first in a (very irregular) series.

New routines

The ebb and flow of life is much different than it was just a few short months ago. On weekdays, we ideally need to wake up in a place from which Aaron can work. Then, he goes through his morning ritual while I hang out and catch up on email and reading. Once he’s settled into his office, I can make breakfast, clean up and then either head out on an adventure or work on a project in camp.

If I’m back in time for lunch, we’ll eat together but if not, we take care of meals on our own. I’m in charge of dinner, which I can cook either on the induction stove inside the van or on the propane camp stove outside. Depending on our battery power, the weather, what I’m making and a few other factors, I’ll choose an option and get to cooking. We eat pretty well out here. There’s always a protein and veggies, usually accompanied by a prepared side like mac and cheese or ramen, plus various accompaniments like sauces, crunchy things, etc. I make creative use of leftovers so that no scrap of food gets wasted. And when we’re feeling really fancy, Aaron will whip up some cream with our immersion blender to have with fruit.

In order to make all this work, I spend many hours each week meticulously scouring maps and Google satellite images to find places to land each night. We often move every day or every other day, and since we need very specific requirements to be met for Aaron to have internet, this takes a lot of planning. On the flip side, we get to see a lot of cool places and we haven’t even left Oregon yet!

At the end of the day, we wrap up by reading a single page in The Vagabond’s Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery and the Art of Travel by Rolf Potts. Well, most days we remember to. Each page-long chapter offers a quote and some commentary that gets us thinking about some aspect of travel. It normalizes the adventure that we’ve chosen to embark on and lets us feel like we’re surrounded by kindred spirits. I think a lot about “normal,” what is normal and who gets to define normal. Living in a van and moving home each night has quickly become normal.

Things we love

Before driving away from our home in Bend, we had to make a lot of decisions about the few precious items to put in our van. We had to make a lot of guesses based on what we anticipated our lives would become. These are a few of our favorite things.

  • Collapsible silicone tea kettle: I use this thing every damn day. We were sitting at the kitchen table one night with a friend, brainstorming a solution to find an easy way to boil water for coffee every morning. I don’t remember how this idea came up. None of us knew this product existed. But now I can’t live without it. It’s the perfect size for 2 cups of coffee/tea and the water boils in under 2 minutes. It uses hardly any energy and doesn’t take up much space.
  • BluTech “No Dirty Water” pump, filter and hose system: This slick setup allows us to toss a hose into any water source, pump it into the van through a filter and fill up our water tank with potable water. That could be from a lake, stream or campground/gas station spigot. We haven’t had to buy water once on this trip.
  • Hammocks: Having a place to relax outside the van is key. Now that the summer is really heating up, it can feel stuffy in the van. Slinging up a hammock takes just a few minutes and it provides a nice place to read, take a nap, do research, chill out or drink coffee.
  • Built in fridge: The bane of my camping existence was digging through wet packaging in a cooler filled with melted ice to find what I need to make dinner. The solution is having a fridge. I’ll admit, I thought the fridge was poorly designed when we first got the van. But now that I’ve actually used it, I absolutely LOVE the design. It can fit so many things in an efficient manner. I only wish it was a tad larger, since fresh vegetables are so bulky. As a result, I’ve learned to embrace canned, frozen and dried vegetables, frequent grocery runs and dense produce. I’m loving the combination of Grocery Outlet and local farmer’s markets for the best prices and variety of foods.
  • Bug nets: The bug nets roll down quickly and easily so we can keep the slider door open for fresh air. They also pack up easily when we’re ready to move on. These will prove to be invaluable when we go to Alaska.
  • Bikes: Y’all, this is the most I’ve ridden a bike since my bike commute days in Portland. And sometimes I’m actually riding it for fun. Having a bike that’s capable on pavement, gravel roads and beginner/intermediate mountain bike trails has opened up so many possibilities for getting around.

I could go on and on, but these are the highlights.

Things we don’t love

Lest you think each day is filled with rainbows and ice cream, let’s talk about the not so great parts.

  • Endless planning: If you know anything about me, you know I love planning. But this is really stretching my skills and abilities. The number of things I need to balance in order to find a sufficient spot, and to connect a string of spots with reasonable drive times between them is pretty intense. Not to mention, I’ve been doing it for 83 days straight and we’ve just barely gotten started. I have 4 mapping apps on my phone, each with various bits of information. Pair that with internet searches and phone calls to rangers and that adds up to a lot of labor. I understand why people end up making campground reservations at the same places every year, 6 months in advance: it takes no mental effort.
  • Gas bills: We knew this was coming, but it’s still a bit of sticker shock at the pump. Not to mention we have a 47 gallon tanks, so some of those fill ups are pricey. But we consider this expense to be our “mortgage,” since we’re rolling around in our house.
  • Constantly being connected: It’s a blessing and a curse. Aaron needs to be connected for work, so the internet is always available. On our previous camping trips, we were happy to spend time in areas of the backcountry where cellular data doesn’t reach. Now, we have to make a conscious effort to balance our offline and online time.
  • Mice: We were not ready for this. Within 2 weeks of traveling, a mouse took up residence in the van. We’ve battled mice on and off for most of the trip. Aaron has taken on this battle with research, equipment and strategy. Mice are formidable enemies. They’ve eaten our food, nibbled on non-food items just to piss us off (I presume) and once we eliminated them from the cabin, they made nests in the engine with our insulation material. Aaron now has a mouse prevention protocol that he engages with on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time before the rodents outsmart us again, so it’s just one more thing we have to remain vigilant about.

I had to think harder about this list, and this is all I could come up with. Call me when I’m having a bad day and maybe I’ll have something else to gripe about.

Oh one more thing: what we miss the most is…


Unexpected shifts

I had grand ideas about our travel route and destinations before we hit the road. With my precious wildflower project in mind, I saw us spending most of our time in southwest Oregon poking around the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Siskiyou Mountains and Southern Coast Range. While we have spent some time there, the bulk of our journey has led us into northeastern Oregon, clear across the state! We’ve also had to make multiple trips back to Bend for various reasons. Because of all these changes in itinerary, I’ve learned to do detailed planning for only one week at a time. If I try to do any more than that, things are likely to change and all that planning time is wasted.

I also saw myself doing a lot of art in the van. However, on days that I spend most of my time out in the sun, I’m usually too wiped to pull out all my art supplies when I get back. Another barrier is not having space to spread out and work for a while. Besides, I’m prioritizing summer for wildflower research in the field. I’m collecting a ton of photos that I can convert into art this fall. I recently discovered that when I do have access to a picnic table where I can sit down and hammer out some work, that I can complete several paintings in a day. Thus, I’ve begun work on my $20 Art Show entries. Get the date on your calendar.

We haven’t missed one book club meeting since we left! Our group has graciously allowed us to Zoom in from wherever we are, and we have read all the books too. This has served as an essential community connection for us. I hope that we can keep this streak going, and if our in-town dates ever coincide with book club meetings, it would be really fun to drop in.

Looking forward

We have both adjusted really well to our new flow of life. Right from the start, we had to solve problems, negotiate unexpected obstacles and learn to live with each other in a very small space. Our experience camping, camping with each other, spending lots of time outdoors in every type of weather has all come in handy. The stuff I think most other people find to be the most difficult adjustments have come easily for us. We’ve basically been training for this our entire lives.

Next up: more time in northeast Oregon, more time painting, more farmer’s markets. I need to work on getting a few more people to take a trip out to visit us (we have our next visitors coming in under two weeks!). I’d also like to plan a backpacking trip or two, leaving Aaron at one trailhead and having him pick me up at another one. I need to continue searching for volunteer trail projects and local events that we can take part in to support groups we care about. The next volunteer gig I have is in September, so it would be nice to find something before that.