Category Archives: Oregon High Desert Tour

Two days at Smith Rock

July 2, 2008.

I woke up, sweating already, anticipating a very mellow day of watching other people climb. Of course, getting out to the climbing areas requires a little bit of hiking and that would be my excitement for the day. We stayed at the Skull Hollow campground, a basic, free camp area not 15 minutes away from Smith Rock State Park.

Marc and Brad arranged breakfast over a couple of camp stoves as the long, slow morning ritual began. I dutifully worked through my physical therapy and chowed down on oatmeal. I packed up my bird guide, binoculars and other trinkets to keep myself occupied for the large part of the day. Barely able to walk a mile, climbing will definitely outside my repertoire for quite some time. My flaccid, shriveled left quad muscles are hurting compared to the plump right quads. Although I progress a little bit every day, it never feels like enough.

Late in the morning we arrived at Smith Rock. I got a slight head start down the trail and Brad pointed out where they planned on climbing. “Okay, meet you there…” I mumbled as they bounded down the trail. Hiking poles definitely help, especially on the downhill sections (which are much more difficult than the uphill). I cursed my knees as I took my sweet time negotiating the rocky, uneven path down to the river. I continued along to the Red Wall, where the two brothers were getting ready to climb.

Trad climbing is an interesting endeavor. There is a great deal of knowledge, gear, technique and time involved in each and every climb. I watched as they picked through a large pile of shiny metal objects, each with its own specific job. I learn through watching and asking questions, and when I can, by climbing after someone who’s placed trad pro. My own level of climbing is far behind these two, who have been climbing advanced routes for several years. My own climbing experience is just about a year of hacking it and picking up bits and pieces of know-how as I go. So I sat there and watched the gearing up process unfold.

Shade was, again, very hard to come by. My stomach had been achy for the past few days and the searing heat did nothing to ease my pains. I sat, complaining, in half-shadows for a few hours while they played on the rocks. As designated photographer, I took some photos as they ascended the first pitch. After they disappeared from sight, I retreated into a cave, listened to the birds squealing, and tried to will my nausea away.

Later, when they returned triumphantly from their first climb, we took a food break and moved along to another nearby climbing area. By now my stomachache had subsided and the sun relented enough to put me in better spirits. We were completely shaded, and life was good. A stiff wind even blew through this area, cooling me down even further. I sat and did some of my exercises while they went at it again.

Eventually we all got hungry enough to call it a day. We walked back to the truck, drove in to Terrebonne and had a slammin’ dinner at the only restaurant in town. Exhausted from the sun, we went back to camp and relaxed until bedtime. There was a brief thunderstorm that night, and by morning it was as dry and dusty as the morning before.

July 3, 2008.

Today was planned to be a climberrific day as well, but as it turned out, sometimes plans just don’t work out. After another lazy morning, we finally got to Smith Rock and hiked out to the Dihedrals. This was a longer trek than the day before, so I got a real head start this time. After the gear rearranging and route choosing, Marc started up a hot rock face. Just a few bolts up, he decided he just couldn’t do it and let Brad give it a try. He couldn’t manage either. And, as quickly as the day began it ended. Truly baking in the sun today, we decided to head down to the river for a dip before going home. We located the easiest spot for my lame knees to carry me to the water and got in. The cool, slowly flowing water was just what I needed to energize my tired skin. We sat for thirty minutes or so, taking it easy, watching the birds and various critters in the water.

Thus ended my journey across the Cascades to the other side of Oregon. It was a great trip, with many highs and lows. My slow re-introduction to the wild world outside of the living room was good for my psyche as well as for my knee. I feel more and more like my former self each day, although I know there is still a long way to go.

Goodbye Steens

July 1, 2008.

Anticipating a LONG 8-9 hour drive home, we hit the road early, without much fanfare, so we could git ‘er done. Maddy joined us today, as the rest of the crew was going to play for one more day. We all got in a “day in the car” mindset and glumly waved this place goodbye. The scenery along the way was spectacular so I really couldn’t complain.

We stopped in Burns for gas and fresh food for the road. I picked up some magazines and got myself a tasty sandwich. The old man preparing my sandwich noticed the blueberries I was holding to buy and mentioned an article he read about blueberries being “brain food.” Soon we were engaged in a conversation about life and intelligence. He said he was educated at Yale (explained the accent) and worked for the U.N., among other things. He came to the conclusion that he’d rather be stupid and happy than intelligence and involved in all the complexities he got himself into. He left me with, “have a happy life…” I appreciated that pearl of wisdom. You never know what experiences people have had and what they learned. There is so much depth to individual humans that we often take for granted. I am realizing that it is impossibly hard not to judge others. I am humbled by what people have to offer me. I just need to learn to be more open. Thanks, Safeway guy. You made my day.

The blueberry purchase was the best decision I’d made today. Their juicy deliciousness was just the right complement to my turkey-avocado sandwich. I was fat and happy, driving through the nothing, leafing through a yoga magazine and taking the occasional picture.

Eventually we began to see more and more cars driving in the opposite direction and it hit me that we were driving home. Argh. Once we got close enough to Bend to have cell signal, I called Brad to give him my ETA. “Want to stay out there for a couple more days?” he asked. Um, duh. Where do you want to meet me? So we made plans to meet up near Sisters.

Driving through Bend was sad. The return to civilization is always sad. Soon enough we were out of the urban mayhem and back in the boonies. Kristi dropped me off at the Indian Ford campground just west of Sisters. I unloaded my gear onto a picnic table at a site near the creek. As soon as the car took off, I waddled down to the river with Dr. Bronner’s soap and washed up as best I could. Then, back at the site, I tried to lay down for a nap.

My attention was distracted by a pair of chipmunks who would not stop harassing my stuff. I thought I’d put all my food into a bag right near my head, but it turns out random food items were still scattered through my things. After trying to scare off the rodents with sticks and yelling, I finally got up, gathered every last bit of food up and put it all in one bag. I hung the bag from a tree and finally got some shut-eye.

A few hours later Brad arrived to whisk me away to my next destination…

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.

Driving south to the Alvord Desert

June 29, 2008.

This morning I woke up with the intention of getting the hell out of Dodge. I knew I was alone in this endeavor so I found ways to occupy myself at this awful campground for the duration of the morning. It was hard to escape the feeling of people all around you when it was difficult to walk more than a few hundred yards at a time. I did my best by slipping down to the lake and sitting on a log near the water’s buggy edge. Here I listened to the birds and watched dragonflies dance above the grass. After it got too hot to stay here, I regrouped, found a book to read, and headed off in search of shade. Shade is at a premium out here unless you want to park in the middle of someone’s campsite so I settled for the best I could quickly find. I knew today would be filled with driving so I enjoyed the moments of solace I could manage before the group adventure started up again.

We had a variety of stops on the agenda today with the ultimate goal of getting down to the Alvord Desert where we’d spend the night.

First stop: Pencil Shales. Along highway 395, somewhere between John Day and Seneca, we pulled off the side of the road to check out some rocks. The pencil shales were appropriately named, as the flaky rock looks exactly like what it sounds like. The geology brains exploded with excitement as they raced around to see who could find the biggest piece. I walked back to the car to devour some very melted Dibs ice cream pellets.

Second stop: Burns. As the morning lazily faded to afternoon and the heat became unbearable, we rolled in to a city park for lunch. Here, a grassy field offered some covered picnic areas and some shady trees. I chose the shade tree (because it was closer to the car) and everyone else crowded underneath the picnic table covers. I happily devoured my rehydrated tuna salad that I made earlier in the year, anticipating many a summer backpacking trip. Now it just offered another easy to pack option that required no refrigeration. I interspersed 5 minute naps with random snacks and twirling blades of grass between my fingers. Every now and then I shot a glance over at the group, which showed no interest in leaving. I never was very good at doing the whole big group thing, so I dealt with it by sitting alone and just enjoying the time spent away from my couch and the indoors. This experience is far better, I kept telling myself…

Third stop: Malheur Cave. I must admit that the trip planner sure did her homework. This Cave is off the beaten path, for sure, since it lies on private land and directions to its exact location are difficult to come by. We found our way there and piled out of the cars back into the heat. Warned that the caves would be quite cool, we layered up, grabbed headlamps and wandered into the cave.

The entrance of the cave is a gaping hole leading into an atrium about 20 feet tall and twice as wide. The temperature drop was noticeable immediately; it was rather comfortable in here.The outside light filtered into the cave for the first 50 feet or so, then headlamps were required to illuminate the way.

I inched forward carefully. The first few parts of the cave were easy to walk upon due to the soft, sandy bottom. Next, I entered a large room with wooden bleachers built on either side of the cave. These were put here by the Masons, who hold secretive meetings in here. This planet is inhabited by plenty of bizarre cave creatures, that’s for sure. None were visible here, as it appeared nothing had made its home here. I did stumble across a solitary white mushroom in the cave floor. No bats or chupacabras or anything. The walls of the cave glistened with silvery metallic specks. These turned out to be nothing more exotic than droplets of water, clinging to the cave walls and ceiling until they get too big and fall to the ground.

As I walked deeper into the cave, the ground surface turned from smooth to bumpy, with slick rocky projections making my knee feel a bit more wobbly. The group in front of me quickly disappeared into the shadows, with the occasional “watch out here!” or “it’s getting more slippery…” yelled back at me. Eventually the terrain became too rough and slick for me so I turned back. According to Greg, who had been here before, the cave is roughly 0.5 mile long. It is a lava tube, formed by flowing lava way back in the day. THe only lava tube I’d been in was in Hawaii. It’s interesting having one right in my own (large) backyard. On my way back to the cave entrance I picked up the last group of explorers who wandered back with me. One of them excitedly discovered a rattlesnake just outside the cave. I caught a glimpse of its tail and nothing more. Although I’d seen dozens of rattlers in zoos I had never seen one in the wild. Cool.

Last stop: Alvord Desert. Our travels took us back to the main road and towards the Steens. The surrounding landscape became more exciting as the Steens mountain dominated the view outside the passenger side of the car. We made a quick stop at Mann Lake, which did not provide a nice swimming spot as we’d hoped, so we just moved on. Besides, it was getting pretty late and we hadn’t cooked dinner yet.

Hoping to camp on the playa, we drove right on down to the ancient lakebed and hopped out of the car. Being too windy to cook, the others went back to an open gravel camp spot we’d claim for the night. Greg and I hung around to explore this alien place. We drove straight out about 5 minutes away from “shore” and stepped out of the car again. Here it was super windy. Minute grains of clay whipped into my bare legs and arms. We both walked off in different directions, feeling the soft clay on the ground and tracing the cracks in the earth with our eyes. With hunger making my stomach grumble we sat back in the car and went back to meet the group at the camp.

Most folks walked down to the hot springs to feel heat in two phases: liquid and gaseous. Since that didn’t appeal to me I stayed back in the windstorm otherwise known as home for the night. In the distance lightning sliced through the sky. Thin clouds dimmed the fading sunlight. At dinnertime we used the cars as wind blocks since volumes of air were trying to push us to the ground. It sure felt like a storm was brewing.

I set up my tent in the sagebrush since the gravel turnout was too rocky and hard for tent stakes. I slept in the darkest of dark nights. I couldn’t see my hand waving two inches in front of my face. I fell asleep to the flapping sound of wind agitating the tent fly. I dreamt of rattlesnakes.

John Day: Sheep Rock

June 28, 2008.

Everyone awoke bright and early, ate breakfast and packed up the cars. I did as much of my rehab as I could while people got their stuff together. I was unable to get a full set in, due to the logistics of being outside. But I figure something is better than nothing. I brought my weights and resistance band, and I have my brace to lock down my knee while I’m sleeping. I hope this week doesn’t set me back too much.

After stopping for gas in Dayville, we drove through Picture Gorge to the Sheep Rock unit of John Day. We arrived just in time for a ranger tour. The group was thrilled because they got to learn all about the geology of the area and ask all sorts of questions. I was thrilled because that meant a really slow hike! I met another slowpoke in the back of the group, an old man who preached the wonders of total knee replacement, which he’d had a few years ago. He also mentioned he was beginning to suffer the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. I felt bad for the guy. And he still whooped my ass walking down the trail.

Ambling along at a snail’s pace, I observed the various plants and crows and colors and whatnot. I was mostly focused on walking steadily without a limp, and not dying of heatstroke. Normally this hike would have taken me about 20 minutes, including the gawking stops. Today, I didn’t bother looking at the time. I’d say at least an hour went by. I was never truly aware of how vitally important my knees are to my quality of life. I appreciate them now with a much deeper respect.

There were occasional places that I caught up to the group, under a shade tree, listening to the ranger speak. Everyone seemed to be having a great time. I was happy to reach the end of the trail. This was a huge accomplishment for me–the longest distance I’d walked in weeks. On the way back I noticed how different the scenery appeared from the walk in. The pastels of the dusty canyon contrasted with the deep browns and reds of the area outside. I took my time crossing each bridge and stepping over every rock. Members of the group slowly trickled past me as they headed towards the cars, and shade.

Eventually I joined them. We decided to eat lunch outside the nearby Cant Ranch house. The grounds are lush and green, with giant shade trees offering respite from the broiling heat. After a lazy lunch, we made a stop at the Condon Museum. Hot, tired, and dragging, I made my way through the various geological and paleontological exhibits at the museum. It was well put together, minus the lack of benches to sit on, and on a different day I might have actually enjoyed myself here. I longed for the couch, cold ice packs, and a nap. Maybe this trip wasn’t a great idea. I summoned up as much patience as I could. The rest of the group was in nerd heaven. We must have spent 1.5-2 hours in there. This wasn’t a big museum.

By now I was really worn down, mentally and physically. Greg had been dying to check out a swimming hole recommended by the park ranger that led the tour this morning. He convinced Kristi to divert from the group and drive out there. (He really didn’t have to twist her arm). The river ran just beyond a small thicket of marshgrass bordering a smal dirt pullout. I used my trekking poles to help me walk down to the riverbank. While Greg stripped to his speedos, Kristi and I walked in, clothes and all, to the cool, soothing water of the John Day River. WOW! My senses reawakened, my spirit lifted, and my body rejuvenated all in the act of entering the river. Simple pleasures often make the most memorable highlights of my day. We walked over to a sandy spot covered in tiny, frightened crayfish.

On the road again. We drove into the rockin’ town of John Day, where we did some grocery shopping and stopped at a diner for some greasy burgers. The next stop was Magone Lake, where we would camp for the night. By the time we got there it was the early evening, and since we’d already stopped for a swim the novelty of getting into the water was somewhat lost for me. Besides, the walk to the lake (although short for a normal person) was a real stretch for me. I took the stroll with Katelyn, who ironically was recovering from the same surgery in the same exact time frame.

This water was painfully frigid, and the screams of others in the water made it even less pleasant. By the time I got there most of the wading area was in the shade. There were droves of people here, most with RV’s. It was not my idea of a quiet vacation in the woods anymore.

I walked back to the campsite ever so slowly, had a nice dinner, and retreated to my tent for some peaceful reflection. I wrote in my journal and fell fast asleep. The croaking frogs didn’t even keep me up.

John Day: Painted Hills

June 27, 2008.

Today began an epic adventure, the first I’ve had in a long time. First, I’ll rewind the story a bit to provide some background, then dive into the events of the day. In March of this year I ruptured my left ACL while skiing with my friend Kristi at Mt. Hood. Of course, I wasn’t doing anything foolish, it was simply an accident. Since then I had worked hard to rehabilitate the muscles surrounding my knee, and had to take a break from the skiing, climbing, and hiking that I loved so much. It was a harsh winter and spring, battling a leg that didn’t want to work anymore, and staying home reading when everyone else was exploring this beautiful state. Pure agony.

Then about three weeks ago I had surgery to replace the nonfunctional ACL with a piece of my patellar tendon. This required lots of post-surgical rest and care, including home physical therapy on the hour, icing and elevation, and several visits to the chiropractor and physical therapist. I beefed up my Netflix account so I had something to do in all that down time and gazed longingly out the window at the blue sky and flowers that ached for me to join them. Slowly I regained the ability to walk without crutches and built up my strength to spend more time up and about.

Flash forward to a few days ago when who else but Kristi invited me to disappear into the desert for 5 days with her and 14 of her school buddies. I gladly signed up for this trip. I knew I would have to take it easy but from the description of the trip that is what it would be all about anyways–lots of driving, taking short hikes, seeing the sights, and camping every night. It was a perfect fit for my state of being.

So early this afternoon, Kristi and I picked up her friend Greg and away we went. We drove from Portland to Prineville and then to the Painted Hills unit of John Day National Monument. By the time we arrived it was getting late. The sun was fairly low in the sky, but the colors of the hills shone brightly. This place reminded me of somewhere I’d been, maybe the Badlands in South Dakota. The red and yellow colored hills arched gracefully above the flat grasslands surrounding them.

The crackly surface of the ancient hills was uninterrupted by vegetation or footprints. The visitors to this park are particularly good at heeding signs that prohibit walking on the hills. Even the wild animals seem to take the warnings to heart. A serpentine boardwalk allows you to wander through the hills without disturbing them. I plodded slowly along this nice, smooth surface while admiring the landscape. Looping around the backside of the trail I spied a large reservoir way off in the distance. On this hot, dry day the water looked very inviting. This particular feeling would be nearly continuous over the next seven days.

The driving-to-sightseeing ratio today was, well, I don’t want to talk about it. Tomorrow promised to give more bang for the buck. Tonight we set up camp at Barnhouse Camp in the Ochoco National Forest. At 5100 feet of elevation, it was a cool escape from the intense heat Eastern Oregon has to offer. We slept under a clear sky in a lovely evergreen forest with few neighbors to speak of. Not bad.