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.

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