November 23-27, 2016.
It’s become something of a tradition, the annual Thanksgiving trip. There are a few important components:
- Get away from humanity. It’s not that I don’t like you guys, it’s more that it’s nice to get away sometimes. Like, really away.
- Adventure. There must be some places to hike and explore nearby.
- Dessert. Pie, ice cream, and maybe some dinner foods and even vegetables. But, clearly dessert is the highlight.
- Desert. Yes, drop the “s” and you get another essential. In winter, being in the desert is akin to being on the moon. It’s cold, desolate, barren, and almost guaranteed to be free of people. It’s the perfect place for me (and Aaron) to experience solitude on this crazy holiday.
Planning for Thanksgiving is almost as fun and anxiety-inducing as undertaking the trip itself. I dug out some hiking books and pulled out the Oregon Gazeteer to scout some locations. Now that we’re in Bend, we’re three hours closer to the dry side, and that opened up a world of possibilities.
As you read the story, check out the photos.
Arriving in Eastern Oregon
The day finally arrived, and we loaded up the car with supplies. Heading out of town on a late Wednesday afternoon, we quickly angled south and east, driving past Fort Rock, Silver Lake and Winter Rim. A quick stop in Paisley for dinner and our bellies were full for the last stretch of the drive. Our travels took us nearly to Nevada, then we turned off into a maze of gravel roads for 20 miles to our camp.
In the pitch black night sky, we swerved and skidded to avoid literal hordes of jackrabbits who were apparently meeting for a star party. There were SO MANY of them. I was relieved when we pulled off the road and didn’t find any pelts flattened on the car tires. We quickly set up camp under brisk 20-degree evening skies and fell asleep.
A four mile tour
I had acquired some rough hiking information for this area from books and websites. Today’s jaunt would be a 4.5-mile loop with about 1500′ of elevation gain. Pretty mellow by the numbers. But we discovered yet again that theory and practice are often very different beasts.
We began walking up a dirt road in the direction of a spring. When we arrived, we found a spot with slightly more vegetation than the surrounding area, suggesting perhaps there was water nearby. A small, fenced in area prevented us from walking straight towards our destination, so we veered left into a jumble of rock pinnacles, canyons and brush.
Making our way through, over, around and down the rocks took a lot more time than the “as-the-crow-flies” distance would suggest. But it was a fun little scramble. We found caves, interesting rock formations and lots of animal sign. The gray clouds above set a moody tone across the vast desert. We had all day to ramble, and so ramble we did.
The mountain we were ascending was more like a rolling plateau with several highpoints. We walked over one of them without even registering it as a destination since we were so focused on the higher point in our sights. Atop that high point, we sent a SPOT check-in to the family back home and continued towards the next peak ahead.
A barbed wire fence blocked our passage to the actual high point, so we sat on a pile of rocks out of the wind and finally ate lunch.
Coming down was an adventure, too. We aimed for a broad gully between the two peaks. The seemingly straightforward slope was a medley of tangled sage and loose rocks. Slowly we plodded downhill. It was nice to finally reach a dirt road and briskly hike out the rest of the way.
Six miles and 4.5 hours later, we made it back to camp. A couple of hours relaxing in the tent killed the remaining daylight. Then it was time for the real festivities to begin.
I’d learned a lot about preparing a massive holiday dinner on a camp stove in the last seven years. This year I streamlined the menu and the prep, and making an incredible meal was a cinch.
On our plates:
- roast turkey
- mashed potatoes
- green beans
- cranberry sauce
- bread and butter
- meat stuffing
And of course, dessert. We had a delicious apple pie from Newport Market. Our campfire provided warmth and ambiance on that long night, and we marveled at how dark the skies above were. We’ve been to some pretty remote places, but it felt especially dark here. No moon, just some stars through the clouds. With no fire or headlamp, and no light pollution on the horizon, it felt like being in a cave. Pure darkness. And pure silence. No air traffic overhead. That particular combination of darkness and quiet was something I’d never felt before.
Another day, another hike
On our second adventure from camp, we walked back up the road we drove in to try and find a “trailhead” for a second mountain hike. This one started at an alleged road that would lead past a watering hole to a gate. We walked right past the road’s location, as confirmed by checking my GPS app, so we walked cross-country in the general direction of the aforementioned road.
Upon finding the watering hole, we kept climbing uphill until a gate came into view. The “road” was so overgrown it was barely even noticeable, so it didn’t help us walk faster or stay on course. The mountain was visible from camp so the route was very simple. The only obstacle was the barbed wire fence in our way.
Aaron figured out how to open the gate, thankfully, as I alone probably would have just climbed over the rock pillar to pass over it.
On the other side, we just walked uphill, avoiding the occasional boulder and the very frequent animal den. The rabbits were very busy digging holes in this hill.
As we neared the summit, the wind started blasting full force. When I stopped to catch my breath I was nearly knocked to the ground, so I just kept moving. On top, we again sent a SPOT signal and had a little snack as we tried to protect ourselves from the battering wind.
My hike directions mentioned that you could do a ridge walk over several other little highpoints, terminating on a pointy bit a couple miles away. Sounded like a plan to me, so we fought through the wind over the broad, rocky ridge, wondering exactly which of the many highpoints we were aiming for.
Along the way we encountered another fence, but found an easy place to cross it. As we ambled down the ridge, the wind began to die down a bit and the walking almost became enjoyable again. The remoteness of the region was so beautiful. With the exception of the fence and one dirt road, there was hardly a sign of human presence here.
Atop our final highpoint of the day we surveyed the area, trying to identify the valleys, peaks, mesas, and other features we could see from there. And, in the back of my mind, I was quietly scheming the next trip.
We set a bearing to our camp and headed in a straight line, cross country, to our destination. We knew there would be two fence lines in our way, and decided we’d just figure out that bit when we got there.
The first fence crossing had a conveniently placed board that allowed us to push the wire down and cross over. Easy. On we walked, crossing a field filled with golden grass. Aaron spotted a coyote in the distance, the first thing besides a rabbit that wed seen. Keeping right on our compass bearing, we continued over undulating valley hills. In the distance, I saw the fence. As we got closer, I saw a gate. Right. Where. We. Needed. One. It was kind of ridiculous. We passed through the gate and had nothing but time in between us and our camp. It turned out to be a glorious day.
Another restful afternoon in the tent, and then dinner. Chili, if you were wondering. It’s not only delicious, warm and hearty, but pretty easy to make in camp. But the highlight of this evening was ice cream ball soccer. We were a bit too full last night to have ice cream with our pie, so we saved the festivities for tonight. Ice cream ball soccer has been part of the Thanksgiving tradition for the past few years. It’s fun, and a great way to generate some heat on a cold winter camping trip.
The next morning, we packed up the car and had a quick breakfast: banana, ice cream and chocolate almonds (that’s all the food groups, right?) before heading out. We cruised over the gravel roads easily, this time in the daylight and without rabbits everywhere. Back on the highway we continued into Nevada with our destination in sight: Sheldon National Antelope Refuge.
I’d tried to find some information on sights to see in the refuge before we left on our trip. But information besides the basic logistics was hard to come by. The official refuge brochure states:
“Hiking is encouraged throughout the refuge where open terrain provides ample cross-country hiking options. No designated trails are maintained, but game trails may be followed up many drainages and onto plateau tabletops.”
The refuge overview map indicates some places, but there’s no information on how to get there or what there is to do/see there. I found a few newspaper articles mentioning hiking, but again there were no directions or recommended places to go. We would be on our own.
So we began at the Virgin Valley Campground, the only campground that was maintained for year-long use. The campground was nice, but really windy. On our way in we’d noticed a beautiful canyon and were curious if we could check it out. A road behind the campground led uphill towards a purported viewpoint. We drove up the road until we felt like stopping, then walked about 2 miles to an overlook above the canyon.
It was jaw-dropping for a number of reasons. Glorious views, check. Dizzying heights, check. No guard-rail or signage to prevent you from free-falling to your death, check. Just nature in all her raw beauty. And we’d just kind of stumbled across it. There’s real value in adventure, something that is lost with astonishingly easy access to information.
That’s one thing that drew me here: the surprising lack of information. No trails, no hike descriptions, no step-by-step maps. As our parks and wild places become enticing destinations for more and more visitors, they appeal to me less and less. I don’t want to share the trail with 500 other people just to see a view I’ve seen posted all over the Internet thousands of times before. It’s just not that much fun anymore. When you venture off into places unknown, there’s greater potential for more memorable experiences. You run the risk of encountering duds, making wrong turns, and problem-solving obstacles, but isn’t that the whole point of exploring?
Now, our appetites whet for more we retreated down the road to find our way to the mouth of the canyon. Before heading in we warmed up some soup for lunch. The sun was reaching its afternoon peak and we’d appreciate that for our exploratory walk into the depths of the canyon.
We started up a game trail that led up into the jumbles of rocks beneath the canyon’s steep but crumbly cliff walls. Not good for rock climbing. Besides, every crack, hole, crevasse, and depression looked like an animal condo. I’d never seen so many middens, dens, and piles of animal scat in one place before. We hoped to see some critters in there, but they were safely tucked away for the duration of our hike.
Aaron led the way, and as the game trail petered out we hopped across talus fields, scrambled down to the water and tramped along the dry, cracked mud at the edge of the stream. We hiked to a sunny patch in the canyon, where we plopped down on a boulder and lay out like a couple of lizards, absorbing heat before continuing on.
We had planned to turn around there, but Aaron was wondering what was around the next corner…
That’s a dangerous road to travel in a twisty canyon. There’s always another corner. But it was so hard to turn back. Eventually we did, picking a different route and making new discoveries along the way. It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Last camp, and a surprise
Since the roads were clear, we decided to drive west through the refuge on one of the auxiliary roads to scope out a few more camping options. We drove through expansive sagebrush hills, looking hopefully for a herd of antelope, but to no avail. We saw about 8 deer near the Virgin Valley Camp, and that was it.
When we got out of the car to explore, we were met with bitter winds and cold that sunk right into our bones. It became more and more difficult to leave our cozy, mobile cocoon.
As the sun was threatening to go down, we pulled into the Catnip Reservoir Camp. A few haphazard fire rings sat near the lake. There was a pit toilet, but no other amenities. We chose our favorite site and began assembling our camp. The wind was constantly reminding us that we humans are not built for this. My frozen fingers set up the tent as quickly as they could while Aaron worked at getting a fire started. In my makeshift kitchen I squatted by the camp stove with wind pouring up my backside through the gap between my sweatpants and my five upper layers. So that’s why Patagonia sells onesies, I thought. I used the rest of our turkey gravy in our pork stir-fry, which was a warm and welcome addition to the meal.
We grabbed a chocolate bar and retreated to the tent soon after dinner to warm up. The wind would continue to blow all night.
And then, it began to snow. Icy pellets of snow pounded into the tent fly for half the night. I didn’t know what to expect the next morning, or how awful the roads would be. We still had many, many miles of unknown gravel road to get back to Oregon.
We waited for a break in the weather before bursting out of the tent. We moved efficiently to get a fire going, make breakfast and tear down camp. The snow relented enough so that we were only battling the cold and the wind. Only. I admit I was a little grumpy this morning, as I fought with cold hands, a finicky stove, and snow-covered everything.
After getting some cocoa and eggs in my belly I felt a little more human and rallied to pack up the tent and load up the car. The roads were totally driveable, and the whole scene covered with a blanket of fresh snow was nothing short of magical.
My photos do nothing to paint the picture. Thick clouds and filtered sun made everything on camera seem much darker and flatter than they looked in person. Score another point for actually being there instead of living through pictures. You really need to be in a place to truly experience that place. Even if I had a pro photographer documenting this trip, the pictures do little to communicate the wholeness of the experience.
Choose your own adventure
This year I’m signing off with a plea. Go out. Just go. Explore. Find a new special place. Be there, in the moment. Prepare to be astounded. Prepare to be frustrated. Prepare to learn a lot: about yourself, about your travel buddies, about your world.
But here’s the key: prepare. Here are some tips to planning and carrying out your next adventure in the wild unknown:
- Do your research. Find out what you can about an area. Buy or borrow guidebooks. Pore over local maps. See what you can locate online. Find recent trip reports, if possible. Or at least look for trip reports around the same time of year you anticipate going on your adventure. A trip to Sheldon in July is going to require different planning than a trip in December.
- Anticipate and plan for problems. If you’re heading into the desert, bring more than enough water and an extra can of gas. Have the tools and knowledge to take care of possible car problems on the road. There’s no cell service and no amenities for many, many miles.
- Have a plan, and be flexible. Communicate your plan to at least one responsible person back home. Let them know where you’ll be and when. Let them know when you’ll be back in town, and when to sound the alarm if they don’t hear from you. Have a backup plan, or two, in case what you want to do just doesn’t work out. Make sure they know your backup plans, too!
- Carry a communication device. I’ve used the SPOT messenger for several years. And while I’ve never had to call for a rescue yet, I know that I’ve got that option if the you-know-what hits the fan. By far the most important feature is that I can check in with my contacts back home to let them know that all is well. They get an email with my GPS location and an “OK” message.
- Keep a positive attitude. You know all those epic photos from National Geographic and pro adventure athletes? There’s a lot of pain and suffering behind each one of them. Adventuring off the grid and into the unknown can have its ups and downs. It isn’t a totally blissful experience from start to finish. Stay positive, be ready to be challenged, and face each one with a smile. It’s all part of the experience. You’ll be tired, cold, hot, achy, and irritated. But you’ll also be joyful, curious, exhilarated, and awestruck. And these are the feelings that keep us coming back and pushing the envelope.