It’s possible to fall in love with a place before ever setting foot on the ground. That’s how I felt about the Steens since looking at the mountain and the surrounding Basin and Range country on a map. I’d imagine the hillsides of aspen on a sky-island (a 5,000 foot fault block of a mountain) above a sea of sage and bunchgrass. At the time I was in my mid-20s and realized I had much to learn about my home state.
Growing up on the west side of the Cascades, my definition of Oregon was the deep greens of verdant forests, the beaches and headlands of the coast, the Columbia River Gorge, Mt. Hood, and the Willamette Valley’s rolling hills of oaks, fir, hazelnut orchards and other bountiful crops. Visits to Bend and the surrounding high desert suggested that not all of Oregon was Douglas-fir green, but I didn’t comprehend that most of the land was colored in more subtle shades of sagebrush and juniper green.
By the end of college I was in love with – and in awe of – desert ecosystems and fortunate enough to have my first job after graduating entail surveying for small mammals on shrub-steppe lands of Washington’s Columbia Plateau. Roaming around sagebrush in search of mice was an opportunity to pay close attention to bunchgrasses, biocrusts, critter tracks in the soft soil, and lookout over long horizons.
Flash forward to 2011 and Gabriel’s and my PCT thru-hike, when we ended up in Bend unexpectedly for an evening of Moldovian celebrations with fellow hiker Flash, and her friend Emily from Peace Corps. On Emily’s coffee table was the iconic book Steens Mountain with a pronghorn on the cover and the shrub-steppe behind. Turning through the pages with scenes of great flocks of migratory birds, basalt cliffs, and weathered homesteads affirmed that I wanted to spend more time getting to know southeast Oregon and better appreciate more of my home state.
Gabriel grew up visiting the Steens with his family while on road trips to see his beloved Great Aunt Lois in Reno. He has memories of ski tours on Steens, hiking and hot spring soaking around Hart Mountain, and zooming across the flat, Flat, FLAT playa of the Alvord Desert with his mom at the wheel. He was all too thrilled when I said I wanted to get out to a favorite corner of Oregon.
But southeast Oregon is a ways away from our Puget Sound home. It wasn’t until October 2015 that we took a trip with our good friend Drop-N-Roll to explore Steens and Alvord country. While roaming around the three of us talked of the Desert Trail and the newly established Oregon Desert Trail. All three of us stating that some day we’d take that long hike.
We’ve all had a few adventures in between responsible working lives, but just shy of four years since that Steens trip, we’re all out hiking the ODT. DNR, and her partner Dan, started a few weeks ago.
Tomorrow, Gabriel and I set out on the nearly 800-mile long Oregon Desert Trail!
The ODT winds along a W-shaped route from Lake Owyhee State Park near the OR/ID border into Owyhee Canyon country (ION country), touches the NV border, then crosses the Oregon Canyon Mountains, Trout Creek Mountains, the Pueblo Mountains, Alvord Desert, Steens Mountain, Hart Mountain, Abert Rim, Fremont-Winema NF, and finishes in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness just east of Bend. It travels all on public lands through some of the less-visited, more-remote, and wild places of Oregon. Former Oregon Natural Desert Association ED Brent Fenty (also a thru-hiker) dreamed up the trail with his associates as a way to introduce more people to the incredible country of SE Oregon; in hopes that if people know how amazing the landscapes, ecosystems, culture, and history of place are – they will be champions for its protection and stewardship. I think the ONDA website tagline for the ODT sums it up well:
ONDA staff and volunteers have done an incredible job of putting route resources together and helping Oregon desert enthusiasts learn about – and get out to steward – amazing places.
There’s been tons of news media coverage about the trail the last few years, so I’ll leave it to the search engines for people to learn more. I’ll say, I am glad we are getting to hike this route before it gets to be PCT-popular (I feel like we’ve been just barely ahead of the wave (i.e. crowds) of the ever growing long-distance hiker community). This year there are around 10 people attempting to thru-hike the route and plenty of other explorers out there enjoying sections and day hikes. And yes, some may think I am ridiculous for thinking 10 people is a lot, but it feels like it to me.
Since wrapping up work a week ago it’s been a flurry of to-do’s to get ready for the trip and take care of life back home.
Now the only box left unchecked is updating the blog. While we are out hiking my goal is to share a few pictures and highlights, then back-post more of my rambling Marmot-y prose in the fall (or winter) after we finish.
Pics below are from our preparations for the Oregon Desert Trail. Of course, Gracie still helps us with all of our trip planning.