A week or so has turned out to be a lot longer.
The TL;DR version:
We got off trail in Denio, having covered 270 miles and about a third of the ODT’s route. Gabriel and I hope to get back out on the Oregon Desert Trail when the world is well again.
A longer explanation:
We got off trail in Denio after the accumulated effects of thunderstorms, wet days, and with knowledge of a forecast for temps in the single digits right when we’d be going over Steens Mountain. Not the ODT experience I was looking for.
Hot days. Cold days. No shade. No trail. Lots of thrashy, pokey, brush bashing and bushwhacking. Cow water. Heavy water carries. Slow miles. YES! All that had been the stuff of dreams, anticipated, and accepted as part of the ODT experience.
But 400-800% of normal precipitation in Malheur County in September 2019 (aka WET-tember!) wasn’t. Nor were we really prepared for the forecast lows around 6-10 degrees Fahrenheit and snow just when we’d be going over Steens Mountain (sure I’d planned for 15 degrees, but we also weren’t using a stove on an early fall hike). And in our first third of the route, I learned how uncomfortable and vulnerable I feel about being out – like REALLY OUT – when lightning is striking the ground and you’re the tallest thing around for miles and miles.
Talk about feeling exposed.
There’s no one else nearby. There’s no inside to get to and there’s little first aid one can provide a loved one or hiking partner if they’re struck by lightning. It’s a reminder of how insignificant we are on the grand scales of the universe.
We made the call to get off trail after descending from Little Windy Pass while a storm cell was moving through. The dark clouds moving from the Pueblos and peaks in Nevada across the Pueblo Valley and into the Trout Creek Mountains. A beautiful sight to take in, especially if you can retreat to the security of a car with rubber tires or a grounded building. But all I could see were the colossal black and blue clouds moving in our direction, paired with lightning flashes and rolling thunder. They had me cowering in our tent when we finally got to a low point and set up home for the night.
And a couple days later, camped 5,000 feet beneath Steens on a beautiful night I might have changed my mind about leaving the ODT. But that day I’d become sick with some sort of bug/parasite/virus and experienced much “gastric distress”. Never fun. Even more unpleasant when camped on the edge of the Alvord Desert playa with limited access to clean water and soap. So we headed home, intending to return to the desert in late spring 2020 for baby pronghorn and abundant wildflowers. (Now with the current pandemic, we’ll see what happens. We’ll only be hitting the trail once the state of Oregon and ONDA can give the blessing for hiking in Eastern Oregon.)
Last September, I’d come to the ODT grateful to have the opportunity to hike across storied Eastern Oregon. Enthusiastic for cattle trough water, eager to experience a bit of the canyons in wild Owyhee country, see pronghorn, and camp under the stars while jackrabbits loped about.
But I also recognize I’d come to the ODT mentally fried. I was worn out from burnout. Concerned about the health of our cat (turns out rightly so). And needed to take time to really be still, to recognize and acknowledge truths, to reflect, and to heal – all far more than I needed to take a hike. Wendell Berry’s poem Our Real Work is one that has resonated the last few months:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
In the last few months I’ve been recovering from life’s social conditioning, often my own high expectations, FOMO, and the always on-the-go with too much busyness feeling that wore me down in recent years. The things that had me feeling like a less than bright-eyed marmot. This card by Emily McDowell pretty well sums up what I’ve been recognizing of late: https://emilymcdowell.com/products/finding-yourself-card
There’s more that’s happened during the fall, winter, and early spring. But this here blog is about hiking adventures(!); so I’ll refrain from the other life details. Over the next few days, I’ll share more pictures from the first five days of the hike followed by posts about hiking from Rome to Denio. It was glorious. It was challenging. It gratefully involved cows.
Oh yes, here are a few highlight pictures from the trips we took this fall – a little closer to home – during the time we would have been out on the ODT.