There’s something that keeps me coming back to one of the most desolate regions in the lower 48 states, where the borders of Nevada and Oregon meet. If you really want to get away from “civilization”, then this is one of the places that you will come to. Looking at a map of population distribution as shown by the electric lights at night, the border where Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada meet is one of the darkest areas in the lower 48 states.
This is Great Basin Country, wide open spaces with Basin and Range topography. Lonely roads where you might only pass a couple of cars every hour. A great place to socially distance during a global pandemic!
Back in October, I made two trips to this area. My goal was to stop short of the border and camp on the Steens Mountain, a place in Southeastern Oregon that I have been going to for over 25 years. To get there I have to drive 2.5 hours across the High Lava Plains geologic province to get to the town of Burns, Oregon. This physiographic province is relatively flat, with underlying flood basalt punctuated by old volcanic mountains. Burns is a small town by any measure, but given its isolation, it is a hub of activity for rural people over a hundred miles away in each direction. Burns is surrounded by isolated desert lands and remote mountains. Geographers hate blank spaces on maps, so ironically you would see the town of Burns shown on a world globe. The large font spreading out over portions of Eastern Oregon would make one think that Burns is a large city; maybe large enough to have an NFL team.
The original plan was to do a camping trip to one of my favorite haunts…Steens Mountain in Southeastern Oregon. It is a fault block mountain and one of the first places I visited after moving to Oregon. From Frenchglen, I drove the 28 mile gravel road to the top of the mountain to take in the view of the Alvord Desert, one vertical mile below. Even though it was a Tuesday in October, lots of people were out and about. As I drove down the South Steens loop road, everywhere I wanted to camp had either a tent or a car there. So I decided to keep driving and try the Pueblo Mountains near the Nevada border. As I approached, I spotted two RVs parked high up the road. Time to keep driving!
I tried listening to the radio….On the drive down, KBOI AM from Boise was interviewing Amman Bundy, the man who led the 2016 takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Frenchglen. He had recently refused to wear a mask while attending his son’s football game. His son’s team ended up forfeiting the game as a result of it. I tried to get game 2 of the Braves-Dodgers series, but no luck.
Crossing into Nevada brought me to Denio Junction, where Hwy. 140 takes off to the west back towards Oregon through the Sheldon Antelope Refuge. The sun was setting. I considered camping at Bog Hot Springs, a favorite place of mine. I discovered it in the 1990s. I’ve camped in this idyllic spot many times in the past, but when I pulled off to take the dirt road there, I saw a line of cars and trucks coming and leaving. NEV-OR again was becoming NEV-ER again! Much of the area around the spring is private land, so camping in this region is limited. I continued on the paved highway until I reached the border of the refuge. Finally, public lands! I drove a rutted two wheeled path off of the highway and set up my tent within 1/4 mile of the road.
Sheldon Wildlife Refuge was established in 1931 to protect the American Pronghorn Antelope. It is home to more than 200 species of wildlife, including many bird species, Mountain Lions, Bighorn Sheep and mule deer. Most of it lies on a high plateau. Temperatures plunge at night, even in the summer.
The next morning, I made coffee and packed up and headed toward home, heading west on Hwy. 140 back into Oregon, via Lakeview. The road drops sharply off of the plateau after crossing the Oregon line. My camera battery is almost dead, as it was really cold last night. I’m going to head for home, and vow to come back next week with an extra battery and spend more time. I drove home via Lakeview, Silver Lake, and La Pine. Six hours later, I was home and in the hot tub. Who needs Bog Hot Springs anyway? Besides, my hot spring has jets! Take that Bog Hot!
The following Sunday I took off again for Nevada. This time, I drove down through the Alvord Desert on a lonely 50 mile gravel road. I used to come here about 3 times per year back in the 90s, mostly for the solitude, but also to sit in Alvord Hot Springs. Things have changed quite a bit since back then.
The first 10 miles south of Hwy 78 is now paved, but the rest is still a lonely gravel road. You know it is wilderness when you can stop in the middle of the road and leave the car running while you relieve yourself of too much coffee without having your privacy interrupted. If anyone is driving on the road the rooster tail of dust will reveal them from miles away. The drive seems similar to what it used to be. Until I drove up to Alvord Hot Springs….
Alvord Hot Springs is now developed. Where there used to be just a shelter with a pipe coming from the spring, there is now a snack bar, and a $10 entrance fee. All of the license plates were from out of state visitors…California, Washington, and Idaho. I saw one car with Texas plates too. I didn’t even get out. I just rolled down the window and took some pictures.
You now cannot access the playa without paying (it is private land). Further down the road, I saw windsurfers and other tourists on the playa.
I reflected back on the first time I drove this road in 1994, two weeks after moving to Oregon from Alaska. It was such a wild place and it reminded me of pictures from Mongolia or the Takla Makan Desert in Western China. Now, sadly, those days are forever gone. I’m so fortunate to have experienced it back then. As I drove further south, I muttered, “NEV-ER Again!”
I passed by Fields Station (population 4). They serve the World’s Best Milkshakes. It’s true! It says so right on the sign. I had one in 2007 while on a bike trip across Oregon. It was tasty, but you should never have one before pedaling uphill across the Steens Mountain. I was tempted to stop, but that memory made me drive on. Back to Nevada!
At Denio Junction, I hit Hwy 140 again. The sun was getting lower. While I stopped to take a picture, I remembered a breakfast I had here in 2007 to start the bike trip to Bend. Also, I stayed at the hotel here with my sister in the 1990s. At least she got to experience Bog Hot while it was still pristine.
Only a few more miles until I hit my camp spot inside of Sheldon Refuge. As I drove closer to the border of the refuge, I spotted an RV with California plates parked in the very spot where I camped last week. NEV-ER again!
I kept driving in the twilight and saw two dirt tracks leaving the highway off to the left. I took them. This time I drove more than 1/4 mile off the road. I found a nice spot and set up the tent. Actually, I liked this spot better than the previous one. I set out my chair, opened the cooler and sat down and enjoyed a socially distanced adult beverage. There was no place on planet earth that would beat this. NEV-OR Again!
After dark, I tried to pick up a broadcast of game seven of the Braves-Dodgers series on the radio. You know you are isolated, when you can’t even find any FM radio stations. As I clicked through the AM stations, most of what I got was either country music or right-wing talk radio. Here is a sample of what I got…..”Radical Socialism”…click……”Hunter Biden”…..click…..”mandating of masks”…click….”Country Boys Can Survive!”…click….”Fraudulent Mail-in ballots”…click….”Democrats want to take away your guns”…click….”AOC”…click…Fire and brimstone preachers…click…”Global Elites”…click….”Russia hoax”…click….”plandemic”…..click…..”The Braves take a 2-1 in the fifth inning of game 7 of the NLCS. And now for the traffic update in the Vancouver area.” Finally, some news about the game! It happened to come from a CANADIAN station. No wonder conspiracy theories abound in the Inter-Mountain West: The media here is an echo chamber.
About the bottom of the sixth inning, static took over and I could no longer pick up the ballgame. I would have to wait until tomorrow to see who won. I sat in my camp chair and counted only about 6 cars per hour traveling Hwy. 140 after dark. It was quiet and serene. Finally…the peace and quiet of social distancing. I stayed up late and soaked in the solitude. NEV-OR Again!
To the west, a flashing yellow light broke up the darkness. It signaled a steep grade ahead. There would be a climb, followed by the precipitous drop down Doherty grade across the Oregon line. When I saw the lights of a tanker truck headed east, I stood up and saluted the trucker. It takes guts and skill to drive this road in the dark. I wished him well on his way to deliver gasoline to Winnemucca on Interstate-80, over 100 miles away.
On the other hand, I shook my head when I saw the lights of an RV headed west. Were they out of state tourists traveling this road for the first time? Did they have ANY idea how scary it would be to descend Doherty grade in the dark? If they were lucky enough to make it out alive, they would say, “Never Again!”
The wind blew at night and the Big Wyoming Sagebrush bush next to my tent wafted such a strong scent that I felt like I had been shrunken down and stuffed in a McCormick’s spice jar of Sage. I felt peace. I soaked up the solitude and serenity. “NEV-OR Again!”
I could only spend one more night out. I promised Beth to be home by Tuesday night, as it was her mother’s birthday and this is the first October 20th that she would no longer be with us. We planned to go out to dinner. So…I packed up after coffee and started making my way home, this time in no hurry. I took time to explore that I didn’t take last week.
I passed by the Virgin River Campground, where Beth and I shivered one night in our sleeping bags looking up at the Milky Way on a cold November night in the late 1990s. It’s unbelievable how magnificent the night sky is in the dark of the desert! A few miles later, I crossed the border back into Oregon. No more state sales tax after crossing this border! As if there was any place to spend money back across the line in Nevada…
Soon, the top of the Doherty grade came into view. I stopped to take a couple of pictures. This is where Hang-Gliders take off and soar high over the valley below. We are back in the country of Basin and Range Geology.
I drove slowly down the steep grade. With no traffic in either direction, I could slow down enough to take a couple of pictures out of the driver’s side window without falling off the cliff.
If you google the Doherty grade on Hwy 140 you will get comments from tourists that this is one of the scariest roads they have ever been on. I wouldn’t go that far, but then again I took a mountain bike down the Bolivian death road. But that story is for another day.
Finally, I got to the valley floor. Instead of heading back home towards Lakeview, I wanted to camp at Hart Mountain, another fault block mountain. There is a hot spring there and it is also a Pronghorn Antelope Refuge. I took a right turn at the “town” of Adel and headed north towards the village of Plush.
From Plush, the road up to Hart Mountain is a steep one. It has a steep gravel road from the base of the mountain to the flat-topped mountain above. However, when I turned on the asphalt road leading to the base of the mountain, I soon ran into a cattle drive. Although I could stop and wait and the cattle would go around me, I decided to turn around. This one road was the only way in and out from the west side of the mountain. I’ll try again some other time.
With the added time I now had, I slowly drove up Hwy 395, taking many stops along the way for strolls and photos. Before I got to the main highway, I spotted this group of Pronghorn Antelope looking back at me. Pronghorn are the fastest animals on the North American continent.
Once I hit Hwy 395, I saw this sign for Bighorn Sheep. Although I didn’t see any live sheep, you don’t often see a road sign like this!
Continuing on 395 Northbound took me past the shores of Alkali Lake, a shallow lake at the base of the Hart Mountain Fault block.
Heading back toward home brought me to the High Lava Plains province again. I took the dirt road down towards the Ghost town of Stauffer to camp for the night. Eight miles in, the road was blocked by a gate with a NO TRESPASSING sign….private land. I didn’t get to make it to Stauffer. NEV-ER again!
On the Stauffer Road I did see a lonely cow. I tried to strike up a conversation with her, but she didn’t have much to say!
Finally, I went to one of my campsites off of Moffit Road in Deschutes National Forest about 40 miles east of town. After dark, I listened to the radio and found out that the Braves blew the lead in game 7 and the Dodgers would be going to the World Series. Dang! They had let me down yet again! I turned off the radio. Instead, I enjoyed the solitude of this remote campsite.
On the way home the next morning, I passed by Mahogany Butte, a favorite hike of mine. I would climb it again in another couple of weeks, but this day I will head home and have dinner with Beth and remember her mother Elaine on what would have been her 87th birthday.
With all of the changes that have taken place over the years, I am still grateful to have such an abundance of public lands close to home to escape to. I wonder about my friends in the South and East of the USA who have very little access to any public lands. Even though 2/3 of the state of Oregon is Federal Lands (BLM, USFS, NPS), it’s getting more crowded every year. Our little town of 24,000 people in the 1990s has now grown to over 100,000. Where will I go in 15 years, when even Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada become overrun with people? Where will we all go to, to escape the maddening crowds? We all need a “Nowhere” to escape to, especially those of us who are introverts. Introverts can act extroverted when they have to, but they need time to recover. Escaping to “Nowhere” promotes the healing and helps the recovery process. Where will that be in the future? I know that these sojourns into remote places are beneficial to my mental health.
Maybe…just maybe…we might someday live in a civil society where we all respect each other and work together. When that day comes, we might not need a place to escape to. Until that day comes, we will continue to need open spaces for our souls to breathe. For time to reflect….for time to heal….and for the rejuvenation that we need to go back into the ring and battle the ills of modern society for another few rounds. May each of you find such a place, whatever it may look like!