Alvord Desert

Three day gettin’ here, the long way from Mancos, Colorado, my home town.  I had a wedding to not stand up in along the way in Colorado Springs.  From there, I meandered up and down the Tetons.  The Tetons, one of the only ranges within the Cordillera of the American Rockies to continue their uplift, live up to their crazy and jagged beauty.  Everyone else thinks so, too, judging from the subdivisions spread at their foothills.

Yet after two nights of no sleep, Lake Wolcott, an Idaho state park on the Wisconsin-esque Snake River Plain, does not.  The mayflies time their hatching to my arrival.  Their buzz and hum and annoying flying into my mouth drives me from the lake, a sprawling reservoir ringed by broadleaf trees, reinforcing that Wisconsin feel.  The sounds of children riding their bicycles at sunset become the sounds of shorebirds, which continue in their ornithological feast all night long.  A strange feeling of time displacement abides as I try sleep since gulls usually go to bed with the sun.

Before I left home, I couldn’t find a DeLorme atlas for either Idaho or Oregon at my local bookstore in Durango, and it was too late to order one.  So I’m using an old Rand-McNally with a Better Homes and Gardens family of four enjoying their beach vacation on the front cover.  Inside the front cover, I’ve filed away a copy of the top 10 loneliest places in America, as rated by Outside Magazine.  I’ve already driven through one of them, the entire state of Wyoming.

Yet nothing tops southeast Oregon for pure desolation, not even the southeast Utah I’ve spent years traversing.  This region, known by names such the Empty Quarter, the Great Wide Open, the Big Empty, and the Oregon Outback, seems like fell and dale Yorkshire.  In mid-May, its treeless green felt robes dark-shouldered volcanic rock that sweeps up in soft mounds the shape of hills, the size of mountains.  The land undulates in smooth, hypnotic waves under a gentle sun near its set.

A Sierran crest wanders over horizon after horizon to the south, skirting a gravel road with neither town nor artifice to break the way.   The scarp wall culminates in Steens, a massive fault-block mountain which resembles a whole range, but which for technical reasons is a 50 mile long mountain in the singular.  Steens rises abruptly from the valley floor and its crags remain snowbound in May.  Surrounding it, rolling hills and a highway that trend ruler straight from horizon to horizon, but for the pitch of the land.

The Alvord Desert (pronounced ‘Alvoyd’ by the gas station cashier who lived at the last place for gas 70 miles back) lies at the base of Steens.   You can ride south through the hamlet of Fields to get here, where you’ll need to wait until 8:30 for the gas station to open.  Or you can drive in from the north along a well-graded gravel road for about 70 miles.

The Alvord Desert is a playa walled in by Steens to the west and by a line of cliffs to the east.  Glass-cut mountains limn right up to the shore in the north.  Distant white peaks enclose the desert in the southeast.  Hazy hills summit the horizon due south.  A salt flat reminiscent of Bonneville and the Salt Lake Desert and dozens of other intermittent lakes in the endorheic Great Basin, Alvord does not drain into the great world ocean.  Alvord’s shape and surrounding mountainesque landforms are vaguely similar to Lake Tahoe, sans the forests and the blue waters and the people, for I’m the only one camping on the lake.

Like other alkali deserts, Alvord has a need for speed.  Kitty O’Neil, a Hollywood stuntwoman, set a two-way land speed record of 512 MPH here in 1976.  A dirty red tint flavors its white surface.  The whole flat seems like a frozen lake.  I watch the sun dip below the fortress wall of Steens Mountain.  I and the sun sleep.

A bird call in the high sage on the sloping lakeshore sounds like the taunt of a child.  I look outside to make sure I’m not back at Lake Wolcott surrounded by bicycling children out after dark.  Frogs start springtide croaking, just like in the pond at the bottom of my hill back home.  I didn’t want to leave them behind in their brief mating near my high desert home in Colorado, so they followed me out here, hopping on the roads behind my pickup.  Behold the night.  An amateur astronomer friend had told me about the night skies out here, and once the night came on and the firmament clarified, I could see what he meant.  A haunting wind spent all night pleading at my door to come in.

A full moon, amber and copper, rose above the eastern cliffs, occulted by blue-black clouds that formed ships amast.  Wind rocked my camper.  The playa’s surface shimmered back the full moon like the surface of calm waters.  Imperfections in the mineral surface made small riffles in the dry lake bed that seemed to gently lap the shore in waves.  When the rising moon cleared above the low clouds on the horizon, its light revealed a salt cloud whipped up by the wind, and it danced like a waterspout.  The bowed escarpment across the lake was a Hawaiian volcano in the lunar paint.

It was hard to believe I’d settled for the night in the northeast tongue of the Great Basin.  Yet the purpled scarps, the short, sharp rise of the mountains, the borax playa and the skeletal white shapes of the rock crests all around me gave lie to the atoll and the ocean that surrounded it.

Crossing the First Threshold

Joseph Campbell, scholar, mythologist and visionary, describes the world myth.  He writes of the hero’s 12 stage journey, which begins always with the hero (man or woman or child) in her ordinary world.  After being invited or unwillingly catapulted out of his ordinary world, the hero crosses the first threshold into the special world, beautiful and tempting and fatal by turns.  I’d soon tread out onto my special world.

The next morning, I step out onto the cracking surface of the salt flat, reinforcing the impression of ice.  Peaks dissolve to blue on the northeast shore.  Winds pick up once I’m out past the shore grass, and the breeze chases away mosquitoes and gnats.  The riparian shore of sage and willow is backed by gentle green foothills which step up to the jagged crest of Steens.  The scent of sage follows me for awhile as I set out to cross the desert.  I lose the safety of land.  I often fretted about falling down when I was in the middle of nowhere on top of some mountain or edging a cliff, but it was hard to trip out here.

Whirlwinds surround me in the distance on all sides, but they never last too long.  Dozens of air columns dance, and pop out of existence when they hit an obstruction like a bush, the sand in the pillar dispersing like confetti.    The only man-thing in the flats besides tire tracks is a floor mat from a car, caked in alkali.

The cliffs east across this small, high desert which is coextensive with the playa, seemed close when I set out.  Then I remembered that ‘OBJECTS APPEAR TALLER THAN THEY REALLY ARE,’  a conspiring effect of the flat surface of the lake, the great distance, the light and the heat.   A superior mirage occurs when the area below the line of sight is colder than the region above it.  As they pass through this temperature inversion, light rays are bent down.  This males the illusion of an object appear above the true object.  Hence, the term ‘superior.’   Superior mirages are in general less common than inferior mirages.  Yet when they do occur, they tend to be more stable than inferior mirages, since cold air has no tendency to move up, and warm air has no tendency to move down.  Superior mirages also tend to tower and appear higher than the actual object which they distort.  In some situations, real objects can become elevated or lowered, stretched or shortened.  The cliffs on the far side of the desert seemed taller, closer than they really were.  In other words, it took me two hours to reach the other shore.

I reach the far shore, a mangrove of saltbrush and saltgrass clumps the salt into lenses and mounds, interspersed with black, volcanic rock, with stones of red and white and minerals strewn between the clumps.  I pick up one of the volcanics and toss it out onto the playa.  It feels weightless and heaves like plastic.  Alkali aggregations crust like cryptobiotic rills in tidepool formations.  Deep runnels form like miniature draws between the networks of salt lenses that sprawl for dozens of yards out from the shore.

Strong southwest winds power down off Steens and cool me.  The look and feel of the topography reminds me of the Tularosa Basin hundreds of miles south at the other end of the American part of the Basin and Range.  Above it all, snow-capped Steens runs with glacial ruts and fingers.

Scrub and short benches of cliff along the far shores float in midair.  Heat vectors stampeded by the wind run across the playa like the legs of hundreds of pronghorn, their bodies unseen.  Dust devils walk slowly in straight columns across the flat.

A mummified work jacket with blue and white stripes is glued to a dead bush that lies far out from shore from all the others.  The jacket’s starched with salt and ironed by wind, stiff, as if worn by a ghost.   Green bullet casings like olivine strew themselves on the slopes of giant ant hills.  Far mountains stacked to the south remain dusted with snow.

The Road Back

After defeating her demons, Campbell tells us that the hero then takes the road back from the special world.  Well, I’d only brought a half-gallon of water in my Platypus.  I decided not to pull on it until I hit the road back, a plain with arced tire tracks like trolley lanes running nowhere, a salt puzzle in pieces like pancake ice.  Basalt stones in the middle of the flat, like Death Valleys famous slithering stones, marked the way like unintentional cairns.

I encountered pitiless katabatic winds racing down from Steens’s summit, polar force.  I pissed in the middle of the desert, on a dead root in the middle of nowhere, exposed for all the world to not see.  The wind gave me such little control of my stream, I pissed on my hand.  Campbell did say the hero would encounter tests and a supreme ordeal.  Maybe the golden shower was it.

The desert floor wasn’t a uniform white like I’d seen in pictures.  The sun and earth baked rosettes of bronze and dirty gray along with the tawny alkali.  The salt cracks formed long faults.  I kept to the line of my truck camper, which committed mitosis and divided into two campers – one upper and one lower – due to the mirage.  Eventually, the images inferior and superior both dissolved in the wind so strong it bent the power of light to its will like gravity.  Then, in the center of Alvord, I looked down and saw a ceramic dinosaur; orange-headed, pink-bodied, red-tailed.  A T-rex, about 4 inches tall.  The wind hadn’t knocked it down or scraped its lightsome shape across the plain.   I lifted it from the desert floor.  The number ‘12’ was painted on the bottom of its right foot and ‘EJ’ on the bottom of its left.  No other distinguishing characteristics, in case you’re the one who lost it.  Maybe a memorial, someone’s way of saying goodbye.  If so, be at peace.

I stood in the middle of it all, the soft, pliable salt beneath my feet.  Across the lake, twin dervishes danced and followed one another like a mating pair.  Like geysers they steamed and whirled and twined and then, they dissolved back into the incessant, shrieking wind.  All that ever remained here was the mottled ground upon which other shapes took their forms, danced, and, played out, clapped as dust from unseen hands back into nothingness.

To get here:  From Jordan Valley, take Highway 95 west to the fork at Burns Junction which splits highway 78 north and 95 south.  From there, you can turn south on 95 and then take the first right to route 205.  From there, turn right and drive north to Fields.  Get off route 205 at the fork and turn right onto East Steens Road to the Alvord.  For a different POV, from Burns Junction, take a right onto highway 78 and drive north.  Follow this paved road until the first opportunity to turn left, where onto East Steens Road.  The southbound road will turn to well-graded gravel.  Make sure you have plenty of gas.

Couple Things:

  • The wind out on the playa was probably the strongest consistent wind I’ve ever encountered. So try to get your hike in fairly early, before the sun heats the air and gets things moving.
  • My camper? I’d lost sight of it from across the lake and mistook a nearby ranch house for my camper.  Mirages really fool you.  You can mistake a couple of trees for an RV out on the flats.  So navigate appropriately.

© 2015 by Michael C. Just