The Desert Trail is Cutting Edge

The Desert Trail is cutting edge. That may seem strange to say about the efforts of an organization that has been around for 48 years, an organization that has just recently decided to wrap up their efforts to establish another 2,000+ mile long-distance backpacking option, but I truly believe it. What the Desert Trail Association created is cutting edge.

I hiked part of the Desert Trail with the Desert Trail Association in Death Valley, 2018

Perhaps it’s just cutting edge for those of us who have grown up hiking trails, who have had the safety and security of precise GPS devices and apps that make navigation and route finding so much easier. As someone who is on the earlier side of my 40’s and has been backpacking long trails for almost 20 years, I do remember what it was like to get lost without a SPOT or InReach emergency beacon, but, that is a distant memory. Those pre-emergency beacon days were the norm though for all people throughout all time until recently. When the Desert Trail was founded by Burns biology teacher Russ Pengelly in the early 1970’s, there were no trails close to town. The places to play and roam and explore were remote desert landscapes, and the best way to discover their secrets was to hike. Hike without trails, hike without gps devices, hike with only your wits, good decisions, and strong legs.

Today, I and other hikers who have grown up on trails and technology find this type of hiking to be liberating. To hike without a trail, to look at the landscape and let your curiosity drive your feet is what freedom feels like. And it feels cutting edge to those of us who are just finding it for the first time.

Since I started working to establish the 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail (which is not a trail either…a la Desert Trail!), I’ve become convinced that the way forward for the long-distance hiking community is to embrace routes. Or maybe it’s the way back. It’s the way back to understanding how to travel up and down a mountain ridge in the most efficient way. It’s the way back to having to make your own decisions about macro and micro navigation…trails do that for you. It’s the way back to feeling a part of a whole landscape. You belong, you are a part of it, you have a role to play in these places. It’s the way back to understanding that you may not be the most important thing in these landscapes, and that ego-check is incredibly healthy.

Your desire to have a backpacking trip does not rise above the snowstorm battering the top of Steens Mountain or the six inches of mud that accumulate on the bottom of your boots as you try to walk across the Alvord Desert. Hiking a route means adjusting to the conditions, and the conditions aren’t always right for you to have a fun and enjoyable adventure. As Gary Snyder says, “Nature treats us as adults,” and that lesson is easily found on a route.

To hike a route like the Desert Trail, you need to rise to the occasion. You need to show up with your skills developed, the willingness to carry immense loads of water, and with the prospect that you may never see another human on your trip. BUT you may see incredibly rich ecosystems teeming with life. You may see the elusive bighorn sheep. You may see that all you need is very little to be comfortable and safe in this world.

The Desert Trail is cutting edge. Going back to hiking routes is the way forward to create an engaged, thoughtful hiking community and backpacking experience.


Read more about the Desert Trail and how the Oregon Desert Trail will continue their good work over on the ONDA blog.

A New Chapter
for the Desert Trail in Oregon

By Renee Patrick, Program Coordinator for the Oregon Desert Trail

When ONDA looked east in 2011 with the thought of establishing a desert hiking route that would connect into the important sagebrush steppe ecosystems they had been working to protect, defend, and restore since 1987, they looked to the Desert Trail.

The Oregon Desert Trail and Desert Trail? Yes, they are two separate long-distance hiking routes. The Desert Trail was founded by Burns biology teacher Russ Pengelley in the early 1970’s. Russ stood on the top of Steens Mountain five decades ago and envisioned a hiking route that stretched through the great basin and into the remote deserts of the west all the way from Mexico to Canada. Instead of building a trail, he envisioned a quarter-mile wide corridor suitable for hikers, mule packers, and equestrians. Read more here.


Black Lives Matter: I have been STRUCK by the systemic injustice that the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement and protests have highlighted over the past few weeks. I have been protesting and trying to understand what my role is to play in dismantling the power dynamics in place in this country that allows for people of color to feel unsafe on our streets, in our parks, and on our trails. More soon, but please spend some time on this yourselves. This is up to all of us to end the harmful and deadly effects of a country that was built on oppression.

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