A new podcast is on the scene…Andy of The Hiker Podcast found hiking recently, and is completely immersing himself in conversations with all sorts of hikers to dive deeper into what makes hiking such a transformative experience.
I shared some of my thoughts with him here…and I have to admit, it was one of the most engaging conversations I’ve had on the subject!
I’m incredibly proud to work for the Oregon Natural Desert Association. We make a tangible difference in the health of Oregon desert ecosystems thanks to thousands of hours of volunteer work each year. I’ve been fortunate to lead trail maintenance projects across the high desert with our dedicated members, primarily on trails that have had no record of trail maintenance…ever!
By creating and improving recreation opportunities across eastern Oregon, we are working to connect people to these landscapes and help them see the importance of intact ecosystems, of the value in a diversity of wildlife, of the value of our place within these biological systems. We are not apart from nature we are a part of nature.
Now in the times of COVID, I haven’t been leading hikes or trail work trips, but I have been reliving my multi-media and storytelling past through the creation of storymaps.
This is the first of many that I’ll be working on:
I had a blast talking with my cousin Sherry on her podcast: Pod, Sweat, and Tears with Sherry East about hiking, yoga, fitness, peeing standing up, helping everyone become comfortable and connected to nature, David Bowie, beer, thru-hiking, finding a regular sense of awe in your life and more. Give it a listen:
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.
This is the book I would have written if I could have.
Thank goodness Ellen Waterston did first, it’s much more eloquent 🙂 AND she was a rancher in Eastern Oregon and has an incredible perspective about the ODT and the issues facing the high desert (and rural America).
I had the chance to read one of Ellen’s drafts about a year ago during a week-long raft trip on the John Day River (our only undammed river in Oregon). I’ve literally been excited about this for a year!
I went to grad school at Goldsmiths (University of London) for design futures (trying to make the world a better place through thoughtful design) concentrating on museum exhibition design. I wanted to take the museum out of the museum, and for the last four and half years have been doing just that. The Oregon Desert Trail is my museum exhibit, and reading this book will help facilitate your journey through a three-dimensional space: eastern Oregon.
“There is no better guide to Oregon’s high desert than Ellen Waterston. Her sense of place, her lyrical love of this sometimes hard to love place, her balanced yet passionate dissection of the issues roiling the big land of junipers and open sky is a wonderful match for her subject. While the West is full of poets who love the land, few of them are as intellectually nimble as Waterston.”
— Timothy Egan, author of A Pilgrimage to Eternity
“Walking the High Desert grows right out of the relatively new and little-traveled Oregon Desert Trail, but it is no trail guide, much less a braggadocious through-hike log. Ellen Waterston has given us her own very personal Baedeker to a little-known landscape that she knows well as both rancher and writer, hitting all the high points of the heart as well as in elevation. In language as crisp as the desert air, her book serves equally well as a primer on Western conservation, a lure into difficult but hugely rewarding country, and a who’s who and what’s what of high desert life and culture. Woven out of her own remarkable stories, her trek becomes an insightful research for how we might all get along, here and elsewhere, in a perilously shifting world.”
— Robert Michael Pyle, author of The Thunder Tree, Mariposa Road and Magdalena Mountain.
”Since time immemorial, humans have been living, loving and exploring the West’s high desert. In turn, those of us living here are influenced by how the desert is subtle, nuanced and rich. Ellen’s Walking the High Desert is at once profound and worthy of all these descriptors of the high desert. Uniting stories from across this diverse landscape—the humans and non-human voices—Ellen weaves an incomparable narrative of wonder, science, history and prose. This book deeply and cleverly explores the desert landscape and the complexity of the interplay of humans and this amazing piece of the Intermountain West.”
— Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D., Executive Director of the High Desert Museum
I had planned to write a blog post for Food for the Sole this spring. And things got not-normal. Things got (are) uncertain, bewildering, overwhelming, disappointing… and I found I couldn’t write about hiking, or packrafting, or any of the numerous things I wasn’t doing this spring.
In normal times, we would look to Renee for long distance hiking advice, fun tales from the trail, or bits of vicarious living through the unbelievable amount of time she gets to spend outside hiking. (As program coordinator for the Oregon Desert Trail we suppose it only makes sense..)
But, these aren’t exactly normal times are they? As many of us remain stuck in social isolation, without any normal structure or access to our normal activities, we need to find ways to bring joy to our lives.
Read on as Renee joins us with her thoughts on finding stillness inside, while we remain… still, inside.
Bits of Calm
This time will pass, or maybe it won’t.
What always passes, even if we are not there to see it, is the wind passing through the aspen trees. The sun arcing into a new day. The waves rippling around a lily pad in the pond.
Where do you find your calm? When getting outside far enough to watch clouds blend into dragons and whales is replaced by washing the dishes…yet again…how do you soothe the ache of every day showing up just like the next?
There are bits of calm to be found. I’m gathering them.
This song. Lay on the floor, close your eyes, and sink into the carpet while this plays.
This poem. Sip a mug of hot tea and let these words steep.
Bread baking. The smell alone is almost as good as the melting butter on the first slice.
Bare feet in the dirt. My yard and I are becoming more intimate with each day, just ask my feet.
Wearing silly hats. Even if no one is there to see how ridiculous you look, you know.
Sounds of night. Bring the night inside (put it on loop all night long).
I’m collecting bits of calm, will you share yours with us?
Updated 5/5 with links to the recorded presentations
I had a full slate of presentations I was planning to give this spring, but like everything else lately, I’ve had to adjust to the new realities of a home-bound existence. I am lucky enough to still be working full-time, and have plenty of fun engaging projects to work on. I’m definitely pining for the hikes I was supposed to do this spring in eastern Oregon, and the communities I was planning on visiting. I am scheduled to led a number of stewardship trips this year, and it’s looking less likely that I’ll be able to do that.
So it’s exciting that ONDA is looking for ways to bring Oregon’s high desert to you.
We launched our High Desert Academy last week. This series will include stunning tours of high desert highlights, informative workshops that will teach you new advocacy skills, and tips to plan a safe and enjoyable desert adventure once it’s advisable to do so. So grab a quaranTINI and join us at these High Desert Academy offerings.
Do you have concerns about water, navigation, camping, animals, desert driving and more? We’ll answer your questions and offer ideas for your next adventure in Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands and beyond. View the recording
Multi-Sport Adventures on the Oregon Desert Trail
The Oregon Desert Trail is not just made for hiking. Did you know there are sections that you can bike, paddle, horseback ride, and even ski in the winter? Join us as we dive into different options for “quiet recreation” on the public lands throughout Oregon’s high desert. View the recording
Boots, Bikes, and Boats in Eastern Oregon
Go east on this virtual tour for a new desert adventure and a sense of solitude. You’ll learn about recreation and conservation opportunities in and around the Steens Mountain Wilderness, Fremont-Winema National Forest and the John Day River Basin. View the recording
Since starting my work on the Oregon Desert Trail, I always thought the most unique thing about this 750-mile route was our conservation mission. I know of no other trail with the express purpose of encouraging hikers to develop a deeper relationship with the land they are hiking through, and building on that connection to engage them in participating in our conservation work.
So it’s immensely exciting to see it happening, especially among my friends who decide to hike the ODT.
I wrote this profile on my good buddy Allgood. We’ve been friends for at least a decade, he was the Continental Divide Trail Coalition’s trail ambassador after I was for his 2016 thru-hike, he thru-hiked the Oregon Desert Trail in 2018, and he is now the VP of sales and marketing for Six Moon Designs…my employer for a while a few years ago. Now I am one of their current hiking ambassadors, and it’s thrilling to see an outdoor company I love support our conservation work with proceeds from a new tent they launched yesterday…the Wild Owyhee.
I passed the CDT Trail Ambassador torch (or trekking pole) to Allgood in Silver City before his thru-hike in 2016
If you have been following the development of the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) over the past few years, you are probably aware that one of its primary goals is to engage the recreation community in conservation issues across the high desert. An excellent example of how the ODT has helped harness the passion and drive of the long-distance hiking community can be found in the story of 2018 ODT thru-hiker Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa.
Spoiler alert: Whitney has created a fundraiser for our work on the Owyhee…scroll to the bottom for more details!
Whitney was first introduced to ONDA’s long-distance route when he attended a presentation by our first Oregon Desert Trail hiker, Sage Clegg. He was no stranger to long-distance hiking, having completed the entire Appalachian Trail in 1996 before entering college on the east coast.
Over 20 years later after that first AT hike and with several more thru-hikes under his belt, Whitney was ready to give the Oregon Desert Trail a try. “A big draw to hiking the ODT was getting to see the state I have called home for 20 years at human speed,” he explained. “Bonus: I got to visit places in Oregon I had only read about, but had always wanted to see. It was amazing!”
His thru-hike of the almost 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail in 2016 was great training for the challenges of the Oregon Desert Trail. In 2018, Whitney decided to undertake a west-bound thru-hike in the fall with two friends and experienced backpackers, Katie “Salty” Gerber and Katlyn “Swept Away” Pickett.
The group expected challenges like long distances between reliable water sources, exposure, heat, and difficult bushwhacks, but in reality, those difficulties made the sweet moments even sweeter.
“The day we walked out of McDermitt we were pretty heavy with a big load of food and water for the next stretch…we had to trudge through some pretty thick bushwhacks and ended the day with a butt-kicker of a climb. As we were setting up our camp we walked out to edge of the mountain and watched one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen, and I remember thinking to myself, this is why I do this!”
The three hikers had a fairly short time-frame in which to complete their hike, and in order to finish before their other commitments, had a steady schedule of 30-mile days — mileage that led to a whole other set of challenges.
“We had so many difficult moments, but the one that sticks out the most to me was the day we went across Diablo Rim. We had been pumping out 30+ mile days for over a week straight, and this day we were all a bit sluggish. With each ankle-rolling step on the cross country section, we winced at our slow progress and aches and pains. That night as we sat on the rim watching the sunset I received news that an old friend had passed on to that great hiking trail in the sky. I sat by myself below Diablo Peak, shed tears, and said goodbye to a legendary hiker. In a way, it was really hard. On the other hand, I felt embraced by the wildness around me on that spot.”
Whitney, Katie and Katlyn finished their thru-hike at the Tumulus Trailhead in the Badlands Wilderness on September 30, just 30 days after they departed Lake Owyhee State Park. All had various minor injuries, but it turned out that Whitney had aggravated an old tendon tear on his right foot, a result of those punishing 30-mile days, and spent the next four months in a walking boot.
But the desert continued its siren call, and Whitney and Katlyn returned to the ODT last summer to join ONDA on a trail maintenance stewardship trip in the Steens Mountain Wilderness.
“My work trip to the Steen was one of the most rewarding vacations I have had in years,” he explained. “ONDA does a great job of organizing the trip and having a great balance of fun times, hard work and free time to explore while out there. As a hiker, it will help you appreciate how much work goes into the trails you get to use, and it feels good to be doing something physical while leaving the resource in better shape for future users.”
Whitney’s engagement with the high desert didn’t end there, however. Right before leaving on his 2018 hike, he had started a new position at Oregon-based backpacking company Six Moon Designs.
“Hiking shaped my career,” he said. “I went from being a commodity broker in the wood products industry to now selling tents and backpacks, and even designing new gear. While I am out hiking now, I listen to other users so that I can identify problems that need to be solved. I am constantly thinking about new gear ideas and jotting them down in my notebook so that when I get home I can do some design work and get on the sewing machine.
And now…for the good stuff!
“I feel that one of the best parts of my job is being able to leverage our company’s success to help the greater good by supporting non-profit groups and the work they do to protect the wild places we get to explore,” Whitney explained. “On my thru-hike of the Oregon Desert Trail, I was absolutely blown away by the rugged wilderness of the Owyhee. It is truly one of the most remote and wild places I have ever hiked through. The work that ONDA is doing to permanently protect this area for future generations is something we feel strongly about and we wanted to create a way to help support the effort.”
Whitney’s experiences in the Owyhee Canyonlands and drive to give back our conservation community led to Six Moon Designs launching a new tent: the Wild Owyhee.
“Naming a new shelter after one of Oregon’s most amazing landscapes was a no-brainer, especially since the idea for it came up while hiking through the Owyhee Canyon. Having a portion of each shelter sale going to help its namesake just made perfect sense to us.”
$20 from each Wild Owyhee tent that Six Moon Designs sells will be donated to ONDA, and our work to preserve this incredible landscape. Visit the website to learn more.
Whitney left us with these parting thoughts; we have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of him in the future:
“We are in some crazy times right now and there is a lot of uncertainty out there, however, I know that once the dust settles myself and many others are going to need some much-needed nature therapy,” he said. “I take solace in knowing that when the time is right I will be able to once again go explore the remote areas of Oregon’s desert, soak in its hot springs, and hike among the sagebrush.
“Now more than ever is the time to keep supporting groups you believe in, or a small business you care about and want to see survive. I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy and using this time to plan their next trip in the wild regions of Oregon once we can get back out there.”
If the sky could have opened up and dumped as much rain as possible on the Gila last night, it did. The torrential downpour and high winds had us all in our tents checking for leaks and worrying that we didn’t pull the boats up high enough on the beach. Flooding! Would we wash away? Would our boats be gone in the morning? If you had looked carefully at the bench where we set up camp, you could see that sometimes the water gets high enough to flood the whole flat we were on. Would that be tonight?
Kirks’ story of getting caught in a historical flood was seared into our brains as we listened to the rain dump and dump and dump.
Then, it stopped.
Suddenly there was no more rain, no more wind…just an erie silence in the middle of the night. Ok sleep, now I guess is the time.
The night was quiet, the early morning was quiet, and just about the time I thought about getting up it started to rain again. Really?!?!
I got out of the tent to have a look around, someone had gotten up in the night and pulled the boats up higher. I checked the stick, and to my surprise saw the water had only risen about an inch. Note: a great way to gauge water levels is to push a stick into the ground at the point where the water meets the shore. Later you can use the stick as a reference point to see if the water has gone up or down in level since your arrival.
No way all that rain fell and the water only rose an inch! One possibility was snow…we had heard that this weather in the higher elevations might be falling as snow. Regardless of the reason, we hadn’t floated away, we hadn’t lost the boats. We were still here, and it was still raining.
In fact, it was raining hard again.
I returned to the tent and made coffee from inside, trying not to burn the vestibule of the tent as I fired up the stove just outside the door. I got a new weather report from the InReach to find out what I could already see: rain. BUT the chances dropped by about 10am, lower by noon, and by 2pm there was a sun icon. YES!
But now it was pouring.
Kirk and I started to pack up what we could inside the tent, and then we put on all of our boating gear: dry pants and top, and started putzing around outside the tent. I sat under a tree in full gear, watching and waiting. No one else had emerged.
Finally about 10am I could see some blue sucker holes opening up in the clouds above. Blue sky never looked so good! Slowly some folks started to leave their shelters, and more and more blue appeared overhead. WOOOhooo!
We all shared stories of our panic at floating away during the night.
When enough of the sky had cleared, folks started packing up.
We launch for the final day of paddling just shy of noon; we had definitely made the right call to wait out the rain, for the sun came back, and with it warmth and spring.
The trees were practically blossoming before our eyes, the fragrance hung in the air.
We had a fun little rapid that some folks decided to run, others portaged.
By day 5 we were all paddling much more in sync. In fact, we looked like a line of ducklings following Kirk down the river.
The nine miles passed fairly quickly, and we enjoyed the freshly washed canyon walls.
By mid afternoon the river corridor had flattened out, and we could see that we were leaving the mountains behind.
A river gauge marked our progress, two more miles to where our cars should have been parked at the take out.
Then, the cars.
By this point it was warm and sunny, it was a beautiful day.
We opened beers, toasted to a fabulous river trip, packed up the cars, and went to find out what had happened to the world.
The morning’s weather report again mentioned temps in the 40s, and 70% chance of rain in the afternoon and evening. Tomorrow, however, was looking drier.
When I emerged from the tent I saw Slow Ride was up and about. I went over to our morning fire and made coffee. Other folks started to trickle out of their warm dry places, but it was clear we were on a slower mode than yesterday (remember that 10:30am start??).
We started talking exit strategy. If we packed up and paddled, we would be paddling in cold wet conditions…again some folks were already cold and wet, so this option could be extremely uncomfortable, but we’d get to the cars today (we had about 9 miles left to paddle), and then be dry! Who cares if we are hypothermic if we can get to dry! So that was option 1.
Option 2 involved packing up and paddling 2 more river miles, and setting up camp again…because there were some amazing hot springs a 3-5 mile hike up a side creek from the Gila River. That sounded attractive cause who doesn’t like soaking in a hot springs when it’s pouring rain? BUT breaking down camp and setting up camp again would be a MAJOR drag. And the hike was rumored to be long and frustrating.
Option 3: stay where we were and have a layover day; continue down the river and to the cars tomorrow. Hmmmmm…
We went round and round with our choices, everyone not committing and hoping someone else would make the decision.
Where did we have to be? There was a pandemic outside. The minute we turned our phones on again we would be faced with a changed world. Did we really want to rush that? But cold and wet…but dry cars…but…
Soon it was apparent that we had waffled long enough that we’d be lucky to pack up and get on the river by noon when the rain was supposed to start. I guess we made our decision by not making a decision.
Alright! Layover day!
Turns out we all brought books, games, podcasts, snacks, music…items we haven’t really been able to enjoy all that much since we have been spending so much time on the river. We had all packed for a layover day, and just didn’t know it 🙂
Slow Ride got out his maps (he had some beautiful topo maps made especially for the trip), and we geeked out over the contour lines…figuring now we had time to do some exploring.
So many places to go! So many places to see!
We decided to take a hike up to the high point behind camp. Kirk and I found creative ways to turn dry bags into fanny packs/backpacks, and we took off with Slow Ride and Mike.
Most of the way up the climb we saw that JJ and Mika had beat us to it, and were hooting and hollering from the rocky outcropping above us.
We made our way up to the top of the world, and looked out over the vastness.
The Gila is an incredible huge tract of wilderness. I had been reading in Slow Ride’s book, Gila Libre, about the previous native tribes, trappers, mountain men, and outlaws that had made this river drainage their home for hundreds and thousands of years. We were not the first, and would not be the last. But for all those people who have walked the banks of the river, very little trace is left. This area was trapped heavily for beaver and other large game when things like fur hats were all the fashion, but I was heartened to see a ton of beaver activity all along the shores we had paddled the last few days. Some things can recover.
Photo by Slow Ride (he has long arms…perfect for a group selfie!)
The first few drops of rain fell on us as we enjoyed the views, and that was our cue to start hiking back to camp.
By the time we made it down, it was time to dive into the tents. I picked up the Gila book and proceeded to finish it that afternoon. We napped, we snacked. Kirk and I played rounds of UNO. We napped and snacked again. The rain was not letting up, but finally we decided to go on a little walk just for something to do. We had waterproof gear anyway!
We walked upstream looking for cool rocks on the flood planes. We walked down stream, finding some overhangs where we could take shelter from the constant rain. The others emerged from their tents for the same reasons here and there, but we all returned to escape the pouring water.
About dinner time the rain seemed to let up a little. Woooohooo! We all left the tents, and were actually able to get a big fire going despite all the wet wood. We had just enough time to make and eat dinner before the deluge started again. Kirk was able to tell us his story of getting stuck on the John Day River last April in the second highest recorded flood in history. He spent four days in place waiting for the full sized trees that had filled the water-way to clear (the river had gone from 10,000 cfs when he launched, to 39,000 cfs). Unbeknownst to him, he was the only one on the river, and search parties had been sent out looking for him….just in case he was in trouble. Well, the story ended well. He was safe, he had to almost rescue the rescuers, and now has quite a story to tell.
In retrospect, maybe telling the story before a massive rainstorm that sounded like a freight train driving through camp wasn’t a great idea. Flash floods on a desert river and all…