Looking beyond the trail

I’ve greatly enjoyed many aspects of hiking and creating routes over the years…among them? No rules, more solitude, more freedom, and more exploration!

When I started working to develop the Oregon Desert Trail one of my first thoughts was that the ODT was awfully close to some other long trails in the Pacific Northwest like the Pacific Crest Trail and lesser-known Idaho Centennial Trail. Having spent hours pouring over Google Earth imagery and topo maps, I decided to find/make connector routes to both trails. Then I realized the Google Earth imagery available for SE Oregon and SW Idaho was from just a few years ago and that the satellite views were so good that I could see individual cows, the dark green hint of a water source, and the clear paths of dirt roads and trails from the comfort of my office chair. I made some gps tracks thinking one day I would have the time to ground-truth the route myself, or that some adventurous hiker would want to go hike it all in the name of exploration. Water wasn’t guaranteed, routes in and out of canyons weren’t guaranteed…there are definite reasons to go hike something you plot on Google Earth BEFORE you announce it to the world.

Then Ras and Kathy Vaughan reached out last winter to inquire about the Oregon Desert Trail. They mentioned their intent to connect the trails together to make a giant loop of a hike (adding on the Pacific Northwest Trail), and I mentioned my armchair route scouting to connect the ODT with the other two trails. They seemed eager to give the route a go, and understood it may not totally work on the ground, but with their hiking resume, I figured they could figure it out.

It was an ambitious plan. And they did it! My ICT to ODT connector was just under 100 miles, and the ODT to PCT connector was about 50 miles.

A bunch of articles have been coming out about the Vaughans (or ultrapedestrians as they like to call themselves), and you can read one here from the Outside Magazine: This Couple Created a New Thru-Hike in the Northwest.

I got to meet Ras and Kathy by chance this June when I was down in Fields to do some scouting for a ODT reroute, and then later in Bend when they stopped by the ONDA office. (I just happened to route the ODT to PCT connector to come by the Oregon Natural Desert Association office!)

And then people started telling me they heard about the loop from NPR! Ras and Kathy were interviewed on the show Think Out Loud, and you can listen to it here.

I still want to hike it myself, and there are edits to make to the route as you will hear in the interview, but I’m so inspired by the drive of these two to strike out into the unknown and embrace the fact that things will go wrong, you will not anticipate all the challenges, and ultimately success comes down to making good decisions and making the journey itself the destination.

It’s pretty exciting to look for adventures beyond trails, there are unlimited possibilities out there when you start creating routes of your own.

An Old PCT Adventure

Having thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail 12 years ago puts me firmly in the “OG” hiker category. In 2006 we didn’t have cell phones. No blogging, no instagram, no social media. It was a truly immersive hike with few to no distractions from the task at hand. I’m grateful to have experienced the trail when there were 200 thru-hikers, not 2,000.

I put together a long compilation of my photos in this video montage. It’s 45 minutes long and low rez, which I know is almost unpalatable these days, but here it is. I love the music, the hikers I met, the whole deal. This was originally a DVD with an intro screen you had to click through, but a friend digitized it for me and included the whole intro song “Walk Away Renee,” so if you want to bypass that go ahead and click through to minute 2:45.

Can thru-hiking change the world?

Maybe one conversation at a time…

Check out this recent article in Oregon Business Magazine:

Walking on a Knife’s Edge

John O'Keeffe on his ranch in Adel, Oregon

John O’Keeffe on his ranch in Adel, Oregon

The trail that cuts through the Wild West of rural land-use politics in Oregon’s high desert.

By Caleb Diehl

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva crested a canyon rim and faced an endless expanse of sagebrush. He was hours from any sort of town, after spending days swimming through ice water in Louse Canyon, along a tributary of the Owyhee River in the remote reaches of Southeastern Oregon. He eyed two riders on horseback angling toward him.

“My impressions of the area were from the Malheur-takeover thing. It was really rural and I wasn’t sure what I’d encounter,” says Sylva, a nomadic brand ambassador for outdoor-gear businesses. “Suddenly, I’m walking across this empty expanse and there’s this cowboy coming toward me.”

The riders, a cattle rancher and his son, asked Sylva what he was doing there. Sylva had grown used to puzzled looks from the denizens of the isolated desert, but this time it felt confrontational. Yet by the end of the conversation, he says his views on rural Oregon changed.

Sylva is one of 26 long-distance hikers to finish the 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail. It’s not a hiking trail in the traditional sense. It’s a big conceptual “W” that the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit dedicated to high desert conservation, scribbled on a tapestry of public lands throughout Lake, Harney and Malheur counties. Unmarked sections require extensive route finding. Stretches of up to 40 miles are waterless.

The trail’s visitation numbers are small, but its true potential is carving a middle path through a longstanding legal feud between ranchers and environmental groups. It’s emblematic of a decades-long public lands debate in the American West, a struggle that has encompassed national publicity campaigns, intractable legal fights, armed takeovers.

As it traverses miles of stunning desert, the trail also explores the philosophy, biology, politics and economics that have made Eastern Oregon a hotbed for natural-resource conflicts. It invites conversation about the urban-rural divide, about land-use policy, about the relative values of traditional agrarian industries and the new-age economy of recreation tourism.

The conflicts in Eastern Oregon run so deep that ONDA, the biggest player in the environmental camp, and rural politicians and ranchers find it difficult to even sit at the same table. But lately they’ve been talking, or at least thinking about it. And the trail has something to do with it. “The more we talk, the more [the ranchers] share why they love the desert,” says Renee Patrick, ONDA’s Oregon Desert Trail coordinator. “When we get out there on the land, we find we have more in common.”

The route spotlights the natural beauty of public lands in counties where a chunk of the populace thinks the government shouldn’t own land at all. On January 2, 2016, armed militants occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County. Rancher Ammon Bundy led the takeover to protest the conviction of the Hammond brothers for burning 139 acres of public land in 2001 near Steens Mountain. One occupier was shot and killed, and a dozen others pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct federal officers, firearms violations, theft and depredation of federal property.

Jesse Laird, a rancher in the Warner Valley of Lake County, agrees with Bundy’s message but not his methods. “I felt like the way they went about it was wrong,” he says as he drives his black Suburban toward the looming monolith of Hart Mountain. “They should have gone on a speaking tour.”

Laird turns and points south to a cluster of dun-colored hills. The Oregon Desert Trail drops into the Warner Valley from there, he says. It runs along a paved road, then assails the escarpment of Hart Mountain, entering a national wildlife refuge.

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Cows graze in the Plush valley. The Oregon Desert Trail drops in from the hills in the background. Photo: Caleb Diehl

Laird is not shy about his views regarding the Oregon Natural Desert Association and its desert trail. He encourages people to experience the wilderness, he says. His wife, after all, is a professional wildlife photographer. But he’s concerned about the association’s proposal to have the trail designated as a national recreation trail. “I’m scared of designations,” he says. “Special designations always cause special problems.”

In the midst of a flurry of conservationist legislation, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration elevated the status of hiking with the National Trails System Act in 1968. In a speech several years prior, the Democrat paid tribute to “the forgotten outdoorsmen of today,” which he defined as “those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle.” The resulting legislation created National Scenic Trails, mammoth routes of more than 100 miles that pass “nationally significant scenic, historic, natural or cultural landmarks.”

Debuted in 2013, the exceedingly difficult Oregon Desert Trail has attracted few takers compared with existing National Scenic Trails. According to an informal survey conducted by the Pacific Crest Trail Association, 912 hikers this year have completed the now famous route linking the Mexican and Canadian borders in 2018. Ten people this year have finished the Oregon Desert Trail.

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The view from an early section of the trail in the Badlands Wilderness. Photo: Caleb Diehl

Despite the small number of completions, tourism agencies and the outdoor industry are funding Oregon’s longest thru-hike. The state tourism agency Travel Oregon earmarked the route as one of seven projects that will benefit from its forever fund. Hotels, restaurants and other tourist-facing business donate a portion of their proceeds to the fund. Projects must improve the visitor experience, restore the landscape and provide volunteer opportunities for Oregonians. Last year each of the grantees received around $6,000, a destination specialist with the agency says, and a smaller figure is expected this time around.

Linea Gagliano, a spokesperson for Travel Oregon, says the forever fund money will go toward public meetings and other initiatives to address ranchers’ concerns. “Knowing there was controversy around it, the funds are going to community engagement,” she says. “So it’s something that will enhance communities and not something people feel they just can’t get behind.”

Big outdoor-gear brands have lent support to the trail. The Bend REI store gave grants totaling more than $17,500 for trail maintence. Sawyer Products, an outdoor-gear manufacturer, chipped in around $1,000, and Cnoc Outdoors $2,500. MSR, one of the biggest names in the outdoor industry, promoted the trail on its Summit Post blog.

The unconventional route has also attracted travel write-ups in national publications including The Washington Post and The New York Times. In 2014 The Oregonian reported that the Oregon Natural Desert Association petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior to study the trail as a possible addition to the National Recreation Trails system.

Seeking to represent ranchers, who are powerful players in the rural economy, the Lake County government petitioned the Oregon Natural Desert Association in January 2014 to halt part of the designation process. They feared that a proposal to connect part of the desert trail to the Fremont National Recreation Trail marked an early step in scenic trail designation. Malheur County commissioners sent a similar letter.

Laird and other ranchers in Lake County don’t have a problem with the trail as is, but they fear designation could pave the way for scenic buffers of up to a quarter-mile on each side. In those buffer zones, agencies could ban motorized use and grazing. Along the Pacific Crest Trail, land trusts have succeeded in converting private land to public to make buffers that preserve a natural experience and allow easier access.

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Cattle graze with Hart Mountain in the background. Photo: Caleb Diehl

There’s a yawning gap between what rural communities think the Oregon Natural Desert Association is doing with the trail, and what ONDA says they’re doing. Lake County commissioners Bradley Winters and Dan Shoun say ONDA and the Bureau of Land Management have ignored their concerns about designation. “They pretty much couldn’t answer any of our questions about the use, and future use,” Shoun says. The last time Winters sat down in person with an ONDA representative was several years ago.

Three sections of the route—in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, the Pueblo Mountains and Steens Mountain—have received National Recreation Trail designations, but Patrick says ONDA is no longer actively pursuing designation for the rest of the route. “Nothing is off the table,” Patrick says, “but we’re trying to think through this thoughtfully.”

It wasn’t the only time communication broke down in the design of the trail. Alice Trindle, regional manager for the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association in Baker City, barely averted a publicity crisis. She killed an article about the new trail out of fear of offending ranchers.

“There were things [in the article] that really invited the visitor along the trail to go under barbed-wire fences and through gates,” Trindle says. “It didn’t have the respect for those traditional land managers, the ranchers.”

A rancher and owner of a horsemanship business, Trindle is deeply in touch with the region’s traditional industries. While tourism is growing, agriculture and ranching still sustain a large slice of Eastern Oregon’s economy. According to the state employment department, crop and animal production supplied 7.5% of private-sector employment and 7.1% of private-sector wages in 2017. A total $1.7 billion of agricultural products were sold in Eastern Oregon in 2012, the most recent year for which data from the census of agriculture is available. Livestock sales alone generated $762 million.

Tourism revenue in Eastern Oregon, though small by comparison, climbed steadily each year, from $316 million in 2010 to $383 million in 2017, according to Travel Oregon figures. About 900 jobs directly related to tourism were added in that time. Gagliano says the past few years in particular have seen a significant jump. There are also secondary effects that ripple through the economy.

Although posters promoting the Oregon Desert Trail hang everywhere from the historic saloon in Paisley to the Summer Lake Hot Springs resort, Lake County businesses have yet to realize gains from the project. Sylva, an experienced thru-hiker, says he can’t see annual Desert Trail thru-hikers ever exceeding 20.

Tourism in Lake County is still largely the domain of the rodeo and a trickle of agri-tourists. Many ranchers don’t know or care that the nascent Desert Trail exists. “They make it up as some big deal,” says John O’Keeffe, a rancher in Adel, a few miles down the road from Laird. “If somebody wants to go out and walk, they can walk there now. You don’t have to make a big effort to make it a trail.”

Thomas Batty, who owns Tall Town Bike and Camp, one of the few outdoor stores in Lakeview, says he’s stocked a bit more fuel for ODT hikers, but otherwise the trail hasn’t made much impact on his business. He thinks that could change, however, as the recreation-tourism sector gains steam. Lakeview is seeing increased visitation from the Timber Trail, another relatively new long-distance route focused on mountain bikers, and the Desert Trail could follow suit.

“This is a pretty conservative area. There’s a lot of distrust for the big-city environmentalists,” Batty says. “But there’s a lot of people in the business community learning to see the value of tourism and willing to overlook the political aspects of it.”

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Summer Lake Hot Springs, a stop for some ODT hikers. Photo: Caleb Diehl

Patrick says most of the tourism boost comes not from thru-hikers but from those who tackle small sections. The immense challenge of the trail plays to the aspirations of the weekend warrior. “The 750-mile ideal is really compelling,” Patrick says. “It’s a reason to go back.” She estimates that each year around 250 people hike segments.

“They’ll buy lunch, dinner, probably spend the night, fill their gas tank while they’re out there,” Gagliano says. “It’s bringing in much-needed economic numbers.”

Duane Graham, owner of the Summer Lake Hot Springs resort, shuttles in a handful of grateful hikers each year from an ODT trail junction 6 miles down the road. In a county where one new job is the equivalent of 520 in Multnomah County, and a group of five people makes a town, no visitor is insignificant.

“We probably will never have the numbers the [Pacific Crest Trail] has,” Patrick says, “but it’s a way to highlight the desert that works with the landscape.”

Given the air of general confusion, red-faced speculation or flat-out indifference in Lake County for the nascent trail, it would have been difficult to expect good results when Patrick ambled into the Warner Valley and ran into Laird at his ranch.

“Oh,” he said, “you’re She-ra.” Patrick was shocked that this rancher knew her “trail name” — a moniker, like “Dirtmonger,” that thru-hikers adopt during their journey. Laird explained that he had been following her blog and the trail’s development, and that he was concerned about possible buffers. Patrick expressed gratitude for the water holes developed by ranchers. Without them, she said, the Desert Trail hikers would go thirsty.

“I felt she was being very transparent and very honest,” Laird says. “I don’t feel like she is — it feels horrible to say — like the other ones there [at ONDA]. A lot of the other ones are out to get us.”

Part of the entrenched attitude of the ranchers comes from their long-standing relationship with the land. In 1867, Laird’s great-great-grandfather arrived in the Warner Valley with the U.S. Army. The Lairds carted in juniper posts on wagons to the Warner wetlands, setting up fencing and water holes for cattle. The early homesteaders fought off sporadic attacks from the Paiute Tribe as they migrated from Reno to Burns. Family folklore has it that one season, the Lairds housed an elderly woman whom the tribe had abandoned. Though she was blind, she always knew when the tribes were attacking. The only property the Lairds lost was one white horse.

Not long after, in the early 1900s, the O’Keeffe family arrived from County Cork, Ireland. They raised sheep but converted to cattle in the 1960s because of labor issues. John O’Keeffe took over the operation from his father in the 1980s after earning an agricultural economics degree from Oregon State University.

O’Keeffe has lived nearly his entire life in Adel, Oregon, 30 miles east of Lakeview. The Adel store, the only store in the unincorporated town, springs straight out of a Western. A group of ranchers in leather chaps and cowboy hats occupies the center. O’Keeffe, a 56-year-old, weather-beaten rancher, wears a white cattleman hat and a grey knit sweater. Laconic and even-tempered, he gives off an air of wisdom, the product of a lifetime of education and experience.

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John O’Keefe, a rancher in Adel. Photo: Caleb Diehl

On an afternoon in early November, O’Keeffe’s pickup reeks of smoke. He spent the morning burning the grass around his ranch buildings with drip torches. The burning creates a buffer that starves wildfires of fuel. O’Keeffe is chief of the local firefighting association, a volunteer group that tackles small blazes before they turn into “project fires.” The nearest actual fire department is a 40-minute drive away in Lakeview.

Apart from fire, in any given year O’Keeffe battles droughts, floods, blizzards, coyotes and disease. In winter he drives around all night picking up freezing calves and warming them in a heat box. While ensuring the survival of his herd, he revitalizes the land; he rotates grazing areas, for example, to give native bunchgrasses a chance to store root reserves.

Relatively recently, the environmental movement arrived with new ideas about preserving biodiversity. The 1964 Wilderness Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to review every roadless area within National Park and Forest land every 10 years for a special class of protection. The act famously defined wilderness as land “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The legislation banned motor vehicles and harvesting natural resources to maintain an intriguing but profoundly unscientific standard: “primeval character.”

In fact, many varieties of man, from Native Americans to ranchers, have come and gone from land thereafter protected as wilderness. Ranchers say their proactive management strategies, from rotational grazing to prescriptive burning, helped prevent fires and maintain rangeland health.

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John O’keefe checks on a water source near his range land. Photo: Caleb Diehl

“I think it’s a fundamental difference in the viewpoint,” O’Keeffe says. “We’ve been grazing here for over 100 years, and it’s still in good condition. We’ve learned a lot about range management over the years and how to graze so that this is sustainable.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, some environmentalists, uniting under the cry “Cattle free by ’93,” argued that sustainable grazing was an oxymoron. In 1987 a Bend resident took out a classified ad urging fellow environmentalists to come by Thursday night if they were interested in protecting public land in the high desert. Each member at that first meeting donated $5, and they dubbed themselves the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

The nonprofit dedicated itself to preserving biodiversity in the fragile high desert. In 1991 it pioneered a method of citizen-led wilderness inventories later adopted by the Bureau of Land Management. In 1994 it convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove livestock from Hart Mountain, a highlight of the Desert Trail near the Laird ranch, to protect pronghorn antelope and sage grouse. Perhaps most significantly, in 2000 the nonprofit led the effort to establish the first wilderness area in Eastern Oregon, Steens Mountain.

The organization quickly earned the ire of local ranchers. Now, depending on whom you talk to, ONDA is a dirty word. “Most of the ranchers despise them,” says John Ross, owner of the Frenchglen Hotel, a midway stop along the Desert Trail. “They don’t like them ’cause they send environmental things through the federal government and figure out other ways to make it tough on them.”

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Warner wetlands to the left, with Hart Mountain on the right. Photo: Caleb Diehl

In 1994, the same year ONDA protected Hart Mountain, Laird’s family lost access to greener late season feed on some 25,000 acres on the Warner wetlands. Laird says invasive Canada thistle proliferated when his cattle were barred from grazing. For another eight years, from 2005 to 2013, the Laird family chose to intervene in a lawsuit filed by ONDA against the Bureau of Land Management over grazing on Big Juniper Mountain. In the effort to preserve their grazing allotments, Laird says, the family quite literally bet the ranch.

O’Keefe remains bitter about the results of a recent case in which ONDA contested the Bureau of Land Management’s inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics. The organization argued for protecting areas with existing roads and water holes, areas O’keefe doesn’t consider wilderness. He says, “they flat out didn’t take in the whole picture.” The negotiations are ongoing.

Actions meant to safeguard the environment, ranchers say, ended up hurting it. After ONDA’s concerns prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove cattle from Hart Mountain, Laird says, coyotes preyed on deer instead. Cougars came down from the mountains into the Plush valley. “It is an area of critical environmental concern because the BLM bought it,” he says.

The chance meeting between Laird and Patrick laid a small plank in a bridge that needs to span the chasm between environmentalists and ranchers. Patrick was impressed that Laird followed her blog, showed commitment to ranching sustainably and took time after they met to attend a presentation that she gave in Lakeview. By the end of their conversations, she said, “I felt we were able to agree on the beauty of this land.”

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The Warner Wetlands. Photo: Caleb Diehl

The Oregon Desert Trail begins with little flourish or fanfare. A small wooden sign for the Tumulus Trail, hidden a mile down a rough four-wheel-drive road, marks the official start. The route enters the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area, one of the first ONDA campaigned to protect. In the early 2000s, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and a group representing ATV users fought the designation, but the environmental group won. ONDA offered to buy grazing permits at an estimated cost of $100,000, winning over some ranchers. In 2009 Congress designated 29,180 acres as wilderness.

I ran into a local duck hunter near the start of the trail. He said his family owned a ranch in nearby Alfalfa, and he spent nearly 40 years hiking the Badlands with no map or compass. Now, he says, he hardly goes there anymore. There are too many people.

I couldn’t agree, as I didn’t find any more people on a 20-mile loop in the Badlands. The first seven miles of the Desert Trail offered a small sampling of its difficulties. I carried eight pounds of water uphill through sand. The route meandered through scant double-track, almost as if it was designed to lose hikers in a twisted maze of basalt and juniper. I navigated using a map and compass, and REI’s Hiking Project iPhone app, but was still fooled once by a deceptive side trail.

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Flatiron Rock, an early stop on the ODT. Photo: Caleb Diehl

For those hiking longer segments of trail, getting lost and running out of water is a serious possibility — so serious, in fact, that ONDA’s Desert Trail resources run red with legal disclaimers. Patrick notes there haven’t been any cases yet of missing hikers, and she’s been meeting with rural responders. But those words of caution are not enough to appease ranchers and politicians whose rural counties foot the bill for finding lost hikers from cities. “If they get lost,” says Elias Eiguren, a fourth-generation rancher in Arock, north of Rome in Malheur County, “it’s hard to find them and hard to get to them.”

The land exhibits the stunning characteristics of congressionally protected wilderness. Western juniper trees grow much larger than usual. Basalt tumuli, remnants of 80,000-year-old lava flows from a shield volcano, rise up in cracked and tortured sculptures. Mule deer bound through the woods. Everywhere there is solitude and silence.

Patrick says a key function of the Desert Trail is educating hikers about public land like the Badlands. “We need these public lands in order to have long-distance routes,” she says. The route runs almost entirely on public land, and its guidebook describes in detail the eight types hikers will encounter. There are several precursors to wilderness designation, including lands with wilderness characteristics, wilderness study areas and citizen-proposed wilderness. Areas of Critical Environmental Concern also receive special protections to preserve wildlife and plant habitat.

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Camping in the Badlands Wilderness. Photo: Caleb Diehl

Environmentalists say all these designations are necessary to protect land as it progresses through the lengthy legislative process. Ranchers see needless bureaucracy. Both Laird and O’Keeffe feel crushed beneath layers of wilderness designations.

The dispute can be described as a tug-of-war between two philosophies. The debate dates to the turn of the 20th century, when naturalist John Muir and forester Gifford Pinchot butted heads over their visions for a public-lands system. Some environmentalists, and the authors of the Wilderness Act, sought Muir’s approach of preservation, returning the land to an untouched state. Of course, that prompts a question about what “untrammeled wilderness” means on a planet that is evolving every second. Loggers and ranchers argued instead that conservation — proactive management and responsible resource use — actually lead to better outcomes for the ecosystem. Generally, both sides agree to a mix of both approaches, but the exact ratio is up for debate.

Eiguren falls into the latter camp. He runs 500 head of angus cattle, and he says he’s become frustrated by wilderness and monument designations blocking his efforts to care for the land. “ONDA would like to see the straight 1964 wilderness,” Eiguren says. “If we don’t interact with this land, it dies.”

Toward that end, Eiguren helped found the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition. The group of ranchers and local families is advancing a new management plan for the area. The plan calls for temporarily lifting some wilderness designations to allow ranchers to remove invasive cheatgrass and medusahead rye, introduce appropriate perennial grasses and shrubs, and develop water holes for cattle and wildlife. Eiguren says the coalition is taking feedback on its concept paper and hopes to present to the legislature in the next few years.

The rancher says tensions with ONDA have cooled since the push for the Owyhee Canyonlands monument, a campaign sponsored by Keen and other outdoor-gear manufacturers, along with environmental activists. But the whole thing feels like a dry grassland in summer — it could ignite at the drop of a match. “I think we’re talking more, just because there isn’t a big issue right now,” he says. “Things could get tense in a hurry.”

When Sylva opened a conversation with the cowboy at the edge of Louse Canyon, he kept talking about the nearby Owyhee monument. He seemed cautious. He suspected Sylva might be a clueless urbanite or, worse, an ONDA member.

But then they began poring over maps. The rancher helped Sylva find a water source; Sylva pointed the rancher toward his missing cattle. “He definitely let his guard down when I was communicating about the land,” Sylva says. “He then had a respect for me that I knew the area and was able to help him find his cows.”

The Oregon Desert Trail evokes suspicion in some rural ranchers and politicians, but others see an opportunity for common ground. Unlike many other ONDA projects, the Desert Trail has benefited from the support of ranchers. Patrick spent long hours talking with the many private landowners along the route. She never ran into pushback, she says. Some ranchers even offered hot showers or water caches for hikers.

Laird and I certainly do not think the same way about wilderness or the Malheur takeover. But in just an afternoon, I could empathize with some facets of his frustration. He doesn’t want to get 15 signatures on a 34-page document to access one water hole. He doesn’t want a hiker from Portland pulling up fences on Hart Mountain without understanding the families who put them there 150 years ago.

Those dialogues might seem like small steps, but considering the decades of bitter legal battles that have characterized this land, they are giant leaps. The opportunity for further bridge building and discussion among polarized groups sets the Oregon Desert Trail apart from its long-distance brethren.

“I saw polar opposites probably more than any place I’ve walked,” Sylva says. “It’s all intertwined around public land. But there’s still that common bond, and it all revolves around the landscape.”

11/14/18: This article has been edited to reflect the following corrections. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not ONDA, made the descision to remove cattle from Hart Mountain. In the ligitation over Big Juniper Mountain, ONDA sued the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that owned the land on which the Lairds ran their cattle. The Lairds voluntarily intervened in the case.


Renee here: I did want to address one issue mentioned in the article about hikers going under fences and through gates. There are hundreds of fences on public land throughout eastern oregon, and it is perfectly legal to go over or under those fences or though the gates. I urge respect above all, and want hikers to realize that not all fences mean private land, and not all private land is fenced. I have clearly marked private land on the ODT maps so that hikers can know where they can and can’t go. Gates are to be left as they are found. We as hikers want to be respected as we travel through public lands and the land owners want to be respected for their livihoods and traditional ways of life. I also urge hikers to think about the people who lived on the land and traveled through it before modern civilization. Eastern Oregon has the oldest traces of humans in North America along sections of the Oregon Desert Trail; sites of first nations people are dated back to over 14,000 years ago, and another site hasn’t been verified, but dates back to over 16,000 years ago. Hikers will pass by many areas of significance to these orginal habitants of Oregon.

Desert Trail Day 4 – 8.5 miles (and beyond)

We have been getting up in the dark and walking around first light, mainly to avoid some of the heat. Even though it is November, day time temperatures can still get in the 90s, and since we dropped 4,000′ yesterday, we are almost at sea level, and in for real heat. We were walking as soon as we could see the ground, about quarter to 6. The entirety of our miles would be in the open, leaving the mouth of Marble Canyon on the large alluvial fan that spreads out towards Stovepipe Wells.

Stovepipe Wells is one of the only places in the park with a cell phone tower, and since it was November 7, I powered up my phone to find out some election results. Most of us were from Oregon and had races we were all following. Some elation, some depression, but the election results fueled our walking and conversations for a while.

We were moving quickly between the debris and dry washes that fan out from the canyon. Up and down, in and out of the eroded banks, around and over the creosote bushes. As we approached Stovepipe Wells the bushes got bigger and bigger, soon they looked like jellyfish emerging out of the sand.

I spent a lot of the time talking with Bob, a Portlander. He had been president of the mountain climbing group in Oregon, the Mazamas, and had numerous great stories to share. John was also from Portland. Gary and Dan were from the Madras, Warm Springs Reservation area, and Skip and I from Sunriver and Bend…respectively. Only Kim was from out of state, and as a Nevadaer from nearby Pahrump, he was able to dive into these deserts and mountains on a regular basis. Jealous.


She-ra and her crew

The night before we realized we’d be done with the hike much sooner than originally thought, so instead of all going out for dinner tonight at the Stovepipe Wells restaurant, we might make it in time for breakfast. In fact, we rolled up on the campground where Dan C and Skip were waiting for us about 9am. We threw on clean t-shirts, and hobbled over to the all you can eat breakfast buffet. Oh yeah. It’s a universal pleasure to finish up a hike with a big meal, and our plates never saw it coming.

Most of the group had decided to start heading home today, and I had been playing phone tag with my good pal Amanda “Not a Chance,” a thru-hiker friend who is working in Death Valley this fall. We wanted to connect, but it happened to be her days off when I got back, and she was out exploring another canyon in the park. I decided that I wanted to hike Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley, but first I wanted to play tourist.

We said goodbye as we all went our separate ways, and I got in the car to head to the visitors center at Furnace Creek. After dodging sweet-smelling tourists in the halls of the exhibits, I got back in the car to go see Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the park. At -282′ below sea level, this place was HOT and covered in salt flats. I stopped at the Devil’s golf course to see the salty cracks in the earth push up into interesting formations, then on to the white panes of salt that make up the Badwater area. I could see directly across to Telescope Peak, where I would be hiking tomorrow, if all went well.

Then back in the car to drive all the way around the park, up the marginal dirt and rocky road to the Mahogany Flat campground at the base of the 7-mile climb to Telescope Peak. I made it all the way around before dark, and made myself a cozy little bed in the back of the truck with a dinner of cheese, meat stick, crackers, and wine. Glamping all the way!

I did not sleep well and was up before light, as was our pattern this week. I made coffee and waited for the sun to crest the horizon and make the world much warmer. The campground was at 8,133′ and the morning was brisk.

I drank my coffee, and read a bit before venturing out with my day pack to start the hike. Seven miles up and back. I started walking at 7:15 and the trail was in great shape. It was sloped gently enough that I could cruise without too much effort and it felt so good to stretch my legs after a half a day in the car.

The ridgeline trail was visible when I rounded corner after corner, and I had an incredible day to be up on the top of the world. Badwater Basin was shrouded in fog, and I could see over to the Sierras and Mt. Whitney! There was NO SNOW on the Sierras, and that was a bit eerie for November. Little did I know a huge fire had broken out on the other side of the mountains and had devastated the whole town of Paradise.

I encountered a whole herd of deer at one point, several being nice big bucks. And then some campers that were perched in one of the only spots a group could have camped up here.

Then up and up and up. The trail started switchbacking, and I knew I was getting closer. I had yet to stop for a break, and wanted to keep pushing.

Finally, the top! Three hours to hike the 7 miles up to 11,043′, and I was the only one up there. I signed the register and soaked in the views for a few minutes, eating lots of snacks from my pack. It felt good to be alive.

Then down. The way down went much faster, and I only saw one person heading up. It was a quiet day on the mountain. I guess the crowds of people I saw at the visitors center and at Badwater Basin are not mountain climbers.

I was back to the car by 12:15, and by then I had decided to head over to the base of the Sierras and drive back to Bend on the other side of the park. I cued up a few hours of podcasts, and spent the next few hours driving through the east side of the Death Valley park. (This place is enormous!) By dinner I was in Bishop, and decided to call it a night, finding a cheap hotel, delivery pizza, and the first shower of the week.

The next morning I weighed my options after a delicious visit to Erick Schat’s Bakkery. YUM.

I decided I would try to find a theater playing the new film, Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s free climb of El Capitan. The film isn’t playing in Bend, and I saw that Reno had a few showings, so drove up there for an early afternoon movie. INCREDIBLE film. So good.

When I got out and looked for a place to camp, I saw Bend wasn’t too far away. Maybe close enough to just drive home? Maybe?

So I drove home, getting back to Bend about midnight.

Desert Trail Day 3 – 13 miles

Did I mention 3 of us on this hike were Peace Corps volunteers? I love that. We are still trying to save the world in our own ways.

We woke in our rabbit brush rooms to the first light and quickly ate our breakfast and finished our coffee. Today was Marble Canyon!


Now I don’t have much knowledge of Death Valley, but when I told a few people where we were hiking, they got a glint in their eye when I mentioned Marble Canyon. The word was petroglyphs and incredible canyon walls.

The canyon started slowly and morphed from an open chaparral landscape to more confined granite walls a mile or two in. The colors and patterns were dramatic and got even more so as the day progressed. We would stop occasionally to ooo and ahh at the crystals in the rock, or the striking folds of the earth. We could tell there had been a recent flooding event, and there was a mud wall plastered to the side of the canyon much like the ring in a bathtub, and it could have been from a recent rain event about a month ago that closed the road to the original section we were looking at doing.


Two of the hikers, Kim and Dave, decided to do a side loop down Dead Horse Canyon, so the group split up and reconnected about an hour later.

The canyon got really good after that and had narrows smoothed by years of water erosion. Simply incredible. We spotted some petroglyphs and took a few minutes trying to decipher the images. At another spot a few of us climbed up to reach some others, and after lunch break I got up from my tyvek seat to see a scorpion scurry out from underneath. Eeek!



Lots more interesting walls, a chockstone we had fun posing with, and some pretty easy walking took us to the spot where the canyon widened enough for cars to drive in to find Dave Chamness there with water for us. Very excellent!


Skip’s foot was bothering him, so he decided to head back to stovepipe wells with Dan while the rest of us continued on. We walked within a mile of the canyon opening and found camp on a sand bench above the gravel drainage/road.


It’s warm tonight. We lost over 4,000’ of elevation today, but it doesn’t feel like it, except it is a warm mild night. Tomorrow we will finish the hike and we are already talking about the celebratory meal we will eat together at the restaurant.

Desert Trail Day 2 – 9 miles

Since daylight savings just happened it was dark by 5pm and we had a solid 12 hours in our sleeping bags.


We were hiking before the sunlight hit us this morning, and had a short climb up away from Hidden Canyon and took a minute up top to shed some layers, soak in the warming sun and slather ourselves with sunscreen. What little cloud cover we had the day before was gone and the sun was strong for November.


We had easy walking through Joshua trees and dry washes, skirting around the numerous animal burrows that peppered the landscape. At the edge of Salt Flat we debated the way down, and folks took off in several directions, each convinced they had the best path. At the base of some impressive quartzite mountains we took a break, filling up with snacks and plenty of laughter. These guys are a hoot to hike with!


The next stretch was hot and exposed as we worked our way through salt flat, and had to take several shade breaks in slivers of shade from rocks, the side of a wash or the lean shadows of a Joshua tree.

We turned to climb a dirt road past an old mine, and the mining debris was scattered all over the place. Historical trash my foot, I don’t understand why some of this junk isn’t cleaned up.

By early afternoon we made it to Gary’s car, and our water cache. Gary graciously agreed to pack out our trash and we bid him a farewell… He was on his way to Baja… lucky guy.

We only went a short distance further before finding small flat spots between the thick rabbit brush that was choking the start of Marble Canyon. It was early and half the group took off to explore Shorty Harris canyon while I and a few others stayed behind. I read some of my Harper’s Magazine and enjoyed some quiet time.

Dinner was more laughter and a wide array of freeze dried and dehydrated dinners. Bed time early again… Tomorrow the famous Marble Canyon!

Desert Trail (Death Valley Section) Day 1- 5.5 miles


Since starting work on the Oregon Desert Trail I’ve been working with the Desert Trail Association. Also known as the DTA, this group of hikers had been working on creating a Mexico to Canada route in the deserts of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington since the 70s. Fast forward over 40 years and the group has been successful in designating several sections as national recreation trails, particularly in Oregon in the Pueblo and Steens Mountains. The Oregon Desert Trail ties into their sections here, and first brought me in contact with the group, based in Madras, Oregon.

Now many of the original members have passed, and many others are old enough that the Desert Trail has lost a lot of the energy and drive to continue refining the route and telling hikers about it. Now the members like to go on hikes along the route several times during the year, and I’ve started leading some of those hikes for them. I love the stories from this group, and especially the fact that many of the hikers are in their 70s or even older. When one of the board members, Skip, asked if I wanted to co-lead a few sections of the route through Death Valley in California, I jumped at the chance. I have never been to Death Valley and have heard marvelous things about the hiking there.

The Desert Trail is very much the precursor to the ODT, and much like my route, this has almost no trail, and that’s how this group likes it. There have always been bad ass desert rats wanting an immersive wilderness experience, and I very much identify. The ODT can learn a lot from this OG route, and has.

We chose November as the summers are an inferno, and it was their traditional time to meet and go hiking. When I looked at the forecast and saw 90 degree days, I knew the trip would be like one last hurrah of summer. I left Bend after work on a Friday and drove about 5 hours to just outside of Winnemucca and pulled over on a BLM road to park and sleep in the back of the car.


The next day I drove through the middle of Nevada and past many mountain ranges I was itching to explore. I pulled into stovepipe wells mid afternoon and found the group in the campground. Several folks I had met before, and several I hadn’t. We were joined by some other people from the Death Valley Hikers Association, and spent the first night camped together. Not everyone would be hiking, and some would be helping to cache water and shuttle cars.

We started at the Racetrack, a large alkali playa where the rocks have an eerie way of moving on their own. Our plan was to hike back to Stovepipe Wells in 4 days. About 40 miles. Because I was the youngest hiker (and the only woman) by about 30 years, we had planned some modest mileage. Skip had hiked this section several times before, although from the other direction. We figured between us we would have our bases covered. I had the guidebook to the desert trail in death valley, and the route waypointed on Gaia. Even though I haven’t been here before, we had enough resources and first hand knowledge to do the trip.

The drive to the Racetrack took 3 hours even though it was only 72 miles. About half was on a rocky washboarded road, although the group told me it was in much better shape than they had seen it before. Two cars went to drop off a vehicle at our night 2 spot as one of the hikers would have to leave early. We had water cached inside – there is no water available for the 4 days otherwise.

We all met at the Racetrack and started hiking. The Playa was beautiful and the Temps were a much more pleasant low 80s. We checked out the grandstand, a rocky outcropping in the middle of the flat, and then made our way up the climb of the day through a series of washes.


The mountains are enormous here, and I loved it all. After huffing and puffing up the climb we had lunch on top. The rest of the way we wound our way back down past Joshua trees and creosote bushes. We descended down to Hidden Valley, which didn’t seem so hidden because we saw a bunch of cars cruise by on the dirt road that passes through the middle. We took a lay-down break before crossing the valley to find camp at the mouth of the next climb. Basin and range baby!


I’m cowgirl camping tonight and it’s fairly warm… so nice to be out here.

Get creative with what you love

Some of you probably know that I’m a graphic designer, and over the years have enjoyed making logos and designs in the hiking community.

I was thrilled to help out friend and fellow badass hiker Mandy “Purple Rain” Bland with a logo for her company, Purple Rain Adventure Skirts. I’ve been wearing her skirts for the past 4 years and can confidently say they are my favorite piece of hiking gear.

I think this logo embodies Mandy and the brand so well…take a look and consider a skirt for your next hiking adventure. They look great in town too.