Road report #7 – SE Oregon

On Monday, 10/2, I reluctantly left Tumalo, OR and waved good bye to my friends.  I had had such a good time and it was nice to be around people and in a comfort zone again.  I felt myself feeling dragging a little as I pulled away from their house.

I headed SE on Highway 20.    The drive was pretty and the vistas were incredible.  I was heading into a very sparsely populated area, with few services, and I had to be careful to make sure I planned routes around fueling up.

This is big sky country where the highways run straight as an arrow for miles and the views and sky go on for miles.  Driving was easy and I saw little traffic.

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Stretch of Highway 20 between Bend and Burns, OR

I stopped in Burns, OR for dinner.  Burns is a potentially cute town with historic buildings but clearly not thriving.  I walked by a real estate office and took a peak at real estate prices.  Houses priced in the 150 – 50k range in general.   CHEAP!! by my Seattle standards.   But when I took Roo for a walk around the town, as soon as I got a couple of blocks off the main street, things started to look really rough.

This trip has been an opportunity to witness first hand how rural communities are struggling.  The ones that appear to be healthy are few and far between.  While in Tumalo, I attended a presentation at the High Desert Museum where Walter Robb (former co-CEO of Wholefoods) talked about the partnership between Wholefoods and Country Natural Beef.  An audience member asked Mr.  Robb if he saw evidence that rural communities were drying up.  He felt that was true and he didn’t have anything really positive to say.   That was disheartening.   I hate to see these small town communities crumbling, especially those that have historic architecture.

It was dark when I finally made it to my intended camping spot at Crystal Crane Hot Springs and Roo and I immediately hunkered down for the eve.   The temperatures were in the 20’s at night. Quite nippy!  It was the first time I tried to figure out how to camp in the van without popping the pop up camper to conserve heat.  With the pop top down and the furnace going, it was toasty!

The next day, 10/3, I woke early and started off the day by watching the sunrise while soaking in the hot springs pond.  It was FREAKING MAGICAL!  I couldn’t believe my day was starting off with a swim in a hot spring pond.

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Crystal Crane Hotsprings

I pushed off for the day.  First stop of the day was the Pete French Round State Heritage Site.   So cool! Built in the 1880’s!  Pete French sounds like he was bit of a bastard.  He became a cattle barron by grabbing up land using dubious legal claims and intimidation tactics.  His employees were apparently very loyal to him but get on his bad side, look out!  He was eventually shot and the man who shot him was found innocent, public opinion having turned so far against the large cattle barons that apparently a person could shoot one and get away with it.

I drove further along, passing through the Diamond Crater’s area, evidence of ancient lava flows all around.

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Along Lava Bed Road

This is cattle ranching country and I came around a corner to find some cowboys driving their cattle.  I sat patiently while they passed.  I was amazed at how quiet and peaceful it was as they passed.  Just the clip clop of hooves and dust. The two cowboys tipped their hats as they passed but that was it.   Man, having a work day where you spend the day out in the field, riding a horse, looked pretty good to me.

I drove on to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  (You may recall that this was the site of a stand off with the US government in 2016.)  I drove around on gravel roads all day through stunning scenery and saw maybe 10 people total.  This is a big spot for migrating birds but I did not really see much of that activity.  Roo and I didn’t really mind.

At the end of the day I fueled up in the TINY town of Frenchglen, OR.  Cute with a historic hotel that is the only game in town.  I was bummed to find no vacancy and no availability to get in on their dinner service.

I ended up camping at Paige Springs Campground.   It is a well used campground.  There were several campers and RV’s but it was pretty and the campsites were nice and spread out so it was very quiet.    Roo and I took a stroll around the campsite and she completely spazzed out when a deer bolted. She ended up crashing into me and sending me to the ground.  Ofcourse other campers witnessed this incident to my embarrassment.   Now that I am east of the mountains and heading south east, I find myself increasingly in the land of poky and spiny things.  I ended up with about 40 splinters in my hand and it took about 5 days to finally dig them all out.

From our campground, after a nice quiet night, Roo and I took a beautiful walk along the Blitzen River the next morning.  OH MAN! What a nice start to a day!

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Blitzen River Trail

After our quick stroll along the river, I took off from the campground and set off to drive the Steens Mountain Loop  Road.  Oh…my…god!  This is probably one of the top 10 coolest things I’ve done in my life.  I will let the pictures and video speak for themselves.

View from the Kiger Gorge Overlook:

Views from the East Rim Overlook: (The Alvord Desert can be seen in picture below on the right.  More on that in a bit…)

View at the top of the road, looking across the plateau:

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Views from the south side of the loop road:

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After the Steen Mountain Loop, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do next.  I had planned on camping at the South Steen Campground but when we drove past, I just wasn’t feeling it so I pushed on.  I started heading towards Fields, OR.  It was the next logical fueling up point and there’s a motel/restaurant there called Fields Station that I thought might be my next overnight spot.   When I arrived, I discovered they were all booked up so on a whim I decided to try Alvord Hotsprings, another 30 min drive up the road.

Oh..my..god!   This is probably one of the top 10 coolest places I’ve been in my life. (Yeah, I know I just said something like that about the Steen Mountains Loop, but this turned out to be an extra special day.)

The Alvord Hotsprings is this rustic family run hot springs that sits on the edge of the Alvord Desert.  Paul, the owner was there, and checked me in.  The hot springs is tiny and rustic and barebones.  I loved it.

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Alvord Hotsprings

Paul is struggling with how recent exposure via social media has changed the nature of the place.  On the one hand, income from the hot springs has been doubling year after year for the past few years.  On the other hand, with the number of visitors doubling year after year,  the quiet, unknown, secret treasure feeling is being compromised.  And as the number of visitors grows it means more management and Paul is a rancher.  He has 2500 head of cattle and would really rather be back at the ranch tending to ranch business than dealing with the hot springs.    His hot spring care taker had just recently quit and he asked several times if I would stick around for a few days and run the place for him.  I was tempted for about 10 seconds, but no, had to keep moving.  People and places to see!

Paul was concerned that I wasn’t carrying a handgun on my trip and highly encouraged me to get a .38.  He actually brought a loaded one back with him from the ranch and had me hold it to get a sense of the size and feel.   Uf da! This is something I have really mixed feelings about.  I don’t really want the responsibility of a loaded weapon.  On the other hand, it’s going to suck if I find myself in a position thinking, dang I wish I had a gun right now.

After a soak in the hotspring, I drove Greta out onto the desert floor and played fetch with Roo while I enjoyed cocktails and I watched the sun go down over the desert and then the full moon rise over the mountains.  It was just crazy beautiful and serene.  I felt immensely grateful that the road trip gods or the universe or whatever had led me down this path.  If there had been a room at the Fields motel I never would have ventured to Alvord and would have missed this surreal experience.

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I was the only one that spent the night at the hot springs.  My next day started off with watching the sunrise from the hot spring pools.

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I decided I needed to spend another day.  Alvord Desert was just too cool and I really wanted to take it all in and spend more time out on the desert floor.

Before heading out to the desert, on a tip from Paul, I ventured way back on some gravel roads to find Mickey Springs.  These springs are too hot to soak in.  People and pets have died here. The waters are boiling temperatures but totally cool to check out.

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After Mickey Springs I decided to drive out on the desert again and just hang out there for the afternoon.

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It was amazing.  This is probably the closest I will get to being in a vacuum.    It was SO SO still and quiet.   Everything, even the clouds, seemed to have stopped and become suspended in time.  It was a deeply moving experience.  I stayed out there all afternoon just chilling out and enjoying the peace and stillness.

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Initially the desert seemed completely devoid of life.  It seemed completely barren. But then I noticed these little spiders living in the cracks.  Amazing!

I spent my second night at the hot springs and my morning started off again with a nice hot soak.  My moment of bliss:

Then Roo and I ventured just up the road to check out a trailhead I had spied on the way back from Mickey Springs.  I wanted to try to fit in a quick hike before doing a bunch of driving.  The road up to the trail head was WAY rougher than I was expecting and it was giving me an opportunity to test Greta’s mettle. As I was getting closer to the trailhead I could see several trucks up there and then I noticed a group of people watching me navigate the road.  Oh boy, I had an audience. Great.  Fortunately, Greta tackled the rough road like champ! When I finally got up there I was met by a nice bunch of guys who had been camping annually at this spot for the past 35 years.  They had apparently spotted Greta several times over the past week, starting in Bend, and were excited to see me and get a closer look at the van.

After a nice chat with the guys, Roo and I hit the trail.  It was AWESOME and Roo and I had nice hike to start the day.  There was evidence along the trail of mining activity from back in the day.

After the hike it was time to start making our way southeast.  I had a week to get to Denver and about 1000 miles to cover and I didn’t want to do a bunch of highway driving or spend too many hours in the car.  4 hour driving days are about the max I can handle.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I started heading to SE Oregon and it totally blew my mind!  You won’t find much in terms of amenities and services so be prepared to be self sufficient.  But you’ll find amazing nature and wilderness and wide open country and opportunities to really get away from it all.  It’s SO SO quiet. I did feel truly removed from it all on this leg of the trip.  Here’s a map that illustrates the ground I covered on this leg.  Put SE Oregon on your bucket list, people!

I left SE Oregon, heading towards Winnemucca, NV and intending to take highway 50 towards Denver.   This route was recommended by someone I met along the way and each time I’ve followed someone’s recommendation I have not been disappointed.  This stretch of highway is known as the ‘loniest highway’ so I’m expecting long stretches without any amenities and little contact with other people.  A bit apprehensive but we’ll see how it goes.

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