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Camping, Alvord Desert

An Old Trough in Heaven

The Alvord Desert

I’m cold. I roll over onto my side and pull the sleeping bag closer to my chin. It’s still dark out. The desert sand is too hard for me to lie long on my side, so I roll over onto my back again, burying my head in the pillows. Only the tip of my nose is exposed. I just get back to sleep when I am awakened, as we are every morning at the first hint of light by some jerk in his plane who feels it is his duty to be off the ground, up in the air before daybreak flying back and forth over the camp to make sure everyone is awake. We get up groggy and a little snarly, fire up our Coleman stove and put water on to boil; slice potatoes in the skillet.

We are in the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon attending a five-day (by permission only) camp-out/fly-in, an annual gathering of pilots in ultralights and conventional aircraft. Once I have my hot cocoa I’m not cranky anymore. It would take a lot to make me unhappy in this desert. The Steens Mountains loom behind our camp, 4,100 feet above us, towering, craggy, like they leaped out of the desert floor.

I’ve seen the other side of the Steens, the western gentle slope from French Glen upwards to the crest where my youngest sister took me one summer. We drove up the grassy plains on a rocky rutted road to the summit and strolled out on the promontory, the wind slapping at us, until we came to the edge. This was what she was waiting for — for years — this one moment when I would casually step to the edge for the view and discover the enormity of our climb and see the earth fall away in one sheer plunge to the desert floor. I gasped sharply and staggered back. She was happy. Oh, so happy. I hit at her and she was happier still. We were eye to eye with eagles in this wondrous place. Breathless, laughing.

This first week of October though, I am at the base of the Steens. I am the ground crew for my friend, Jeff. I drive his diesel Ford pickup, laden with fuel, tent and supplies, while he flies his red and white ultralight Carrera. We travel at about the same speed, 60-75 MPH, but he can cut corners and cruise over canyons. We make it a two-day trip to the Alvord, stopping in Bend the first night to golf and visit friends. Yes, ground crew essentials, golf clubs.

It's 18 degrees in the morning but it will soon warm to the seventies or even eighties. It will be another sparkling arid desert day. By mid-afternoon, as we watch mirages shimmer over the salt pan playa of the Alvord, we think it's time for milkshakes and so race to the tiny outpost of Fields twenty miles away — Jeff by plane, me by truck. It's a straight shot for me and I get there just ahead of him. I lose sight of him and can barely hear the drone of his plane, almost lost in the racket from my diesel engine and the radio blaring Country & Western music. Suddenly, his plane appears in my rear-view mirror. He lands on the asphalt highway behind me.

In the evening, it's time for our routine soak in the hot springs, but we decide to forgo the nearby crowded well-known pool and instead seek out the hidden springs that Jeff has scoped out by air. There's a ranch road we can access, so we drive (the Carerra is a one-person plane) parallel to the dry lake bed some seven or eight miles to the low-lying sand dunes peppered with sage and rocks. Over the first dune, we spot the hot springs – bubbling mud holes rimmed with salt and mineral deposits, steaming in the evening air. We hike to the springs, careful not to step through false ground, mere crusts covering boiling water. We gawk at insect carcasses on the water surfaces, instantly preserved on contact with the deadly heat. We check deer and coyote trails, then scout the hot spring pools to see which is to our liking. We find a man-made trough with a stream trickling from a larger pool, which, as the water tumbles across the terrain, acts as temperature control.

We soak in the trough and watch dense storm clouds accumulate on the mountains above us. The storm sends squalls scudding toward us but the clouds quickly scatter across the desert and dissipate. A raindrop or two touches us as showers race by, but we remain in sunlight. The storm rages on the mountains. Snow dusts the peaks. A rainbow blooms in the desert behind us.

"This is heaven," I say.

"Desolate," says Jeff.

"Yes," I say. Heaven.

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