The Upside of Downtime

It’s the Fourth of July weekend and not a creature is stirring in Portland. For all the people have departed in one mass exodus to the natural spaces within a two-hour radius of the city. Things tend to be crowded on this, the holiest of summer holidays. But now, e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e is looking to trade their “new normal” for a few sleeps beneath the stars. 

Being free from the shackles of steady employment gives me the upper hand on those tethered to an internet connection. No one’s monitoring my Slack status or demanding I show my face on Zoom, so the possibilities for where and when I can go are virtually endless right now. (Ahem, domestically speaking.)

This is both a liberating and daunting position to be in when you’re new to a place like Oregon. The ocean, mountains, desert, rainforest, badlands and outback are all within a three-hour drive of my doorstep. Trip planning is limited to packing up the camping gear, downloading some offline maps and filling up the tank on a high-clearance adventuremobile. 

Other than that, if you’re the kind of person who’s comfortable not knowing exactly where you’ll sleep that night, you’re well on your way to finding solitude in the height of busy season. 

Along with a freewheeling attitude, the best asset you can have is a group of intrepid friends. Steph and Mike are excellent explorers who love to dig deep into their surroundings. They’ll always trade the obvious attractions for the obscure. Naturally, I love their sense of adventure and “What’s around the next corner?” approach to exploring. 

Together, we set out on a seven-hour drive to Oregon’s beautiful and overlooked southeastern corner. Its remote location and harsh conditions keep most people away from its centerpiece attraction – The Alvord Desert. 

This beautiful hellscape is connected to a dry lake basin system that extends into Nevada where the Burning Man festival is held every year. The “playa” is hard-packed mud that’s completely flat and free of obstruction. Relentless winds whip across its cracked surface, sometimes in the form of little tornadoes called dirt devils. Occasionally, they’ll crash into your camp, driving grit into the space between your teeth.

People come here for various reasons: to rave with 50 like-minded individuals; to race cars and dirt bikes Bonneville-style; or, like us, to camp in the weirdest place possible. 

We low-speed drag raced our 4-Runners five miles across the playa. A deep blue horizon extended for centuries to our left and right. A row of green mesas were ahead, while a 5,000-foot-tall wall of basalt rose dramatically behind us in the form of the Steens Mountains. 

We stopped at the sagebrush, which grows in dense patches along the playa’s perimeter. It provides good cover for bathroom breaks, not that privacy is an issue here. Our camp was roughly a mile away from the nearest vehicle. 

If “water is life” is the first rule of desert survival, a close second should be, “you can never have too much shade.” The mid-day sun burned hot and bright enough to sear a hole through my very soul. The four of us spent the day hiding beneath an old tarp strung between our trucks. Occasionally, we’d venture out to explore or ride dirt bikes, but the conditions had us seeking shelter in short order.  

Our reward for survival was getting to experience Alvord at sunset. Harsh winds mellowed into a comfortable breeze. White-hot light melted into a mesmerizing swirl of pastel watercolors painted across the sand, mountains and sky. The sun dropped behind the Steens as the full moon rose from the mesas. Darkness provided the sensation of swimming at night in your favorite hidden spot. 

After a thorough baby wipe shower, we settled into our small tent, partially hidden behind a patch of sagebrush. The space all around us felt so vast and limitless. It was incredible to be a part of it, separated by little more than a layer of bug netting. 

We spent the next day traveling to the top of the Steens overlooking the Alvord. Along the way, we passed through tiny towns with mercantiles and $15 cheeseburgers. That night, we slept in an alpine meadow at 7,000 feet.

The previous day’s dust and sweat were long forgotten as we layered up in beanies and puffies. Wiley, the dog, was much happier with this set-up. We were just happy to be alive in an impossibly beautiful place, watching another world-class sunset from our own private perch. 

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