Friday, March 30, 2018

The Forgotten Route: The Desert Trail

Along forgotten paths, I see human migration, abandoned industry operations, game paths leading to safety, to an unreliable water source, or to a lair. Most of all, I see human exploration coupling with an undying curiosity and love for a landscape. It’s more than a recreational endeavor, more than a notch to list off in this day and age of ‘me' and comparison. I can see the vestige of previous human existence. Overgrown grasses and shrubs carpet an old road, wheel ruts are gouged beneath the small canopy of sagebrush and creosote in time frozen. Rusted metal pokes out of the sandy ground, heavy cogs and corroded rotors bake in the sun, the maw of adits exhale a cold, deep-in-the-ground-breath. The wind whips up grit of tiny sand pebbles erasing the nostalgia of times past, that vision of thriving or bustling wiped out by immediate needs: lack of water, thirst, the blazing sun, the unforgiving wind, the eerie stillness of harshness. And I see the wavy lines of the distant horizon. I leave the forgotten area for an illusion ahead.

I think of the Desert Trail as the Forgotten Route. The excitement that Russell Pangelly must have had in the early 1960's in potentially establishing the DT as a National Scenic Trail must have been fervorous. He evisioned a trail, with little signage and little actual trail path, and route finding navigation by map and compass. He scoured over maps to determine a route through a continuous desert environment on public land. He patterend his idea of the DT around the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails, which at the time were the only 2 National Scenic Trails. This interesting and unique concept of the DT is that the common geological, biological, historical and scenery would integrate the common theme of the desert ecosystem spanning from Mexico to Canada, close to 2500m. The essentially unspoiled landscape, in particular a public land landscape, would be open to hikers to roam and explore. The DT promoted a wide-open space for hikers to explore and relieved pressure off of well-trodden and heavily impacted trails like the PCT and AT. An immense wilderness, a trail corridor, protected and backed by Congress, a National Scenic Trail that embodies the iconic West? What happened to this idea, this incredible concept? I imagine back in the 1960's the notion of a thru-hiker must have been far-fetched. Maybe it seemed more feasible in 1975 as Pengelly's son hiked the Oregon Desert section in 35 days and some 452m, which spawned parts of the eventual Oregon Desert Trail in its seedling days. In this day and age, with the popularity of trail culture and long distance hiking, even with craze of conservation, the concept of an actual Desert Trail, in a country with the greatest trail system in the world, seems unreasonable, a forgotten idea and a dream.

'Trail contruction will be minimal. Instead, the path can be marked in areas simply with cairns and it can be a point to point route.' excerpt from Backpacker article in 1976 by Betty Tucker, Building the Desert Trail

The Desert Trail Association formed in 1972 in Burns OR by Pangelly. He began ceaselessly writing letters to congressmen and officials at the USFS and the BLM, along with letters to wildlife and recreational groups, and conservation and hiking groups. Enthusiasm built and a year later, along with public land managers, the DTA scouted and hiked the first 30m of the DT from Diamond Craters to the Steens Mountains in southeastern Oregon. Pengelly's dream had legs. The proposed route described high desert peaks and barren yet brushy basins stretching from Southern California to northwestern Nevada. old stands of pinyons, ancient bristlecones and mountain mahogany stood watch over carpeted basins. Alkaline flats shimmered in the distance, the trail stumbled upon oases and thermal hot springs in random and remote locations, even shallow lakes squawking with waterfowl are abundant. The desert changes crossing volcanic lava fields, skirts craters and tip-toes over abrupt escarpments. Even water flows in some areas and you wonder while you pass old mining camps and caves, tramping near ancient indian camps and finding fossils and arrowheads, who survived here, thrived here so long ago. 

Interest ran high, but little was done in implementing the route further than a route description. Legislation even introduced to Congress in 1973 and 1975 to become a NST became unsuccessful. But that didn't stop the DTA from trying to keep establishing the DT corridor and route. Over a period of years the DTA began devloping and scouting routes in California and Nevada, with the section north from Diamond Craters in Oregon to and through Idaho and up into Canada never scouted or walked. Individuals of the DTA kept the vision alive and painstakingly placed cairns in lonesome ridges or plotted routes on maps or walked seldom-seen drainages and braved the lack of water and heat to do so. 

Original Desert Trail sketched route

The Desert Trail was a work in progress. As a matter of fact, it still is. Maps have been developed by the DTA with original maps from High Rock Canyon in northwestern Nevada to Diamond Craters published by the DTA throughout the 1980's at various times. The USFS and the BLM even have plotted the DT route on some maps with advanced planning in mind. I have even seen the DT signified in the Nevada Benchmark atlas maps in the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge Area. Then another group emerged into the picture, the Desert Survivors, a desert conservation group. Steve Tabor of the Desert Survivors worked with the DTA and developed the exquisite and incredibly informative Desert Trail Guidebook series of the California and Nevada portions of the DT in the late 1990s. Then, George Huxtable of the Death Valley Hiker Association published a guidebook of the Death Valley section in 1999. 

Another desert themed concept sprouted up in the mid-1980s with the forming of the Oregon Natural Desert Association from a diverse group with a shared love of the Oregon Desert. In 2010, Brent Fenty, ONDA's executive director, envisioned a route across southeastern Oregon connecting the wild places he and ONDA cherished so much, which eventually ONDA dubbed the Oregon Desert Trail. In 2011, ONDA took on this initiative and concept to make that desert landscape accessible and to become even more protected. The ODT spanned 750m and is still a work in progress having been hiked and explored by lovers of the desert, day, section, and thru-hikers alike. The ODT overlaps with the DT in the Pueblo Mountains traversing rugged hillsides under cliff faces scampered by bighorn sheep, across the barren yet colorful Alvord Desert, up in to the craggy Steens Mountains where one my encounter snow and brushy overgrown paths, all the way to Page Springs near the southern boundary of the Malhuer Refuge. In 2013, Sage Clegg, first hiked, even pedaled some, the entire 750m or so length of the ODT. Then in 2015, Renee 'She-ra' Patrick began working for ONDA as the ODT Trail Coordinator, as well as hiking the totality of the route and scouting further routes for the ODT. These accomplishments and She-ra's hiring are quite notable since Sage and She-ra are Triple Crowners, which brings critical attention and validity to the route and brings more eyes, ears, and feet to the desert.

'The biggest challenge is water.' Favorite line from Backpacker's 1976 article

The DTA still remains the de facto organization supporting the Desert Trail. At one time, 400 members supported and promoted the route. But just as the route lost steam from Highway 78 near Burns OR, the DTA did as well. Members aged, public attention shifted to popular hiking trails and more 'scenic' areas, and volunteer numbers dwindled. In 2007, momentum finally hit a wall and the DTA took a 7 year hiatus. In my eyes, from a desert lover, the route vanished because no one walked it. From my outside perspective, the DTA deteriorated in a similar light. Organizations need people, trails need walking. Although the DTA is an aging group, enthusiasm has grown and gained some steam slowly. In 2014 the DTA rebooted and 100 members now exist with the number of members and volunteers slowly growing. Besides the work of ONDA and She-ra for the ODT, the DTA is kept breathing by Dan Chamness, who provided me with some DT maps and is the editor of the quarterly newsletter Desert Trails. The DTA, Death Valley Hiking Association, and ONDA provide guided hiking trips, as well. Even trail work opportunities construct and support the life of these desert routes. It seems the DTA and the DT are survivable, but in my opinion, no one brought more critical attention to the DT than Buck Nelson. Simply put: he walked it.

In 2012, Buck hiked the then 'offical' Desert Trail route from Jucumba Hot Springs at the CA and Mexico border to Highway 78 near Burns OR. The route to that point was roughly 1500m. Buck's plan was to pioneer a route, roughly another 700m, to Canada. He eventually did. His route north from Highway 78 in central OR through the Blue Mountains, the Columbia River Plateau, through Spokane and up into the Selkirks and the Salmo-Priest Wilderness is now adopted by the DTA as the 'official route.' What Buck did was to complete a vision held by Russell Pangelly back in the early 1960s. Suddenly, the Desert Trail was not forgotten.

Buck Nelson on the Desert Trail in the Mojave Preserve
Buck's idea sprang from his work as a wildland firefighter and in the wild horse program across the expanse of the West's deserts, mountains and basins. He dreamed of a another route from Mexico to Canada in the West. Then, he stumbled across the DT in his research for a route. In the summer of 2011, he began planning in earnest. He received the guidebooks, the maps, and schemed up a route to connect to Canada with as much of a desert theme as possible. After all, the DT was to mimic the PCT and AT in stature, though slightly less stature. I asked both Buck and Dan Chamness, DTA secretary, why the original idea and sketched route of the DT stopped at Highway 78. Both wrote to me telling me the DTA planners ran out of steam. Private land posed an issue as well, and the route never got hiked. Buck came along with tons of outdoor and long distance hiking experience. A Triple Crowner himself, he developed a strategy and timing, scoured over walkable areas on maps, researched resupply options and caching points, and communicated with DTA folks, especially Dave 'Seldom Seen' Green, who at the time was the DTA chair. Most impressively, Buck spent a month caching food and water along the route, in particular in CA and NV, the first 1000m of trail. Water sources are scarce and unreliable in these vast areas, and the food hauls long and far apart. Caching food and water might be a painstaking and an exhaustive effort but it was important to Buck to lighten his pack, to be self-sufficient and reliant. I believe all this planning also showed his committment to hiking this route successfully. Then, as he walked, he tracked his route on a GPS and Google Earth and developed an actual walked route. From March to July in 2012, he hike the length of Mexcio to Canada, some 2223m, through a desert landscape. He finished the Desert Trail at a lone obelisk right near the triple point of the WA, ID, and Canada borders.

I think Buck's timing was perfect. New technology in mapping and research, the popularity of long distance hiking in the U.S., even the trend of route-invention to extend past the popular trails and areas, along with his outdoor experience all influenced and enabled him to complete the first ever 'thru-hike'of the Desert Trail. And now, I think the DT needs to be acknowledge, verified, and validated by other hikers to celebrate a different type of landscape, one that has a fear associated with it. Dryness, heat, lack of water, poisonous snakes, death----even more inherent fears of the desert stick in the mind. My intention is to hike the DT in a traditional thru-hiking fashion, carrying the long hauls of food and gallons of water on my back. I think I can do it, because I believe this is a route worth fighting for, worth walking, worth exploring. In totality, the desert is in me, more than what you think, even what I think. I truly hope to re-create Buck's route and/or modify the route to make it better, more walkable for others. The Desert Trail is a work in progress, certainly, and I aspire to push that progress towards something more real, more attainable, in the eyes of hikers, let alone the mindscape of our population.

The Desert Trail is mainly a trackless route across the deserts of CA, NV, and OR. Barren and wide open views, to say the least, with remote walking across basins, through sandy washes, and lonesome ridges. The DT consists of 656m in CA, 685m in NV, and about 159m more in southeastern OR until Highway 78. Included in the adopted route of the DTA is Buck's 723m extending to Canada. Most of the route is what I described in the beginning of this article, at least in my vision of what I drum up in my imagination. I cannot wait to re-create what I have in my mind, to solitary walk what I have been dreaming of for some time. 

The Desert Trail is an original idea that uses no other defined or named trails, a concept within a harsh landscape within a now popular trail culture: this route should be on the map of the mind of experienced long distance hikers. The route is a forgotten trail. Pushed and failed in legislation, an again and fading membership in a once-defunct organization, private land issues hindered a route further north, diminished public interest in an inhospitable place, environmental and mental obstacles in hiking the route complete, other cooler and more scenic trails gained in popularity like the PCT, and no one hiked it until Buck in 2012 all contributed to the lapse and fading memory and construction of the Desert Trail. Maybe that was the original intent of the DT----to have the ephemeral characteristic of a desert implanted in the underlying theme of the route. Trail-less, sign-less, lonesome and isolated, challenging and threatening, the vestiges of thriving times and ages extremely susceptible to the harshness of the desert, the boom and the bust---the bonanzas and the borrascas---the fat and the lean. All I know is my footsteps will remain temporarily, swept away in an ethereal air never to be seen again. One day my bones will be out there drying and baking in the sun, buried in the sand. The desert is here and now. The Desert Trail still is and, for me, not forgotten.


  1. I'm so excited to discover this new long distance trail/route. Thanks for the history.

  2. I'm so jelly! Enjoy! Excited to follow along

  3. dirtmonger,

    Thanks for your post on the Desert Trail. It was a good rendition of the history of this much-neglected phenomenon. Though I no longer do strenuous backpacks due to damaged heart and lungs (I'm now 70), I still have an interest in it. The guidebooks I wrote are still for sale. I don't know about the others. For guidebooks or if people have questions, they can e-mail, or write PO Box 21143, Oakland, CA 94620-1143. Phone is (510) 769-3434.

    1. Steve, thanks for the valuable contact info. you might be receiving some emails from some folks in the hiking community about the guidebooks. Thanks for all the hard work you put into those guidebooks, especially the incredible detail and thorough descriptions---dirtmonger

  4. Hi, finding this in Dec 2021. Friends and I hiked the Pueblo Mt trail from Denio to Fields about 30 years ago. The ODT Association had a number of individual trail maps available at that time. Trails all marked with cairns and the maps using compass bearings toward the cairns. Is that all in the past? Sounds like no one is maintaining the cairns or printing the individual maps any longer.