Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Desert Trail: Butte Country and the Blues


Back in the day, the Desert Trail Association had scouted, section hiked, mapped and printed guidebook editions and some fold-out maps for roughly 1500m of the Desert Trail. In nature, the trail is an actual route, and to me, the route resembles a combination of the Hayduke and Grand Enchantment Trails. Holding a theme and route-challenging hold other similarities to these routes. Additionally, never quite hiked or scouted, an extra 60 or so miles laid north of Highway 78 in southeastern Oregon that stretched to Drinkwater Pass at Highway 20. Buck came along in 2012 to hike this section, then made a pioneering attempt at extending the Desert Trail even further north towards Canada, which he succeeded in. These next 700m ahead remained unfamiliar  to me in totality and a full understanding of terrain, except for the most northern section which I knew would be very different from the desert biozone. Albeit despite my extensive research, the rest of the route I entrusted a belief that a desert scene would be present in character in some for or another in the steppes of eastern Washington and the Blue Mountains. I couldn't quite fully believe the Blues would have the true desert character, but I still had hope that this bridge would be sufficient enough to maintain a valid route towards Canada. From Highway 20 north, I would be verifying the extended Desert Trail as part of the Desert Trail. At least, that's how I am undertaking this adventure for future thru-hikers, as well as providing the most current up-to-date resources.

Break back:

As I crossed the highway forging ahead into a new realm, I felt the same feeling, the same nature of the first 1500m. The slivers were there to complete and fulfill an ongoing length. The lonely buttes and expansive mesas made for a geometric space lost in sagebrush. The old jeep track I walked faded in to hard-caked cow hoof cups lining the short rims of dried puddles that mostly led to old earthern dams. I reckoned once newer roads were surveyed and constructed these old ones were left to fade. This stretch was as lonesome as any stretch I had seen so far. The silvery-blue of green sage blanketed the volcanic cubic rock underneath the brush, as I spied on so many coyotes traipsing through. All of them solitary, I shook my head of the Lone Wolf, as I understood the fission-fusion of the coyote, an animal I feel kindred to, always on the fringe, always free to do what they want, always misunderstood, always surviving. But these coyotes weren't the only canines. Foxes leaped through the thick brush startled by my human existence. Owls joined the party. And it seemed the animals I had been seeing in this section all were the reclusive types, mostly away from humans, and verified the isolation. I laid down under a large juniper that night. A large owl in the branches woke me up around 4 in the morning. I could hear its wings flap and I could tell they were very big. The owl hooted spookily in a distinct vocal pattern, as another owl hooted sporadically. The owl above me had hoots a bit more dynamic and enthusiastic than the other one, more intimidating. For some reason, I felt like the talons would reach down and pick me up. I felt small, vulnerable, laying under the bright-starred sky.

The owl eventually flew off, leaving me to gather more sleep. I woke up in dewy grass, the morning air chilly. Across the next half day or so I walked through a huge burn area. Scarcely any more juniper poked up, as only thick clumps of grass and reddish cheat grass sprang back, making the land look more barren than the native sage-filled high desert. In my panorama, buttes lined the horizons. The landscape looked even in elevation and distances remained deceptive. However, I did not partake in these mental traps and simply walked empty-headed. I listened to the plethora of songbirds darting through the brush, their tweets blending melodically with the wind. Atop Squaw Peak all I could see were buttes, black buttes all over. I rambled on until I found camp in a pasture near the Malhuer River. Some horses came trotting over as dusk changed the hillsides in splendid myriad of evening color. The horses spotted me and kept creeping near me. Curious as they were, they finally left me alone as night encompassed the surroundings.

At Drinkwater Pass, I felt like something had been completed in its totality. The feeling was there. I could see the Blues in the distance from the last high mesa, an outline signifying much higher mountains. I hitched into Burns to resupply and prep for the next stretch. During the hitch, from a wildland firefighter and farm owner from Idaho, I felt so enthusiastic about the next stretch. Sitting in a brew pub in Burns I conversed with the barkeep. He also worked for the BLM. The Malhuer Refuge Takeover was a big topic, politics between the uber-left and the super-right, big government, and how it all related to public land management. Southeastern Oregon has some of the most fascinating and opinionated feelings of these topics. Most of which I have not seen elsewhere, this unique juxtaposition of both sides so passionate about their beliefs, all felt so fascinating in hearing people being defiant on one hand or people trying to relate or work together on the other. During the conversation a couple of gals asked me if I was riding a bike. I told them I was hiking the route-obscure Desert Trail. One of the gals gave me a sly smile and said she knew Russ Pengally some years ago. My jaw dropped, although admittedly I was a bit buzzed. Pengally, if you remember, first conceived of the Desert Trail right here in southeastern Oregon in the 1960s. Paths seem to cross out here in this rural area, very meaningful paths.

Back out on the route I encountered a cross country section of trail that continued from the previous section. Soon, though, I walked through ponderosa pine forests on forest roads. I consider the ponderosa, in some respects, a link, a bridging of the gap between deserts and wet forests. Ponderosa forests are semi-arid and have that upper high desert feel. Smooth walking ensued as I could hear the mighty wind blowing through the mighty stout ponderosas. Small seasonal creeks still had pools where the water reached the surface, a maze of logging roads weaved through the forests, and I felt the cool air chill my face as I hiked briskly. During the night a cat screeched. I startled awake as the screeching neared my tarp. As the screeching got real close a couple of large owls began hooting. The screeching stopped but my heart still raced. The owls continued to hoot throughout the night and I would wake up occasionally from the hoots and feel secure, like the owls had been watching over me. 

The miles flew on by in the early chilly morning. My senses heightened while being in the forest. There was quite a bit more I needed to sense, to listen to, to watch out for, to observe, to feel, just by being in the forest, especially as it grew thicker. Gone was the incessant howling of the wind that ran wildly through the open desert air. The trees caught the wind and stifled the lightness of the air. The air became heavy, moist, even aromatic with such a fecundity of greenery. Various pines, larch, and doug fir potently made the forest air sweet. Creeks swelled up and the rivers roared. Rain fell through the canopy and puddled in the broad leaves of plants, ferns drenched my legs as I brushed against them, bulbous mushrooms poked through the soil, and little rivulets of water channeled pine needles in the low parts of the trail. Life was in full, vibrant swing. The rain continued throughout the morning as the creeks became even more swollen. Then, on the forested crest, the pelting pitter-patter of ice on my rain jacket droned me to coma-walk. I could feel the clouds whipping through the tops of the trees on the crest with the icy air squeezing out the opposite side of the trees like water through a cheese grater, the sound less ominous once through, filtered to a wheeze, almost a tingle. I hurriedly hiked on as the ice became snowflakes. Temperatures dropped quickly as I scanned the forest for a flat and covered surface to camp. At a saddle I pitched my tarp and bundled up for the very cold night. In the morning, I woke up to 6 inches of snow, but not a desert dry snow, rather a wet, rain forest snow. Mist and fog sunk and floated in the drainages and the air smelled so thick of the Pacific Northwest. As much as I enjoyed walking in the very cold air, my spirits sunk a bit, a reality sinking in of what I had left and had now entered. Suddenly, I didn't feel like I was on the Desert Trail.

To journey is to travel inward. But to harp inward is to overbear oneself selfishly and obstruct the journey. There has been many motivations to for me to hike this route, aspirations and killed thoughts from times past where I wanted to do this route but backed off because of the northern section. Somehow I couldn't see the northern part fitting. The Blues, the wheat lands, the cedar forests and snow-clad ridges of the north--- how did this tie into the Desert Trail? As much as those zones may have dissuaded me prior to this season I couldn't shake the allure of the deserts of the southern portions and the impact of a couple previous hikes, my Great Basin Traverse and the Oregon Desert Trail. The original Desert Trail had the makings of what had defined my life up until that point: growing up in those southern desert areas, wilderness travel and the further challenges of delving further into those wild and remote desert places, and my lonesomeness. All these characteristics drove me to want to share this route, to honor what others had worked towards before, to celebrate the barren yet beautiful landscape, even promote and verify what had been done after things had been forgotten. So, that meant the whole thing, from Mexico to Canada. And, when I found out that the DTA adopted Buck's route that really instilled some hope that that route would fit. I mean, why would you call something the Desert Trail if the trail doesn't go through desert? The other undying question to me: Why did the DTA stop trying to get the Desert Trail to Canada? Was it physical and geographic barriers? Or was it a man-made barrier, like personal ego and unrealistic goals? I knew of other reasons, like public and private land issues, and a fizzling organization. As I walked into through the Blues, I wondered why the route couldn't have ended at Drinkwater Pass where everything made sense? I had a certain responsibility that weighed heavily on my heart. I wanted, even needed, the rest of the route to vouch for what I had experienced on the original portion of the DT, to clear it up, to ground-truth 2 connected routes to interweave trail-integrity, to erase all doubt to a clean slate.

Nevertheless, I remained hopeful as I walked along more forest roads. Over the Greenhorn Ridge I scanned the surrounding ranges and river basins. A cold wind blew through my beard as I contemplated the whole thing. I strove to be patient in the upcoming miles. Mounds of snow lingered under the canopy of firs, springs gushed with fresh water, and wildflowers bloomed in an explosion of color on sun-laden slopes. In the expansive green distance, mountains rolled over mountains, endless. My fist clinched my heart as my soles hardened down the trail towards the John Day River basin; this route won't be defeated until the act is done.

Along the John Day River I spent most of the day picking off the 30-40 ticks that had sporadically clung and crawled onto my legs. I moved brush from the narrow corridor of trail with my poles and forearms. The river ran wildly and the roar soothed an interior boil festering. The route has changed, and not in a way that resembles anything that I am seeking or had expected, or what the previous 1550m desert portion provided or exhibited. The narrative seems to have ended, which has me breaking character. The trail has broken character too, and misrepresents the nature of the desert. I continue forging ahead through a burned drainage, the 20 foot pines throttling the hillsides holding a velvety quality cushioned the abruptness of land, of what water coursed through. I navigate on overgrown and indiscernible paths that keep my mind busy. But it's the slog of the dirt road walking that test my patience, my opinions on this bridge of the DT.  The burden I hold, or the responsibility I feel, is heavy. So, I feel it necessary to give my opinions and criticisms honestly. Although I wouldn't make a judgment then, I couldn't disregard what I was feeling at that moment. I got miles to go in what I hope can scrounge up the desert character, the integrity, and grittiness once again. For now, I am entrenched in thick forests a bit let down.

But I'm not bummed about walking through trees and lush forests, even overgrown trails through pretty wilderness. I truly enjoy this type of hiking in the forests. I even somewhat thoroughly enjoy the slog-fest of walking forest roads because I absolutely love the act of walking. Nevertheless, I feel like I am walking a completely separate route from the DT. The extension of the route north from Drinkwater Pass seems unnecessary, at this point, as what my experience is dictating thus far. In my intentions, from the beginning, was to reestablish and reinvigorate an old and genuine route seemingly long forgotten by the thru-hiking community. I wanted to represent the true nature and integrity of the deserts while not-misrepresenting those notions.

I'm bogged in a philosophical dilemma of route ethics and morals, of how we establish them, verify them, hike them, how we represent them, communicate and share them, and classify them, even forcing a route versus inventing a route while holding up thematic integrity. I am not caught up in semantics here, or words or the naming of something. Nor am I trying to undo the effort of what Buck did. I'm bogged in trying to not ill-represent what I'm doing by not presenting a false environment by naming it by another environment. It seems to me to be the foundation of what something truly represents is what is at stake, of what the DTA should have as a representation of the Desert Trail. In this case, so far, less is more, and more is unnecessary.

I left La Grande feeling a bit more at ease with what was ahead of me, more accepting and even more readily adaptable than the mindset I had when I walked into there. The people in La Grande and my time there had been pretty incredible. I felt refreshed and I really couldn't wait to get to the Columbia River Plateau to see how the desert made a transition back. All that stood in front of me between La Grande and the wheat lands was 150m of more mountains and rivers. No less than 5-7 miles in, up on another forest road, 4 semis towing empty cattle trailers zoomed past me blowing dust all around me. What had been a feeling of being let down now turned to frustration and anger. I did not like feeling like I didn't like being in the mountains and forests. I felt frustrated. I felt like I was on another hike without finishing the one I was on. I got what I needed to off my chest and felt better. Sort of. I walked away mad. More cars and trucks passed me throughout the day. Nothing seemed to make sense in terms of what the DT had represented.

Further on down the trail, I went down and up ridges and into and out of rivers, from the Umatilla, the Walla Walla, and the Wenaha Rivers. A lynx darted across the trail and up a forested hillside blending in with the brush and grass and instantly became invisible. Hordes of elk, both isolated individuals and herds, roamed the exposed patches on long ridges. At one point, in a thickly brushy corridor, I almost walked on top of 2 moose calves. The cow, incredibly big and heavy looking, rounded the bend in the trail right at the same moment. A close encounter, the cow somehow moved nimbly between the cliffed-out upslope, the narrow trail, and the drop off. My heart raced and instantly a dreaded memory of me getting chased and treed by a moose some years ago flooded my head. The moose all turned and sprinted away. I briskly walked away feeling a bit afraid, wondering if I shouldn't turn tail and get the heck out of there and find another way up as such a close encounter it was. 'No desert. No moose in the desert,' I thought to myself, overthinking and frightened. I needed to wrangle in these displaced emotions and find a way to muster through, to strive on. I slowly hiked on making noises and creeping around the bends in the trail. Soon enough I was high up on a ridge and headed to a cafĂ© at a highway crossing for a burger, safe. Two days later, along another road, eyeing the wheat lands down below, I thought of a previous conversation from a route inventor. Two things he said, 2 qualities in a route that shouldn't be compromised: create a route worth hiking twice. And, don't create a slog. You don't want that.

At this point, typing away in Dayton, even if I put my foot in my mouth in the near future with 300m left, I question if the extension of the DT is necessary, especially if there isn't a reasonable and realistic way of achieving that, and even more especially if the route already in place, the initial 1550m worth, is solidly there ready to be hiked and nurtured. I cannot answer that completely yet, and I won't until the end, but I won't try and fool you in thinking I am inclined to lean one way. I am pondering deeply this: Does the Desert Trail need to go to Canada?


  1. Hey Dirtmonger,

    You are absolutely right, the Desert Trail does not need to go all the way to Canada, but that was always the intent, and since the desert doesn't run to Canada the intent was always to leave the desert behind. You'll have some deserty country along the Columbia Plateau but beyond that once someone hits the Blue mountains the desert is gone.

    It's all about enjoying the experience. Lots of people don't think the desert parts of the CDT and PCT match up with the defining character of their respective trails and don't enjoy those sections. There's no need to keep going if you know it won't be fun for you. You have nothing to prove.

    Like you, I love the desert, but I enjoyed and embraced the change. I loved being in the mountains and trees and among the wildflowers and the wildlife. I even enjoyed walking past the wheat fields.

    I hope you can find some of that same magic.

    Best Wishes, Buck

  2. It was good to see you in Dayton! Hope the next hundred miles and hot weather on the Columbia Plateau helps you get back into a desert headspace. Sometime when you're in a mountain frame of mind, I'd love your thoughts on refining the route through the Blues (yours too, Buck - I've been chewing on a 500-mile route that I later found out overlaps with the extended DT you pioneered).

  3. Jason, I'd like to see your route. Maybe you can message me by making a comment on any page of my website I won't post your comment publicly. Thanks! Buck

  4. Thanks so much for sharing the experience and taking the time to write it all down for others to benefit. It is really interesting to follow not just the scenery along the way, but your thoughts and debate on the route. Too many times people are focused on presenting a sanitized version of their experience to justify the time and resources they've expended, so it is very refreshing to get your perspective. Seems like you accomplished one of your major goals with this hike, to verify the route. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts on the DT blog. Really appreciated