The Black Rock Desert, Oregon, And The Backcountry Discovery Trail
Previously, our Border-to-Border crew slopped through mud near Mono Lake, explored the California ghost town of Bodie, and ventured into the Smoke Creek Desert. This month they push north through western Nevada and Oregon.
Mile 1126, N40"40'23, Guru Road, Nevada: Two slabs of igneous rock were neatly positioned along the edge of the road, their vertical faces hand-inscribed, possibly by stone tools. The first proclaimed, "Destination Unknown," the next one, "A Story With No Beginning and No End." Every ten feet or so there was another, each bearing a contemplative pearl of wisdom-or at least whatever was on the sculptor's mind at the time. We were on Guru Road somewhere in northeastern Nevada, a short dirt track meandering through a literal museum of contemporary reflection. It was a bit ironic, though. While we knew our destination (the 49th parallel at the Canadian border), we had no idea through which of the 2,000 miles along the U.S.-Canada demarcation we would pass. And as for a story with no beginning, we started at the Mexican border, of course. But that was more than a thousand miles ago. We had another thousand to go and not a clue as to where our route would take us in between. That was the beauty of a trek like ours: A couple weeks off work, a few good maps, and the rest was a blank slate.
To the north lay the pool-table-flat expanses of the Black Rock Playa, its fissured and desiccated skin stretching out like a sea of alabaster. In the distance the great Black Rock rose above the desert, casting its inverted shadow across a vast and shallow lake at its base. The decaying remnants of an 1800s buckboard wagon and the weather-faded tracks of the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail lay between the two-this was our target for the night. Turning on SPOT, which had been tracking our progress since we left Mexico, we nosed our borrowed Jeep Overland JK onto the dry lake.
Alkali Flats and theTrail of Death
With the discovery of California gold in 1849 and published accounts of places like Honey Lake, where thumb-sized nuggets were rumored to litter the shoreline, a euphoric obsession was welling to the east: "Go West, young man, go West!" From places like Council Bluffs and the appropriately named Independence, Missouri, entrepreneurs, teamsters, sharecroppers, and ladies of questionable intent lined up to secure a spot on one of the thousands of wagon trains heading to California. Following the Donner party tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, there was a significant movement to establish a less difficult route to California. And because new people meant commerce to California merchants and landowners, there was also a fair amount of jockeying from landowners to draw California's newest citizens.
Pete Lassen, a prominent northern California rancher, attempted to attract settlers to his land by volunteering to lead westbound wagon trains. When his first group approached the Humboldt River, Nevada, near the turnout to the California trail, he veered north along a faint wagon track left by explorer Lindsay Applegate. Despite the fact that Lassen's new route posed unexpected challenges and added 200 miles to the journey, reputable eastern newspapers hailed it as an easier and shorter route to California.
In 1849, there were an estimated 22,000 emigrants stretched out along the 1,500-mile route to California. By August, one wagon train after another had followed Lassen's tracks into the dry and desolate wasteland now known as the Black Rock Desert. Though the first groups had sufficient water and grass for their livestock, resources were quickly depleted. "Verifiable" reports of plentiful water and grass quickly proved false, and by late summer, the situation became desperate. Without food and water, ox teams began to suffer. In states of delirium, the livestock stampeded towards a distant "lake"-the same mirage we were seeing-only to collapse on the baked and barren playa, perishing where they fell. Their human counterparts would soon succumb to the relentless heat of the desert. By late summer, abandoned wagons and gravesites littered the desertscape, and turkey vultures picked through the bloated remains of hundreds of livestock. The Applegate-Lassen trail would come to be known as "The 1849 Trail of Death."
You've seen Black Rock playa before. It's been used in TV commercials and magazine ads, and plays host to the annual Burning Man Festival. With 30 miles of alkali flats and no speed limit, it also the site of the world land speed record (over 700 mph). We spun the JK's speedometer to about 70-uh, okay, maybe 80-and headed for a hot spring at the base of Black Rock. It was mid-June, and the region had received rain on 18 of the past 20 days. The white surface of the lakebed, which should have been as dry as six-day road kill, began to turn a dark brown. I realized, suddenly, as mud began to splatter up the side of the JK, that the distant "lake" that we thought was a mirage actually was a lake! And we were about to be in deep doo-doo.
We were dead center in the middle of the playa, and 15 miles from the nearest vehicle-or winch anchor. Burying the JK could become a big problem (not to mention I'd have to tell Scott Brown at Jeep, "Sorry buddy, I lost your JK"). The trick to getting out of this situation is to pray-and don't stop! If you do stop, you'll sink like a dinosaur in the La Brea Tar Pits. I lifted from the accelerator and carved a slow 30mph arc towards higher ground (sweating bullets the whole time-sorry, no pics in situations like this). Clear of the Black Rock quagmire, we muddled through three or four more attempts before retreating to the graded dirt track. The JK was a muddy mess, but with the help of the 35-inch BFG KM2s and some masterful driving (yeah, right), at least we'd be sleeping in a camp of our choosing tonight.
Hot Springs, Campfires, and High Rock Canyon We'd originally intended to search for Murder Rock, the site where Pete Lassen and his mates were apparently bushwhacked by Indians (stories vary widely on this). But we were glad to be on terra firma and sheepishly took a graded road north to the old cavalry post at Soldier Meadows. We'd have to settle for a late lunch and a dip in their swimming pool-sized hot spring. Shadows were stretching long on the horizon when we met some members of the Pair-O-Dice Four-Wheel Drive Club, who invited us to share their campfire. A moonless night and at least a hundred miles from the mega-mall, our camp was illuminated by the faint blue glow of the northern constellations as they swept graceful arcs around the North Star.
High Rock Canyon is the perfect place for an ambush. From a saddle between two peaks, we entered on a narrow two-track as sheer cliffs rose to the north and south. At times, the valley floor narrowed to less than 50 feet. Our tires were following two narrow ruts in the limestone ledge, evidence of steel wagon wheels of the 1800s. On the canyon walls and shallow caves, the etchings of early settlers bear witness to their passing (except for the few that some moron defaced). We'd read accounts that on several occasions bands of Paiute Indians waited on the high cliffs for wagon trains to enter the canyon, then sent a barrage of boulders over the edge, scattering livestock in a mass of confusion. As we made our way west, we couldn't help but keep a guarded eye on the skyline above.
There isn't much in Vya, California. The map showed a town, but the only evidence of habitation was the Old Yeller Ranch and a sign that read: "We don't rent pigs!" The low-fuel light illuminated as we ascended the Sierras towards Lakeville. Rather than pulling one of the Expedition One fuel cans off the roof, we chanced it and ran on fumes all the way into town.
Mud Bogs, Rock Stars, and the Backcountry Discovery Trail
Mile 1,350, N42"11'17, Lakeview Oregon: The guy at the next table leaned over and said, "You two must be lost. No one comes to Lakeview on purpose-that your fancy Jeep out there?" Restocking supplies at the local market, we nabbed the last DeLorme Oregon atlas in the county and headed east on Bullard Road. I'd researched the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Trail (BDT), which was designed as an all-dirt, north-south route connecting state lines, and picked up a set of map books from the Oregon OHV Association (www.oohva.org). We would use sections of the BDT for points north of the Hart Mountain Reserve Antelope Reserve and into Washington.
Avoiding the tar road, we zigzagged through thick pine forests, dodged cattle, and backtracked numerous times before getting stonewalled near the western edge of Hickey Ranch. The only option was to sneak back on the pavement for a 20-mile southeast traverse to the two-horse town of Adel. We were tallying our paved-road mileage, but were trying to reserve northward progress to the dirt two-track.
Two dusty pickups sat outside a rustic and weathered roadside café, the only public establishment in town. Inside, Will Cockerell and the Lang brothers (now those names have Wild West written all over them) sat around a small table with a checkered plastic tablecloth. These were genuine mud-on-your boots horsemen. The smell of hickory-smoked bacon and fried eggs swirled about, and various glassy-eye elk, deer and antelope oversaw the morning routine from their purgatorial wall-mounts. A wealth of information on the area, the Lang brothers keyed us in on the coolest hot springs on the West Coast. Grabbing an egg burrito to go, we looped around the east side of Crump Lake for a good soaking with a view.
The tourist entrance to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is from the north. But we'd read about the little-known Central Oregon Military Wagon Road (circa 1880), which accessed the park from the south. "Little known" was a spot-on description. The overgrown switchback to the Hart Plateau hadn't seen traffic in some time, maybe years. Once on the plateau, the refuge's 278,000 acres of rolling high desert is host to magnificent pronghorn antelope, for which the park is named and who roam in small herds over the sage-covered terrain. And . . . the refuge has dozens of miles of overland (non-tar) tracks that you can still drive on!
The rains that had waylaid our passage on the Black Rock Playa had also left the next 25 miles of track almost impassable. Pronghorn watched from a guarded distance as we slogged through hub- to fender-deep water for the next four hours. A few sections, which were longer than a winch line and presented no indication of their depth, required stripping down and testing the waters on foot first. (There is something about being stripped down to your underwear and wading thigh-deep in snow runoff that makes you love the great outdoors.)
We awoke to a dead silence the next morning. Peering out from our tent, the rain had run its course-it was now snowing. We'd camped at the Hart Mountain Hot Springs (thank you, Ray and Monica and their five kids for sharing a dry spot under your E-Z UP). Considering it was June 21, the summer solstice, the thought of another thousand miles of camping in spring storms sounded pretty dang cold. Our fingers were a bit on the frostbitten side by the time we wrapped up Casa de ARB, stuffed everything in the Jeep, and got rolling.
Mile 1537, N43"15'00, Wagontire, Oregon: People of central Oregon are akin to those of the Midwest-as friendly and down-home as they could be. Bob and Cheryl James set up shop-the Wagontire Café/General Store/Fuel Depot/RV Park & Car Wash-in downtown Wagontire a few years ago. With a grand population of two, they stay busy. After we rinsed two weeks' worth of mud and silt off the JK, filled the tanks, and munched on a few cheeseburgers, Cheryl slipped us a handwritten receipt on a yellow Post-It. Now that's laid-back living. Good burgers, too!
The skies had cleared by mid-day and we were heading for the Ochoco National Forest and the Backcountry Discovery Trail. We'd gone from arid desert to dense forest, to waterlogged plateaus, and were now in the heart of Oregon's timber reserves. Logging roads abound, carving tangled webs of Ys, forks, dead ends, and places to get lost. But as I like to say, "We're never lost-just exploring a bit." Though the maps proved a good general reference, they really need to be paired with a DeLorme atlas and a GPS. Some of the waypoints were off, and the clarity of the maps' details could use some help. However, we were still able to follow the general route, utilizing suggested fuel and sundries depots.
As you pass through the sleepy burg of Seneca, situated in one of Central Oregon's tranquil and verdant valleys, you'd think you'd been awakened from a whimsical dream. Pines and firs carpet the adjoining foothills, dogs lay in semi-catatonic states on farmhouse porches, and the occasional cow or bobcat stroll across the street. Bobcat? While topping off the tanks at the general store, a bobcat leaped out of a tree a few yards away, and into what appeared to be a restored logging bunkhouse. Hmm, interesting? Then a 60-ish looking character with a salt-n-pepper goatee wandered over wearing a KTM shirt and said, "Howdy."
Another feline poked its head out from a chain-link enclosure near the building. The bobcats' names were Big and Bob, and the man standing in front of me was J.W. Everitt. Ring a bell? Probably not if your name is Sunshine, Flower, or your senior prom featured Pink. J.W., an avid dual-sport motorcycle rider and Baja aficionado, is one of the most interesting and eccentric guys I've met. A gifted musician who penned dozens of songs and recorded numerous albums (yes, we use to have these round flat disks of vinyl we called records), also played with Crosby, Stills & Nash in the '60s and Jackson Browne in the '70s. We struck up a conversation, toured the bunkhouse (now a first-rate lodge appropriately named The Bear Cat), and he invited us to stay for dinner, libations, and the night.
One of the most rewarding things about overland travel-and more specifically, overland travel without a hard agenda-is meeting people like J.W. His dream for the lodge was to create a haven for dual-sport riders, overland travelers, and more importantly, cool people. There are no posted tariffs for rooms or food. "Cool" is the criterion, and for payment, there's a fishbowl sitting on a hand-carved nightstand in the room-leave what you can afford. Loaded with dough or on a shoestring, cool people are invited back. J.W. played a few tunes from a stage in the main lodge and then one in his private recording studio. We dropped what we could afford in the bowl the next morning. Hope we get invited back.
A shower and a good night's sleep were welcome reprieves from our roof-mounted home. The trip meter read 1,665, our Garmin GPS: N44"08'08. To the north lay five more degrees of latitude to the Canadian border. The state of Washington was a B2B page waiting to be written. We hadn't done any route planning, set an itinerary, or even purchased a map. Hopefully, we'd find one in the next town. With our fully kitted Overland JK, replete with a winch, recovery gear, extra fuel, sundries and dog food, water, tools, and Optima battery, we were exemplary disciples of the Boy Scout motto: "Be Prepared," with the exception of two things: an agenda and a map.
Gear That Works
We've used gas Coleman lanterns for decades. But when we picked up one of ARB's new 12-volt LED camp lights, we were sold. It's compact, lightweight, has a 16-foot cord, and puts out a ton of light. And with low-draw LED illumination (ARB claims it only draws one amp), you can run it all night with no worries-and you won't burn a hole in your tent (Info: www.arbusa.com).
The SPOT personal messenger is without question a must-have item for anyone doing solo backcountry travel. SPOT has three modes: (1) All is okay, (2) We have a problem but it is not an emergency, and (3) Send the helicopter. If combined with the Adventure Trac system, a transponder ping every ten minutes lets your mates at home (or your spouse) follow your progress (Info: www.findmespot.com, www.adventuretrak.com).