Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seeing the Oregon Desert



At last, the Alvord Desert in Southeastern Oregon, south of Burns lay directly ahead. It looked like a lake. The Alvord Desert averages seven inches of rainfall a year, so I did not expect so much water on May 15. By mid-summer the water vanishes, of course, leaving a dry, flat lake bed. So dry that in 1976 Kitty O’Neil established an unofficial women’s world land-speed record there: 512 miles per hour. The desert stretches about 12 miles north and south and about seven miles across (some say 11 by 6 miles). At an altitude of about 4,000 feet, it parallels the craggy cliffs of the 70-mile long, nearly 10,000 foot high Steens Mountains to the west. The smaller Sheepshead Mountains lay to the east. We started the desert-bound trip on Monday (May 14), when I drove from Walla Walla to Burns-Hines. Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I spent that afternoon watching antelope, ibises, avocets, stilts, egrets, ground squirrels, hummingbirds and so on (more about that here next Wednesday). On Tuesday we left the Hines Best Western Ryan and Rory Inn and set sail for the Alvord Desert at 6:47 a.m. We anticipated a full day that included breakfast at the Frenchglen Hotel, 60 miles south, and a lunch of renowned burgers and shakes at Fields Station, 60 miles south of Frenchglen. We reached Frenchglen at 8:32 a.m., dined on scrumptious French toast and bacon alongside a dozen other breakfast connoisseurs. We climbed to the high plateau that stretches south to silhouettes of the Pueblo Mountains and west to Hart Mountain. Twenty miles from Frenchglen three turkey vultures dined on fresh snake, a high-desert Highway 205 specialty. Nora and I walked to within 30 yards of the diners. Nary a vehicle passed in either direction until we turned east near Fields. My odometer said 114 miles at Fields. At 10:39 a.m. we passed on burgers and shakes. We would lunch later at the Diamond Hotel. Then, fewer than 20 miles from Fields, the paved road turned to dusty gravel that reduced our speed to 20 knots. Sometimes 10. This continued for 45 miles or so to the Juniper Lake Ranch. Soon after we passed Andrews, however, we crested a knoll and the Alvord Desert shimmered directly ahead, fringed by the blue Sheepsheads. “Look at that,” Darlene said. “Impressive,” I said. “Finally.” Nora and I strolled among the sage to soak up the scene. A few miles later I took a dusty trail through the sage to the desert’s edge. Nora and I strolled for 100 yards or so on the hard lake bed beneath a bright sky. Fresh vehicle tracks faded from sight across the wide playa. Darlene preferred not to test it with the truck, but I followed vehicle tracks out a few yards toward the Sheepshead Mountains’ silhouette and turned around. Then we reached Alvord Hot Springs where 174-degree water cools significantly after bubbling to the surface. I stopped near the only vehicle we had seen since Fields. A man reading a book reclined on a wooden platform. As Nora and I approached, he sat up, leaned against a bench and called to Nora. She obliged. The friendly man’s car had California plates, yet he came originally from Wales. He worked in several states (I didn’t ask at what) and visited the springs often. He said the desert had more water this spring than he had seen before. Nora sniffed the warm mineral water but didn’t drink it. I drove on, stopping occasionally to savor scenery and take photos. One address sign said “Alvord Ranch Tom and Jemima Davis” near a stream that burbled down from Steen’s snow fields. We stopped to use the one-holer at Mann Lake and reached pavement again near the Juniper Lake Ranch. Three antelope clustered near a long private drive to the ranch. “That antelope is dropping a baby,” Darlene said. “You’re right,” I said as I looked through the long lens. They were two far away for a good photo, so I inched slowly down the private drive as Darlene scowled at me. So, I drifted to a stop, snapped a three photos, backed to the main road and headed north. We passed pelicans on Juniper Lake and antelope crossed the road in front of us near Highway 78 where we turned toward Burns. I took the turnoff to the west and south toward Diamond. We passed the Peter French Round Barn, the Diamond Craters and reached the Diamond Hotel for that late lunch. Too late, actually. We arrived at 3:17 p.m. Lunch service ended at 2 p.m. We knew that, of course, but time flies when you’re having fun. So we drove on to Burns and took Subway sandwiches back to the Best Western. “A fun trip,” Darlene said. “Good to see the Alvord Desert at last,” I mumbled with my mouth full and handed Nora a tiny bite.

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