Solitude in the Steens Mountains

Sunrise on the Steens Mountains

Hidden in the southeastern corner of Oregon, the Steens Mountains Wilderness is a place where echoes bounce off open sky. The landscape is beautiful and isolating, the mountains striking. It’s a place to wander and not see much civilization beyond a subtle wave from a rancher’s hand in the cab of a speeding ranch truck. The humor is as dry as the desert flats: “Road to Hell: Private Lane,” declared a sign. (I kept driving.)

The Steens are a leg-cramping eight hour drive from Portland, and about the same trek from another city with any stoplights. I’d always wanted to visit, and this latest road trip presented the ideal opportunity.

On the open road in the Steens Mountains.

On the open road in the Steens Mountains.

Another trip?! Yep, that’s right, we made it two entire months at home before playing the location arbitrage game (i.e. renting out our house) and heading out again. Hanging in Portland, Chelsea was fine, but I felt trapped, hemmed in by the city and the maintenance of being home. My wanderlust isn’t satiated yet, and I luckily married a supportive woman who is as adventurous as I am. (She’s currently up in Idaho house-sitting for her folks – and our cat – and then she’ll fly to join me after this bachelor trip.)

I dissected the dissatisfaction bubbling to the surface and realized my creativity felt whomped like a two-bit prizefighter in the fifth round. A quote in Amanda Palmer’s insightful book, “The Art of Asking,” says it all for me: “Staying in your own home can be corrosive and stifling, especially for creative work. The surroundings can smother you with the baggage of your past and the History of You.” In the same way writers seek a retreat or a painter needs a separate studio, I need to get out to think. Somehow, the four walls of our home summons a vacuum that drains me of creative spirit.

The van taking in a view of the Alvord Desert.

Taking in a view of the Alvord Desert as the sun gets low.

There aren’t any corners or walls in the Steens! A few days into the road trip, I camped on the west side of the mountains at Page Springs. A balmy 22 degree overnight temp grudgingly ceded to warmer weather the next day. Inspired, I ignored a “Gate Closed” sign and pedaled uphill on the Steens Mountain Loop Road on the west side of the range. Snow flurries dusted the ground. No planes droned overhead; the only sound was wind from the valley below and the crunch of bike tires on the soft gravel. Starting at 4,000’ elevation, I climbed to 8,000’ and a snowy impasse. I hadn’t seen a sign of life except my breath fogging the air. It felt good to be back in nature, even as my face smacked of ice crystals on the fast descent.

If you visit the Steens, hot springs are a must-visit. I drove around the southern end until I hit the Alvord Desert, a miles-long expense of cracked clay. The full moon framed the Steens to the west as I soaked in the hot springs and relaxed, then pulled the van onto the wide playa and drove into the darkness. The night was still, cell reception as extinct as the passenger pigeon, and the road trip was underway.

Alvord Hot Springs

Alvord Hot Springs.


Full moon on the Alvord Desert.

Full moon on the Alvord Desert.

Van with a view

Room with a view.

Steens Mountains panorama Cracked Alvord Desert