We woke up to the first soft light of dawn creeping into the van and not a sound in the world but K2’s light breathing from the front seat. I extracted myself from the van bed, slipped into my boots and slid the door open to face the warm pink east horizon. Above the low desert cliffs, the sky was painted pink and orange and gray as the sun threatened to lift its head and shine bright over the playa. All is still here in the desert and I thought for the millionth time “we could be the only life around here for miles and miles” as my boot crunched softly on the cracked alkali desert skin. I put the coffee pot on the stove and turned the burner on and grabbed my camera and then headed out into the desert stillness.
Two days before, my wife Casey, our dog K2, and I set out to drive southeast from Bend, OR in our 1986 Westfalia van with our sights set on the Alvord Desert. We had heard good things about this spot and seen a few shots on Instagram that piqued our interest, but mostly we were setting off into the unknown to see what we could find. And what we found was sheer, raw beauty.
We followed state highway 20 east from Bend and wound our way through the desert plateaus and buttes, quickly finding that our decision to not fill up in bend (we had almost half a tank after all) was a risky choice. As we clicked through the towns marked on our map we found that each one was smaller than the one before and the few gas pumps we were able to spot had prices on them that were so low they clearly hadn’t been in operation for years. As another town sped past us with no gas and our gas gauge now clearly on the empty line we started to get nervous. Had this been a poor decision? We keep two gallons of gas in a jerry can on the roof for just these sorts of situations and in four months on the road we hadn’t had to use it yet. But even so, two gallons would only get our fully loaded Vanagon about 40 miles if we were lucky, and this road stretched on for over a hundred miles before hitting a large town.
Our gas gauge needle was fully below the orange line of empty as we screamed into a fishing supply store in Riley, OR that was equal parts outfitter, general store, and gas station and put 15.8 gallons into our 16-gallon tank. We chatted with the attendant for a few minutes and grabbed a cup of coffee before hopping back in the van and getting back on the road. As we cruised through the next town we passed a sign marked “Next gas 158 miles”. We were really heading for the middle of nowhere.
After another couple of hours, we left the paved sanctuary of Route 78 and took an unmarked gravel road that ducked between two hills and cut south along the Steens Mountain range. Our US atlas shows about 100 miles of undeveloped road in blank white space, but somewhere in that space we knew were the Alvord Desert and Alvord hot springs.
In our four months on the road we have taken some very memorable roads, but it took about ten minutes to realize that this would make the top 5 list, and maybe even top it out. The wide golden scrub of high desert and prairie spread away from us in every direction. Behind us the rolling hills fell away and the sharp blue spine of the Steens mountains rose ahead. This land felt not forgotten, so much as undiscovered, raw and uncharted.
We rattled down the washboard of the gravel road for over an hour, unable to go faster than about 35mph for fear of rattling our 30-year-old van to pieces. And the beauty of this land demands slowness anyway. To rush through this land was to miss the point. We rush through cities to get to our next appointment or over interstates to make our destination, but this road wasn’t built with a destination. One glance at the atlas proves that you don’t take this road to get somewhere. You take it to go somewhere, or go nowhere, or just to watch the burnt ball of the sun going down over the snow topped mountain peaks and the shadow of the van stretch over the landscape to touch everything it possibly can.
We stopped at Mann lake to make camp for the night. It’s a small lake tucked under the escarpment of the mountains to the west. BLM owns this land and put an outhouse on the far side of the lake for the fishermen and hunters who come here. We shared this space with an artist in a pull behind camper who eagerly watched the setting and rising sun from behind her easel. We set up camp and cooked quesadillas on the van stove which we ate around our campfire.
The next day, after a breakfast of oatmeal, we pulled back out onto the gravel road and made our way under the blazing sun further south, toward the Alvord.
The Alvord desert is a large, dried up alkali lake bed in southern Oregon that gets about 6 inches of rain a year, almost all in the spring time. This being October, the lake bed was dried and cracked and runs, perfectly flat and empty, for about 12 miles north-to-south and 7 miles east-to-west. The combination of the dryness and the salty residue makes this land uninhabitable for plants and animals. There are a few springs around the north and east sides of the playa that attract animals, but none of them venture out far onto the desert flats.
The springs on the east side are hot and, although the land is privately owned, it is open to the public for a small entry fee. On the edge of the desert playa are two shallow concrete soaking pools with a dilapidated deck looking out over the dryness of the desert to the east. Seemingly alone in everything we soaked and marveled at the world around us.
From here we headed down a small dirt path and pulled the van out onto the desert. If there is any moisture on the playa, the flats can quickly turn into a sucking quagmire that will challenge even the toughest 4WD vehicles, but in the dryness of the fall it’s firm and flat. The feeling of being in the middle of nothingness is amazing. We knew the feeling of being deep in the woods away from civilization and people and even cell service, but to be away from hills and animals and vegetation of any kind is a much different feeling. We were the only living souls on this baked and cracked plain. And for all we could see, we might have been the only ones in the world.
We cruised across the playa stopping to run and whoop or just wonder at it all, and eventually stopped to set up camp (anywhere is good!) in the middle of the emptiness. Amazingly there weren’t even any piles of trash, or fire pits from previous campers. The rest of our day was spent in slack jawed wonder at the stillness and beauty around us. The Steens mountains are still visible, jagged and ridged, from the desert but now separated from us, not by hills covered in sagebrush, but by flat shimmering nothingness.
As the sun dropped behind the mountain range, our camp lit on fire with the bright orange bursts behind the mountains to the west and the pink and blue over the eastern horizon of the sun’s last light refracted through so much atmosphere. These are the places that get left behind by the world of highways and cities. There is nothing here to get to, no reason to put a city or town out this far. But these are the places that still hold so much beauty for those of us who try to find them; who take dirt roads deep into the white spaces of the maps.
As the last light finally died from the sky, we turned on the lights in the van and fired up the stove again to make another round of quesadillas, this time eaten under the dark dome of stars rather than around a campfire. Watching the light show of evening and then the kaleidoscope of stars emerge we felt like the luckiest people in all the world – and perhaps the only ones. Like this world was made only and all for us. We went to bed with plans to wake early so as not to miss anything this place had to offer.
The next day we watched the sun come up and the long shadows shrink, and we stayed on the playa as long as we could before packing up the van and heading back toward the smear on the horizon that looked like the trail we came in on. By early-afternoon we were back on the gravel road, headed south again towards lands unknown. And by mid-afternoon we found ourselves again screaming into the combination gas station/general store/diner that serves to mark the existence of the next small town in southern Oregon with our gas needle on the empty line.
Keep up with Ransom and Casey on Instagram @everyroadleadstohome or on their blog: https://www.everyroadleadstohome.com/