Every time I start to get a little unappreciative of Oregon, a little run down and tired, it tries harder to cheer me up. That’s a good partnership. Exhibit A: this gorgeous late summer in Eugene. Exhibit B: my recent camping trip to the Steens Mountain area in the southeastern high desert.
Yeah, this place:
Hidden away in the remote high desert, Steens Mountain was cut into the land by glacial activity millions of years ago, and they’ve basically (in my imagination, at least) stayed the same since. You can actually see the path of the glacier as it ground its way through the rock near Kiger Notch (first photo above). There’s a world class bird refuge, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, just north of the mountains and Alvord playa, the ancient lake bed you see in the second photo almost miraculously filled with water after a freak thunderstorm. The third photo is Borax Hot Springs, and last photo is a Civilian Conservation Corps-built stone cabin in the middle of Malheur, graced by what I believe were olive trees, surely non-native.
Hot springs galore, including this full service one called Crystal Crane Hot Springs (in which I am floating above), where we stayed overnight, and Alvord hot springs near the playa, where I shared a soak with my friend Gregor Samsa in a primitive wood basin lined with tin (three photos below).
The wild and dangerous Borax Hot Springs, with a series of hot springs bubbling up along a fault, was in a class of its own. At the turn of the twentieth century, Chinese laborers were employed to mine sodium borate from the mineral rich ground, distilling out borax, the washing powder of old, in giant vats so it could be taken by mules over to Winnemucca, NV. Luckily, Borax Lake, which is barely visible in the photo of the rusting vat below, has a singular, endemic population of little minnows called Borax Lake chub (Gila boraxobius), so the Nature Conservancy bought the property in the ’90s to protect it.
Walking on a hot August day and checking out the rusting vats and the pools, some of which had full spinal cords of unhappy small animals who got too close, made me shudder to think of the men working out there all day in primitive conditions to mine laundry detergent. O America.
The Alvord playa/mud flats were mesmerizing. My husband, after de-trenching our rental SUV from sinking in about 2 feet into a soft spot just off the ill-defined sand road, took a 7-mile jog in the heat of the day. I poked about, watching birds and strolling along the shrinking water’s edge, taking photographs of mud patterns.
But you’re wondering about the food, aren’t you?
An easy two day trip from Eugene, we managed to dine well in Bend on the way, including this rather jaw dropping beet and pistachio salad over pistachio butter at 900 Wall for lunch. It was so good, we even pondered staying overnight just so we could eat dinner there.
Well-stocked at a produce stand in Sisters, we had to rough it for 5 nights, eating grilled vegetables with everything, including this breakfast of radicchio, fried egg, and thick-cut bacon.
Poor us! Last year’s tomato sauce came in handy for dinners of spaghetti and couscous stew over quinoa, and we used lamb, pork, and chicken sausages as flavoring, just to make sure we didn’t expire of lack of deliciousness. As usual, I had to show off my rather mad marshmallow roasting skills to all present, and Retrogrouch outdid himself by not only improving the s’more with salt caramel chocolate bars, but also innovating marshmallow technology. If you roast the remains of your marshmallow left on your stick after eating it, THEN add another raw marshmallow, you, friend, will have a nugget of caramelized delight WITHIN your toasty treat.
Best of all, we even got to eat out during the wilderness sojourn. We lucked out at Fields Station, a store/gas station/café in the small hamlet of Fields, down the road a spell from the Alvord playa. Best hamburgers and shakes around! Then again, they were the only hamburgers and shakes around. But I’d classify them as best of show in even a city with lots of burger joints. Dee-lish.
We had a few casualties, including three flat tires between the two cars we and our friends were driving on the washboard roads (necessitating the 120-mile round trip back to Burns to fix them!) but we managed to dodge a thunderstorm, being stuck in mud, and about ten million mosquitoes (having been bitten by only about 2 million). We didn’t get to see wild horses, but we were waylayed by cattle and horses in the road (the latter with a cowboy, so that was worth it), American white pelicans, black-necked stilts, yellow headed blackbirds, and golden eagles. We saw marmots, coyotes, and snakes. I saved the lives of two fledgling sparrows in my spare time, too. No internet or phone for me for a week; 3 G for my iPhone-bearing colleagues. Not bad for a little state in the PNW. Not bad at all.