The Alvord Desert

September 16 – September 21, 2011

The clouds were full, threatening rain but we stayed dry while visiting Mount St Helen, in Washington state. It is an active volcano, located in the Cascade Range. It had erupted in 1980, removing most of its northern face and creating a huge crater. It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.

Our goal for the day was to continue riding until we reached Portland, Oregon. We arrived late and it was dark out but we found a great place to pitch our tent near a forest. With the rain hitting hard in the morning, we were glad that the tall trees kept us dry as we packed.

On our way out, we stopped at a KTM dealership to pick up a few things. We were greeted by  Steve and Vint when we first walked in. They answered a bunch of questions we had about products, and they also shared a lot of advice with us. Vint had his own sexy KTM 990 ready for a trip to Banff, Alberta that same day. The mechanic, Todd, asked us to ride the motorcycle around to the back parking lot.  He met us there with some tools and taught us how to tighten the chain. They were so nice that they even gave us a few gifts, including a spray that easily cleaned the thousands of dead insects that our helmets and windshield had collected. Thank you KTM in Gresham, Oregon for your genuine customer service.

As we continued on our journey, we rode past beautiful, golden fields that suddenly turned black. Even though the landscape had been victim to a forest fire, it still kept it’s beauty. In need of a gas station, we had no choice but to head in the wrong direction. Bend, Oregon was a really nice town and since we arrived with minimal daylight, we pitched our tent in a grassy area on the side of an abandoned parking lot. It seemed like a great spot until the Police arrived. “Hello, is anybody there? This is the Police” we walked out to introduce ourselves and to explain why we were there. They asked for ID, ran our names and joked about us being a couple of Canadians. They told us that we were private property and the hired security called them about trespassers. We got permission to stay, but at 7am the irrigation was turned on. It was obvious that the owner wanted us gone because the grass was yellow and the dirt was extremely dry from being previously deprived of water. Luckily, we were not effected by the sprinklers and did not get wet. Nanner, nanner, nanner :p

During breakfast, we met a sweet couple who recommended we visit an area called Painted Hills. The area looked like smooth piles of sand in colourful layers of red, black and gold, corresponding to various geological eras. We then rode through winding streets until the sun began to set and we decided to camp on the side of the road, nestled in a forest.

The following day, we rode past many cattle farms. At one point, the road was blocked by at least fifty cows. We sat there awkwardly, waiting patiently for them to move but they weren’t going anywhere. Finally, a car pulled up beside us and a lady began yelling, “Don’t stop, drive through the herd. Don’t you know we have a job to do?” What the heck? We were on a motorcycle, not a horse, did we look like we’re supposed to know what to do? As we began to ride, the cows ‘moo’ved aside but some of them snorted snot out of their nostrils as they kicked their hind legs, threatening to charge at us. When the smell was gone, I loosened my grip from Rocky’s waist, opened my eyes and noticed we rode past them without problems. I wasn’t scared, and I definitely didn’t take revenge by stopping in Denio Junction, Nevada, a couple of hours later for one of the best burgers we have ever tasted.

After filling up the gas tank and fuel cans, we rode towards the Alvord Desert. It is in the middle of nowhere, hidden beside the Steens Mountain. Looking more like a mountain range than a single mountain, it stretches approximately 90km. We rode alongside of it, from asphalt onto gravel until we were able to see the Alvord Desert. I felt confused with what I saw. The Alvord Desert was approximately 10 by 20 km, hidden beside the Steens Mountain we were riding on.  I wasn’t sure if it was a mirage by the way the sun was shining on the hard, dry, flat sand, but there appeared to be a lake in the distance. Below us was a group of people, and it was strange to see that they had sail boats with wheels. We rode towards them and they introduced themselves as well as their dirt boats. We pitched our tent, opened a bottle of wine, that we had been saving, and our new friends explained that during the day, they raced through the open space as the wind blew them around. How cool!

We were told that the Alvord desert was a dried up lake bed and not far from us were hot springs we could soak in. We stayed up to finish our bottle of wine, under the most incredible sky I have ever seen. It was the perfect night for the stars to show off their home in the galaxy. The Milky Way was very visible, Meteorites were shooting through the sky and we could see planets twinkling and satellites traveling. What a spectacular place!

The following morning, we were invited to eat a delicious breakfast with our new neighbours. Soon after, we relaxed in the hot spring. Upon returning to our tent, we were invited to race around on the dirt boats. The wind was too calm, so we decided to race around on the motorcycle instead. I got tossed and almost thrown as we rode through areas with bushes and soft sand but it was so much fun! Our new friends, Lance and Keith, invited us for beer and dinner, we stayed one more night and the four of us spent it star gazing.
Early the next morning, we all gathered for breakfast and said our good byes. The bike was packed, the fuel cans were emptied into the gas tanks and Rocky found a ‘short cut’ out of the desert on the GPS.

 It was a dirt road but it cut the distance in half and Rocky was excited to practice riding on it. The first few kilometers went somewhat smoothly, but once we were too far in to turn around, it became a very bumpy ride. There was deep pockets of sand with rocks the size of pellets and golf balls. My teeth were grinding and my body was stiff from the fear of crashing but i got distracted by a wretched stench. It was the smell of a decomposing dead cow that probably wandered away from the herd, got lost and died of dehydration. We continued past it and I was shocked that Rocky kept control for so long but I was not surprised when we finally tipped the motorcycle as it wobbled through a large patch of sand. We quickly got on our feet, checked for damage and continued towards a paved road or some sort of civilization. A short cut that was supposed to take an hour took three, it reminded me that a short cut is not necessarily the quickest way out. I was happy to end the adventure and continue our journey towards Boise, Idaho on a paved road.

Riding in The Alvord Desert (click image to watch the video)

Being on a tight budget for this trip, I have found that one way to eat cheap and relatively healthy food is to eat at Subway. We usually take advantage of the five dollar footlong or, in the mornings, the three dollar coffee and 6″ sandwich breakfast combo. Leaving the coast, we stopped in Astoria for our usual Subway breakfast, and headed back towards Washington state.

We arrived at the turn-off to Mount St. Helens early in the afternoon. From the main highway, it was a 60km drive to the lookout point nearest to the volcano. The temperature steadily got colder as we rose in elevation until we finally reached the national park visitors center at Mount St. Helens. After a short look around, a washroom break, and a few photos, we got back on the bike and headed back down the road from which we came to the main highway.

Hungry and tired, we rode south, back into Oregon towards Portland. With the sun fading, we stopped for some chimichangas and headed into Portland. It was dark by the time we made it into the city. We rode around looking for Forest Park where we had planned to camp. We finally found it and pulled off the side of the road and set up he tent in the dark.

The next morning was a rainy one. After packing up the tent and our gear, we went for breakfast at Subway, and made a quick stop at a camera shop. I had packed my tripod for this trip, but hadn’t noticed that the quick-release plate was not with it. I was in search of a new one since I hadn’t been able to use the tripod without it. Unable to find the specific size for my camera, we left and headed east.

I followed my GPS to KTM of Gresham, which is located just outside of Portland. We stopped there to pick up a few parts for the bike and to get some tips on tightening my chain. All the guys there were really helpful. We spent and hour or two there talking to everyone and getting a lot of good advice and help. Just before leaving, Vint, the owner, ran out and gave us some extra parts and supplies.

It was early afternoon when we road through Mount Hood National Forest, over the pass and down the other side. The landscape quickly changed from lush, green forests to golden yellow fields of grass and farm land, much of which was scarred and blackened by wild fires. We continued southeast until we came to a tee in the road. It was late in the afternoon, and both the fuel in my tank and the light of day were running low. I checked my GPS for the nearest fuel station heading east, but it was beyond the range of the fuel that I estimated I had left in my tank. Neither Paula nor I wanted to chance it. Our best option was to head 50km back west into Bend, Oregon.

Paula, Almeida and I pulled into Bend just as the sun met the horizon. It was well past dinner time, so we decided to stop for food – Mexican again. By the time we finished dinner, the sun had already set, but there was still a bit of light in the sky. We left to find a place to camp out. Driving around town, Paula, Almeida and I found, what appeared to be, an abandoned parking lot in a residential area of town. I parked the bike behind some tall bushes at the endue of the lot, and we set up the tent nearby. After we were all settled in, I decided to walk down to the nearest 7 Eleven for some snacks. Later that evening, while sipping sodas, eating candy and watching TV on my laptop, our tent was illuminated by, what could have only been, a set of car headlights. We immediately knew that it was the police. Paula and I got dressed and walked out to meet the two officers. They requested our passports, and our names were run through the system. We were told they owner of the lot had had a problem with “vagrants” and that the night security guard had seen us and made the call to the police. We explained what we were doing and, after finding out that we had no criminal records, the officers placed a call to the owner and asked if he would allow us to stay the night. We were given the OK, and we enjoyed the remainder of the night not having to worry about being spotted.

We packed up early the next morning and had almost everything loaded onto the motorcycle just before the sprinkler system (that we hadn’t seen the night before) came on. We narrowly escaped getting soaked. We made a quick stop at 7 Eleven for some beef jerky and headed to Subway for breakfast. While we were there, we met two locals who told us about a natural tourist attraction, called The Painted Hills, located in the general direction of our route. They were a bit out of the way, but, we thought, worth the trip. Before leaving Bend, we made a stop at one of the local strip malls since Paula needed a new pair of sun glasses.

Shortly after noon, we left Bend and headed slightly north and east towards The Painted Hills. We arrived there in middle of the afternoon, riding 20km off the main highway into the middle of nowhere. The Painted Hills, striped with rusty red floodplain deposits, were an impressive sight.

Getting late in the day, we made our way to McDonald’s in John Day, Oregon to use the internet and grab a burger. I later regretted the burger. With not too much daylight left, we got back in the saddle and raced towards Burns, Oregon, where we had planned to stop for the night. We didn’t quite make it all the way to Burns, and ended up camping out in the forest about 20km from town.

In the morning, we rode into Burns for some breakfast and to use the internet. By mid-afternoon, we headed out towards the Alvord Desert. The road heading towards the desert was a nicely-paved two-lane highway. We rode up to a section of road that was roughly 1-2km long and bordered closely by a large lake on either side. Riding along, I saw a black cluster in the distance. As we got closer, I realized that they were cows, standing in the middle of the road, hundreds of them blocking our path. Being city folk, we didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure that, if I got closer to them, if they’d get scared and charge the bike. Almeida could take on a cow or two, but not an army of cattle. We stood in the road at a distance and took some photos. After several minutes, a car pulled up and a woman inside yelled at us to ride forward, and that we were blocking the cattle form trying to pass. Irritated by her tone, I told her not to speak to us the way that she did. I said, “We’re from a city, how the hell are we supposed to know what to do in this situation?!” A few other vehicles pulled up and drove slowly towards the heard, clearing a path for us to follow.

We were running low on fuel, so we decided to stop and fill up. Fuel stations in that area were very few and far between. We stopped at the fuel station near the turn-off to the desert, but they didn’t have premium. We asked if the station at Denio Junction, 40km south into Nevada had fuel, and we were told that they did. We made our way to Denio Junction, filled up at the gas station and, being around dinner time, decided to grab a bite to eat at the diner. Paula and I both ordered a burger. We both agreed that it could have likely been the best burger we have ever eaten.

We rode up to the desert around dusk, and, upon seeing it, I immediately got out my camera to take pictures. We got back on the bike and rode down to the edge of the desert where there were a dozen or so campers and pick-up trucks. We thought it would be great to camp out with other people since we usually camped alone, trying not to be seen. Immediately upon pulling up, several of the other campers came to introduce themselves and invited us to sit around and watch the stars. Paula and I thanked them, and, after setting up camp, made out way over with our camp chairs and our cheap bottle of wine. The stars were amazing. With no city lights within 150km radius, the milky way was clearly visible. We sat drinking wine and counting shooting stars until we were both tired and a bit drunk.

I woke up the next morning feeling dehydrated and slightly hungover from the $4 Walmart wine the night before. Paula and I were invited to have breakfast with all of the other campers. Everyone gathered while several of the campers cooked, and we all enjoyed a breakfast together. After breakfast, Paula and I decided that we would head over the hot hot spring that, we were told, was nearby. It had been five full days since we last showered, and soaking in a hot spring was sounding like a great idea.

The wind, that day, was a bit of a disappointment for the rest of the campers, most of whom were there to sail their dirt boats (sort of like a sail boat with wheels). We were offered rides, but there just wasn’t enough wind. Paula went with one of sailors, but there was only enough wind to move them at a few kilometres per hours. A bit disappointed, Paula and I decided to ride Almeida around the desert. We hopped on the bike and rode across the flat, dry, cracked lake bed, weaving in and out of clusters of small bushes, and hitting patches of sand. It was so much fun.

That night, we were invited to have dinner with Keith and Lance, two guys who were camped right next to us. Earlier that day, Lance, who was from Montana, helped me plot a route from Boise, Idaho to Yellowstone National Park. After dinner and a few beers, Paula and I headed for bed. We were quite tired from the day in the sun.

Thinking about it now, we should have spent at least one more day in the desert; it was really awesome. But, that next morning, we packed up our things and made our way out. I followed my GPS to a “shortcut” out of the desert that looked like it would save quite a bit of distance. The shortcut, ended up not being such a great idea. The “road” that we took was mostly large rock, stone, and sand. With a fully-loaded bike and an extra passenger, my riding ability was put to the test. I didn’t have much trouble with the rock an gravel, but the bike was very difficult to control in the loose, sandy soil. I almost lost control of the bike twice going through sand and loose pebble, but, somehow, I managed to keep the bike upright. Trudging along, I noticed the dead and rotting carcass of a cow at the side of the road. It likely got lost in the desert and died of dehydration. There were patches of the road that were relatively compact and flat, and we were able to pick up a bit of speed, and then, suddenly, we’d hit some sand or loose pebble or big rocks and have to slow right down. At roughly the halfway point of the 60km route out of the desert, we hit a large patch of loose pebble. The front tire skidded and wobbled as I applied the break, but, this time, Almeida went down. I looked back to see if Paula was OK. Her leg was trapped and twisted under the left pannier, so I rushed up to lift the weight of the bike up so that she could free her leg. She hobbled up and was sore and bruised, but she was OK. We rested a minute or two, unloaded the bike and heaved it upright. After a few concerned false starts, we managed to fire up Almeida’s engine again and continue along.

After two and a half to three hours riding the length of our shortcut, we finally made it to the main highway. It was a good introduction to what we knew we would have to endure in underdeveloped countries, but It was a relief to see pavement again.

With a lot of distance to make up, we pointed Almeida east and made a beeline for Boise, Idaho, stopping only once to fill up with gas. Nearing our destination around dinner time, we stopped for some Mexican food just outside of Boise. After eating, we made our way into the city to a McDonald’s to use the internet and try to get in touch with Kent, a couch surfer whom Paula had contacted several days prior. We were able to get a hold of him, but he was unavailable until later that evening. We waited around until after 9pm, and went to meet Kent.

   A view of Mount St. Helens in Washington State

   Mount St. Helens is most notorious for its catastrophic eruption on May 18, 1980, the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.*

   Paula in Bend, Oregon. This was taken atop of Pilot Butte.

   The Painted Hills of Oregon

Near John Day, Oregon

   Near John Day, Oregon

   Hundreds of cattle blocked the road towards the Alvord Desert.

   Dusk on the edge of the desert, just after arriving in The Alvord.

   The Alvord Desert at sunrise

   The edge of the Alvord Desert, near where we set up our tent to camp

   Everyone gathered in the mornings for a big breakfast that was cooked by several of the campers.

   Kieth (and his dog), Paula and Lance

* Wikipedia

About Rocky