March 12 2021
It has taken a while for me to process and recount the story of OAS2020. The nitty-gritty details of the story are best shared by those that were there. Stories abound and we all have the trail damage to show for our efforts.
The Oregon BDR Alvord Steens 2020 trip was an idea I concocted after reading about the trials and tribulations of navigating the challenging motorcycle centered Oregon BDR (Back Country Discovery Route). I also wanted to visit Steens Mountain and the famous Alvord Desert that lies like a vast doormat beneath it. I wanted to avoid the 10 hour pavement slog to get down to this ultra-remote part of SE Oregon, and thus, the OAS concept was born. Start in Walla Walla, bash your rig about for a few days on a little used off-road trail designed by motorcycle riders, and then pull off when the time feels right and head down to the Desert in SE Oregon. That’s exactly what we did in August 2020.
A ragtag group of PNW adventurers in a mind-boggling array of rigs, all competent and well-built in their own way, met in Walla Walla Washington on a Friday afternoon. We first had some wine at Dunham Cellars and then moved over to Quirk Brewing where the vibe really fit with our group. We ate tacos, checked out each other’s rigs and wondered out loud ‘what the heck is going to happen over the next few days?’.
I planned the trip using a three-year old copy of the Oregon BDR trail atlas, which is published (and updated annually) by the Oregon BDR association. This group is quick to assert that it is NOT affiliated with the national BDR association that keeps tabs on the famous WABDR that we all know and love. The OBDR is special – its narrow, often has OHV trail segments that could (or perhaps should not) be used for a truck route and can be difficult to navigate. I put together my ‘interpretation’ of the OBDR for trucks, and then included routes to get down and explore Steens Mountain and the underlying Alvord Desert playa.
After beers that evening, we packed our families into the rigs and launched our expedition into the drawing dusk. The goal was a campsite by nightfall, and we soon found one atop a forested knoll, under the open sky. We were alone, but together. As I walked around that evening, the rhythm of our expedition was clarifying – kids running around together, dogs following along, parents chatting and cooking. The laughter and stories flowed like water. It was going to be a great trip.
The next three days blended together – we collectively navigated down the route that proved it had more in store for us than a wide forest road with clear points of reference. By committee, we slogged down dead-end roads filled with tank traps, off-camber rock gardens hidden in brush and dubious tracks behind fences marked with ‘Close Gate’ where there were no gates to be seen. Vehicles were recovered. Vehicles over-heated. Seemingly unerring modern vehicles exhibited gremlin-like electrical problems and required off-road towing. Seemingly primitive ‘antique’ vehicles amazed us with their capabilities.
In the end, we emerged onto a high ridgeline and enjoyed the views that make the Wallowa Mountains so famous. Views were enormous. The blue sky ran from horizon to horizon. Fire lookouts were visited, some of which were occupied, and others had been mothballed long ago. We put up the drones and took a look around.
After 5 days on the OBDR, we decided it was time to enter phase two of the trip. An exit point was found off the OBDR onto the highway and we headed South to Sylvies River Road for a campsite that positioned us just NW of Burns OR, for the next phase of our trip. On the way out to find a camp, one of our members snapped an iPhone shot of our rigs blasting across the dusty river plain. Our night at the Sylvies River camp was ultra-dark, with an uncountable number of stars and swirling bats competing for our attention.
After a quick stop in Burns for gas and provisions, it was clear that we were entering a part of OR that attracts adventurers from all over the world. Rigs of every shape and size rolled around town and eyes were set down the road to the SE, where Steens Mountain loomed in the smoky air. We arrived at Steens Mountain Road and raced for the summit on exquisite gravel roads. A long half day was spent exploring the mountain-top and its fabled views and valleys.
We camped that evening at a rock strewn flat overlooking the Alvord Desert with a stream rushing in the bushes next to us. The next morning, we were visited by two gentlemen cowboys on their mounts that appeared to have stepped out of time to engage us.
We dashed down to the desert floor and kicked a plume of dust for miles as we blasted down Fields-Denio Road with fogs and chase lights ‘on’ and the skinny pedal on the floor. It was glorious. We arrived at Alvord Hot Springs for a soak and witnessed a bit of the ‘rubber tramp’ culture that we were all peripherally a part of.
The next few days were spent on the Alvord Playa, drinking milkshakes in Fields, getting buzzed by small aircraft, and allowing children to drive expensive vehicles as fast as they wished. We witnessed a sand-storm. We learned to poop where there is no shelter of any kind. We wandered a vast expanse of wonderful desolation where people congregate together, to get weird, and to be alone. Alvord’s magical hold on the senses and its incredible remoteness affected us all. It was a right-of-passage and it is an unforgettable place.
The last 24 hours of the trip saw more exploration on the rocky slopes of Steens Mountain and a group camp high on summit of the Mountain that was coordinated over radio amongst several bands of wandering explorers. It all ended with a camp fire, toasts and gratitude for the friends surrounding us and shouts of kids playing in the drawing dusk.
OAS2021 is scheduled for August 13-22 2021, and will depart from Quirk Brewing in Walla Walla on the evening of August 13.
Scott Sattler MD