Things to remember when trying not to die alone in the desert.

(Editor’s note: Many of you know already know what happened on this year’s ghost town trip.  This article was written prior to the ‘Event’ but I did not have Internet access to update the blog before my laptop was destroyed.  My hope is to maintain the feeling and emotions of the adventure at the time this was originally written and not taint it by adding to it my thoughts after my, yet another, near-death experience)

Range land in a plateau of the Ochoco Mountains.
Range land in a plateau of the Ochoco Mountains.

Day two, August 25th, Sleeping at the trailhead for Lookout Mountain was so peaceful.  Not a single bug.  Not one!  It was so quiet, the only sound was some hooved animal snorting every so often, and an owl in the distance from time to time.  The night sky was not like anything I have ever seen (and I’m an astronomer!).  The intense fire smoke filling the entire region had turned all the stars red. ALL OF THEM. Trippy…  Well, I guess it could have been all the gasoline fumes I was huffing due to my EPA certified “no spill” gas can spilling all over the place (thanks again, Grace).  Who can tell? All I know is that I slept well and forgot most of third grade in the process.

I awoke with the Sun and consulted my maps.  I decided to traverse the Ochoco Mountains to Pauline and gas up missing out on the Mother Lode Mine atop Lookout Mountain, nuts.  Shortly along my path I encountered a little derelict gold mill and an abandoned bunk house.  I have no clue what this place was named.  Nothing in my maps tells me.  It was beautiful in the amber morning light though.

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An old mill and bunkhouse
The remains of some mine in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon, the name I have yet to discover

The drive to Pauline, OR was an example in the National Forest Services interesting choices in road construction and maintenance .  You go from dirt to paved.  Then back to dirt, then on to beautiful two lane with large shoulders… then to unmaintained gravel…  I don’t get it.  I got to Paulina about 8:30am to find one gas pump and four cute little cattle dogs climbing all over me.  I had about half a tank, but I wanted to be sure to have it topped off for the dirt drive to Burns.  I didn’t know it, but those dogs were in on the con; while I scratched and patted the flurry of fur and wagging tails, the lady pumping my gas (yes, Oregon does not trust average citizens with the responsibility of putting a nozzle into a hole and pulling a trigger) was ripping me off.  She exclaimed, “Wow, were you empty or something?”

“No, not even close.” I replied.  I then look up to see that somehow 11 gallons of gasoline has become 23 gallons.  My tank only holds 21.  What am I going to do about it?  She’s the only game in town and I pull no weight out here in the sticks.  I just bought 23 gallons of gas. at twice the market rate.  Lame.  Note to self, do not buy gas in Paulina, OR.

Back into the mountains I have a nice long drive through a boring pine forest.  I realized while turning the wheel and staring out the windscreen, that I really don’t care for pine trees.  They suck.  They are not pretty, they cover the ground in acidic needles that thwart undergrowth, and all of them looked like depressed trees just going through the motions.  They wish they had the rainfall and clout of a Pacific forest, but they don’t.  Instead every pine tree just looks like it is ready to die in a raging forest fire.  Like it WANTS to die in a raging fire.  The skeletons of charred pines look so much more at peace than the living ones.  Pine trees are like the emo kids of the tree world.  I can just imagine them chain smoking stolen cigarettes, listening the Sunny Day Real Estate on repeat, and writing poetry about how much they hate their parents.

Happy on the left, sad on the right.
Happy on the left, sad on the right.

In Burns I go to a McDonalds to steal their Wi-Fi only to discover that my laptop now wants to spend an hour “installing updates”.  cap this off, it is low on battery and the McDonalds doesn’t have outlets anywhere.  isn’t this a violation of some sort of building code? I hate everything.  Fuck it, I’ll drive.  I cross the street to the Shell station and top off the tank.  The attendants are talking about how Canyon City just to the north is no more, destroyed by fire. Shame, Canyon City and its neighbor, the famous John Day, make up a marvelous part of the old mining west.  Fire is everywhere this year.  History and the Earth are burning.

I leave Burns about noon and am off to bucket list #3, Leslie Gulch and the mysterious blue landslide I want to touch.  To get there traditionally I would have to drive around and around for hundreds of miles, or I could just off road and cut out the circuitous travel.  I leave Burns heading east towards Crane.  This stretch of Oregon is the absolute worst.  One giant, salty, flat, treeless, sun-baked, wasteland.  Everywhere along the route is half-finished ideas, and crumbling dreams.  Broken trailers here, roofless barns there…  Anyone thinking of living in this uninhabitable hell-scape needs to just fill their tank and drive until it runs out of gas.  Wherever you end up will be better than here.

At the end of the Pavement is Crane, OR.  Crane is a town, apparently, but all that seems to be there is a high school (“Home of the Mustangs!”), even the highway leading to there is sponsored by the “Crane Teachers Association”  There are no businesses, just a Post Office and a high school.  Weird.

Passed Crane the road is gravel and really nicely maintained.  Those who know me are aware that I drive like a grandma.  Dirt roads are no different (Editor’s note: yes, I am aware about how ironic the entire following piece is considering what happens the next day).  It may seem to the outside observer that I am driving like an asshole, but there is great strategy in this.  First rule of mountain or country driving: stay in the middle of the road except when going around blind turns or over hills with no visibility of oncoming traffic.  This way you are less likely to hit large animals like deer and cows as they are more likely to be on the sides of the road eating than they are just standing agape in the middle of the lane (the boys and I once drove for a hundred miles in the middle of a highway as we passed millions of deer on migration in the Oregon Outback east of La Pine for what seemed like hours in the middle of the night, surreal experience).  Rule two, if your rear wheels start to drift behind you, steer into the slide, this is to prevent a rollover (Editor’s note: yes, I am aware how fucking ironic this is, shut up).

I am driving through the “Stinkingwater Mountains”.  Like the salty flatness before them, they too are not that great.  More like long flat turds drying in the Sun.  Not even mountains really,  more hills of nothing worth noting.  Just basalt and some ash.  Boring!

Bombing the Crane-Vernator Rd, I eventually take Swamp Creek to the Crowley-Riverside Rd.  This road kind of sucks and after 20 bumpy miles I come to a locked gate.  Oof.  I consult the map and turn around and go back a ways, then head northeast on McEwen Rd, then East on the stupidly named Granite Creek Rd (there isn’t any granite within 100 miles of here, maybe more), then Shumway Cutoff Rd, to the singular Crowley Rd, to Antelope Flat Rd, to Unnamed road, to Unnamed road, to Unnamed rd, to no road at all… a horse trail really.  Everything in the bed of the truck is back to ping pong balls.

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This is a tame part of the road. Stupid wide angle cameraphone lense does not do it justice.

Driving such a 4×4 road requires intense concentration on what is 10 feet in front of you.  It is a good thing the surroundings were lame, otherwise I would have popped my tires and died like a raison in the hot Sun.

There is no one out here.  Every so often I find tagged cattle, but not much else.  This last dirt road I am on is requiring me to open and close barbed wire gates like crazy.  My hands are now full of splinters from these old, weathered gates.  I am chugging up this last hill, jarring large basalt rocks pop my truck back and forth and at the crest of the hill one of the most beautiful desert formations I have ever seen.  I see Red Bluff, the Owyhee River, and the crazy outcrops of the mineral-rich mountains surrounding Leslie Gulch.  I take it in.  So beautiful.  One last gate to open and then close behind me and then I descend down closure to bucket list item #3 of the trip.

Oywhee Lake.
Red Bluff, the Owyhee River, and the outcrops surrounding Leslie Gulch. I really wish my camera could capture how deep these reds are. Someday I will invest in a real camera.

Fuck me, this road is not a road.  It is a scar of dirt, large boulders, and one giant rut descending a couple thousand feet to the valley below. 4-low, 1st gear, and my white knuckles clinging to the steering wheel for life and I make my way down hoping not to die ricocheting about the cabin of my truck as it goes end over end to a place no one has tread for perhaps a decade, or more.  Once I make it 20 feet down there is no going back.  This is a one way trip, no truck is going to make it UP this thing as gravity will ensure it goes DOWN one way or another.  I am leaning out over my dashboard trying to get any look at what is about to pass under my tires.  This is fucked up.  I’m an idiot.

I don't know if you can tell from this image, but that is a 2+ft deep gouge between my tires as I descend a 25% grade down an unknown path, with unknown conditions below.
I don’t know if you can tell from this image, but that is a 2+ft deep gouge in the “road” between my tires as I descend a 25% grade down an unknown path, with unknown conditions below. Cameraphones never show how fucked up the situation really is.

An hour later I finally am out of the awful basalt layer and into the sweet softness of the ash.  The road is smooth as butter… for about a half mile.  Then it takes a turn from going straight down to a long traverse parallel to the ridge.  Who does that?  Now I have deeply carved dry wash after dry wash.  Going back up isn’t an option and driving over a 6ft deep gorge is not that much better.  This is fucked up.  I’m an idiot.

A road?
A road, or “erode”?

The third gulch in my path is deep.  Like really deep.  I put the truck in park and get out to survey the terrain.  I take pictures too, because this is what one does before doing something stupid, and plan my route.  The key to crossing a crack, crevasse, slot, or creek, is to take it at an angle.  The goal is to have at least three tires in contact with the ground at all times.  It is also much smoother.  I back the truck up so that I can approached this monster at as much of an angle as I can, shift it back into low gear and creep forward. The truck falls forward with a giant *crunch!* and I am no longer moving.  The front clip is now firmly impacted into the opposite bank and my rear passenger tire is now about 3ft off the ground.  I managed to achieve goal number one:  have three tires in contact with the Earth!  I can’t back up because the soft ash the front tires are in at the bottom of the gulch floor provides no traction, just puffs of dust, and the rear differential means that the passenger side tire in the air spins wildly while the rear tire sits locked in place.  This is fucked up. I really am an idiot.

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Where are you going? Fuckin’ nowhere!

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I am seventy miles from the nearest human, It is 3pm and approaching 100 degrees outside.  What I have going for me: gallons of water, food, extra fuel, rock tools.

I check my supplies:  Food: Soggy and warm, because I forgot to drain my cooler and get more ice. Way to go, moron.  Water: punctured while bouncing around in the back of my truck. Dipshit.  Fuel: The top popped off my leak-proof can and now there are gallons of fuel soaking most everything in my truck. Thanks, Grace.  Rock Tools: A little slimy with gasoline but ready to lever, pick, and dig.

The first thing I do is dig out the front end of the truck and give her a go.  Nope.  I them cram rocks under the front tires for traction. Nuh-uh…  I sit down, sweat already dripping from me even though I haven’t really done any work yet, and drink what little water I have left and start to engineer a plan.  I begin by rolling big boulders down the hill and into the gulch.  I make a several foot high pile of these rocks under the tire that is high in the air.  My god, it is hot outside.

Next I take one boulder and put it under the drive train of the front driver’s side.  I place my crappy little jack on top of this rock and start lifting the truck.  Unlike Lookout Mountain there are bugs here, and they love me.  The flies are buzzing and biting while I lay on my back, shirtless, under my truck spinning the jack a hundred time to watch it raise an inch.  Just like stuffing some coasters under the opposite corner of a wobbly table leg, I am now stuffing a jack under the opposite corner of my tire that is three feet in the air.  As the driver’s side front tire lifts off the ground the rear passenger side begins the settle on the pile of rocks I made.  Once I get the jack as high as it can go I stuff rocks under the now raised driver’s side front tire.  Along with these rocks I take a piece of plywood that makes up the shelf in the bed of my truck under this as well; like a ramp going up the embankment.  Once everything is in place I lower the jack and everything settles.  All four tires are now making contact and three of these tires are on rocks and not ash.

Two hours have gone by.  I am very eager to see how my engineering has fared and I climb back into the cab and turn the key, put it back in gear, this time 4-low and 2nd gear so as not to have too much torque and press the pedal down.  The engine growls and like a bolt of lightning the truck is up and on the top of the bank.  Smooth like butter.  I am no longer an idiot.  I am now a 4×4 god and genius engineer.  I dance while I throw my tools and plywood back in the truck.  I realize I forgot to document my genius with pictures.  Oops.  I don’t care that my bedding smells like a fuel dump.  I’m not going to die alone in the desert!

I drive forward 100ft and there is another gulch.  FUCK!

This time I am proactive and fill the gulch with boulders.  I drive over them, another gulch, another fill of boulders… another gulch, and so on, and so on. Finally, four hors have progressed from when I reached the bottom of the valley and began driving on the ash, I get reach the Owyhee River and to where I am going to cross, and the water level is high.  Too high.  There is no way I can get across (I knew I should have built a snorkel for my intake).  I have managed to find the only river in the West that is at a normal water level.  So much for planning.  Well, back to my maps because there is no way I am getting out the way I got in…

I find a trail that runs up the opposite side of the canyon (the East side) from where I came down, the trail sucks, but not as bad as the previous one.  Only two gulches need to be filled with boulder.  hooray.  The shadows are growing long, and now I am really driving like an asshole up a shitty road with one goal in mind: Get to cellphone coverage before my mother makes me a news story by reporting me missing in the Oregon Outback.  I promise her I will check in everyday I am doing stupid stuff alone in the toolies.  As she is fully aware that I have no sense and exhibit pretty much no fear when attempting morinic things in the name of exploration.  She witnessed my childhood.  She’s seen my medical files.

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I finally make it to US20 by 9pm.  That is about 60 miles of terrible “roads” in two hours (with two ditch fillings).  These roads should be treated at a crawl.  Again I am the most fortunate of idiots.  Also, thank you, Les Schwab tires for not exploding on me in the dark.20150825_192023

After placing a call to mi madre, the next goal was gasoline not in Oregon, but Idaho, please. I want to pump my own gas like a dignified human being.  Now here I sit in a Denny’s to use their Wi-Fi and then after 30 minutes they kicked me off the Wi-Fi and won’t let me log back in.  My shitty fucking meal hasn’t even arrived yet.  Kiss my butt, Denny’s!

Note, things I need for the truck:

  1. a high lift Jack
  2. somewhere outside of my tuck I can store a gas can, for the love of god!
  3. portable ramps… will add to list as I go.

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