Alvord Desert with sunset making cloud float and orange

rattlesnakes and rooftop tents

Tickets to a concert in Bend one weekend. A family reunion in Burns the weekend before. What if we don’t come home? Turn two trips into one? And so the summer of 2023 road trip planning began. Eight days and nights to explore parts unknown in Eastern Oregon.

There’s something about a rooftop tent that makes a person a bit sloppy about the details. Our sturdy FJ62 Landcruiser takes care of us. If she can bump along and park, then we can camp. Her name is Val – short for Valentine. She’s red and we adopted her on February 14th almost a decade ago. Her rooftop tent makes her comfy and quick to set up. Her double-battery and fridge-instead-of-ice-hungry-cooler keeps the necessities cold and dry. She’s been the champ of the BLM from Black Rock Desert to Ouray.

With Val we have a freewheelin’ approach to roadtrips that is flawless most of the time. And when it isn’t, the stories are fun to tell. Note that Freewheelin‘ is an early favorite of The Macks music catalog. You should listen to The Macks. But I digress.

When you can camp anywhere, anywhere might be the middle of a midnight cattle crossing. Or a Wizard of Oz style windstorm. Or above a sea of ginormous Mormon crickets. Bugs that may be strong enough to hold your body weight if you stepped on them. Bugs that illicit a squeal as they crawl up legs. But can’t – sweet mercy – climb ladders or jump as high as a rooftop tent.

Sherwood > Burns > Wallowa > Boise

A purposeful slow roll to Burns began with a few stops and a sleepover in Redmond. The “Rosie pubs” list was missing crucial Central Oregon breweries. Brian promises to publish this collection of 100 coveted pup patios soon. I may threaten a tap tale takeover. She who blogs the fastest…well, blogs the fastest.

Instead, enjoy this pic of my epic marinated chickpea and slow-roasted pepper and garlic with feta bowl. There is a lot going on in that bowl. While we are not above Doritos and Poptarts while camping, some meal prep is essential. This Inspired Edibles recipe lights up the palate. The Three Sisters (mountains) glowed with appreciation as we ate.

The morning’s blazing sun felt appropriate as we approached Burns. We sat with extended family under giant pine trees. Six dogs, eleven little kids, two babies onboard, my gaggle of beautiful nieces, and Uncle Erik entertained four generations of Windheim.

Family gatherings are chaos controlled. By my sister-in-law. Barb always thinks of everything. She missed her calling as an event planner and instead wrangles kids (both two and four-legged). She even thought to pick the campground across the highway from the river. To avoid rattlesnakes. Evidently rattlesnakes don’t do any better than chickens crossing the road.

Rattlesnakes. Where does my consuming and fearful fixation of rattlesnakes come from? I grew up in the Willamette Valley with only do-gooder garter snakes. I was free to bravely lift rocks and poke in holes. The dangerous slithery critters lived “other places” like Eastern Oregon.

My dad downplayed “rattlesnake country” when we camped in other parts of Oregon. But I knew they waited for me. Coiled and ready to strike little girls trying to get down the path to the boat. I still inspect every stop before Rosie leaves the truck. I read over and over what to do if bitten.

I thank my lucky stars that Barb thought of rattlesnakes when she picked the campground. I could sit back and enjoy the company. Let Rosie try some off-leash time. I could fall in love with wild tufted buckwheat flowers. Without thinking a snake would jump out from under them.

After getting a few dozen hugs we left Burns. While our route was flexible it did seem dependent on Rosie pub stops. As my friend teases, “Everyone needs a hobby.” We checked off new pubs in John Day and Baker City.

Minam Recreation Area was home for the night. Rosie made a friend. A cattle dog named…wait for it…Rosie. They ran up and down the river bank while the other Rosie’s people floated in tubes and I laughed.

Our campground neighbors inspired visions of gardening on the road. It is the hardest part of leaving home in the summer. I cringe at no one tending my vegetable garden or running deer interference. But these campers have a potted tomato plant set out sunning itself next to the picnic table. You can take the gardener out of the garden. But she may drag that darned tomato plant kicking and screaming across the country. My next book idea: Sisterhood of the Traveling Tomato Plants.

The Mecca of Rosie pubs is in Enterprise. Terminal Gravity. We felt the pull to an expansive lawn and dozens of tables of all sizes. A babbling creek welcomed kids and pups to play. The menu was simple yet creative. They poured the ultimate-drink-it-all-summer-long sour beer. I declared its perfection as we pulled away. Brian turned Val around and kicked me out to buy a case for the road.

No breweries to be had in Joseph. That is becoming a rare miss for even the smallest of towns. Alas, ice cream and cowboy counting would have to do.

I’ve been to Joseph before. It may be “Eastern” Oregon but the vibe is all Western. And it’s the second time I arrived during rodeo week. The sidewalks filled with boots and spurs. Square dance hootin’ and hollerin’ echoed through the campground.

Despite the Wild West unfolding at Wallowa Lake State Park the wild animals still roamed. I made direct eye contact with a gorgeous red fox as she ran through our campsite. Chipmunks chattered with Rosie who was on point for a full 48 hours.

Wallowa Lake is a beauty. But the “no dogs in the swimming area” made it tricky to access. Our hike on a single plank bridge over troubled water was thrilling. Too thrilling for Rosie. The reckless and rambunctious Rosie chose to be delicately carried across.

Boise beckoned. A return to civilization and a hotel with showers. But the journey was not quick nor straight. Val crawled alongside the scenic Hells Canyon – the deepest gorge in North America. And, this will shock no one, the reward for our patience was breweries. Boise pup patios are in endless supply. Rosie added five to her list and could likely do that five more times.

Dogs are not known to be discerning when it comes to pub crawling. But if she was, Rosie would give Mother Earth Brewing five stars. The “Love Your Mother” vibe is everything a pub should be. Take a pint and take a stand. Plus the beer was good and the place was hopping.

Boise also won a friendly city nod. Sprinklers were watering our Landcruiser. Intense frowning ensued. A woman walked up to me and watched. She said, “Geez, that’s not very nice.” Then she offered me two cold beers from her six-pack of Boise Brewing to make it better. She turned my frown upside down.

A crowd of strangers filled up a bar and spilled onto the sidewalk to watch the USA World Cup game. We cheered with them on tip toes looking through the windows. Then we found a friend from home! He was in Boise, too. So we had our last beer of the night laughing together at 10 Barrel. Friendly city indeed.

Boise > Leslie Gulch > Owyhee River Canyon > Alvord > Bend

One more shower and then bye-bye Boise. Hello to Leslie Gulch and Owyhee. I was certain Brian had made these destinations up. I’ve lived in Oregon for 50 years and these were not actual places. Cars became fewer and fewer. Service bars disappeared. Gravel and dust flew. We stopped to let air out of Val’s tires so she’d stop shaking up our beverages and the teeth out of our mouths.

The terrain is pristine, golden ranch land. We passed a charming red school house. Then with a slight turn the Leslie Gulch sign appeared. Rock formations reminiscent of Utah popped out of the landscape. This is Oregon?

A gravel road cuts through Leslie Gulch in Oregon.

At the end of the road is the Owyhee Resevoir. Placid and warm water. Quiet. Only two other people in sight. We swim off the dust. Rosie paddles from Brian to me. She rests her head on my shoulder and rolls to a peaceful back float. I have never had a dog do that before. The sweetest thing.

Camping at the reservoir is an option. But we’ve had our fill. And Brian says we can make “Three Forks” by sundown.

Endless sage and dirt roads interrupted by the occasional cattle guard. Antelop played. Pheasants flew. Brian studied maps and we made a few guesses at turns. It was fine. All good.

We crested then dove down a trail to the Owyhee River at Three Forks as sunset loomed. It’s a serious a drop into the canyon. Slow and steady. Being the patient passenger is tough. But taking the wheel seemed like it could be worse. For our marriage.

As we approached a primitive camping area we saw the dirt path turn black. Thousands of enormous Mormon crickets made their way from the river to higher ground. The bugs were in the sage bushes, so I roll up my window and squeal a little. This is also why there are no adequate pictures. We heard them crack and squish under the tires with their hard-shelled, three-inch long bodies. I chanted in my head that crickets won’t hurt me, crickets are fine.

Camp was set in the wide-open. Better to have a full view of the situation. Rosie hopped down fascinated at first then overwhelmed. She escaped to higher ground and hid in the Landcruiser.

Brian and I propped our feet on a stool so the buggers crawled beneath us. The night was silent other than the occasional hopeful remark that maybe there were less of them now. And, my sighs of relief that they can’t get to the rooftop tent. The scenery above the bugs was stunning.

A few humans appeared. A girl looking for hot springs. A couple of feral kids walking barefoot – in the dirt and among the crickets – hunting for Owyhee Jasper. I nodded like I knew what that was. Looked it up the next day. Rocks. Pretty inlaid picture rocks that look like mountain or desert scenery. We overheard the boys discussing math problems as they moved down the river. Homeschooling at its absolute best.

The morning was quick. Get that tent down and go. Bug out of bugville. We took a chance on a dirt road going the “right” direction rather than backtrack. Peered over the Owyhee Canyon Overlook. Scared more pheasants.

Brian surprised me with a hot spring stop. Perfect water temp and all to ourselves. We met a man afterward that we call “The Great Basin Nomad.” Deeply tanned, a ponytail beard, and a motorhome limping along to every hot spring he can find.

The Nomad has a rickety German Shorthair Pointer. The dog lost a fight with a porcupine and half the feeling in his lovely and sad face. The dog reportedly could smell the difference between bull snakes and rattlesnakes. I hoped he’d whispered that wisdom to Rosie.

The hot water and scorching sun called for a frozen treat. So we moved on to “The World Famous” milkshakes at Fields Station. This was my third time to the hollowed ground in Southeastern Oregon. It’s as much part of the experience as Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert. We shared a huge caramel banana shake.

Then we chased that blended ice cream with a Three Sisters cerveza. A touring motorcycle rider desperately needed his phone charged. He brought three tall cold cans to our table in exchange for battery life and conversation. Deal.

Our next camp was smack in the middle of the desert playa of the Alvord. A welcome and barren landscape with nary a bug found. No shade either. But the sun was low and the rooftop tent provided a nice shade shadow.

Rosie, off-leash at last, zoomed around kicked up playa dust. Barefooted I snapped picture after picture. The sun turned the clouds orange and the full moon took over. She must have thought she was looking at her own reflection. Dancing on the playa by the light of the moon will forever be a favorite moment of my 50 years.

Our last camping day was perhaps the only true fail of the trip. The plan to drive the Steens Mountain loop was thwarted due to an unforeseen closure part way up. People had left notes at the entrance sign. Frustrated, angry notes. It does seem ridiculous that nothing we looked up online foretold the closure.

So camping below Steens became the new plan. So be it. Reviews mentioned mosquitoes. Something we’d avoided to this point. But we plop our camp chairs in the creek. With beers in hand and feet in the water we are feeling relaxed.

After a rousing game of Bananagrams after dinner, the mosquitos arrived. Not “oh, where’s the bug repellant” level. This was grab-the-whisky-and-your-kindle-because-nobody-opens-the-tent-til-sunup. We watched vampire insects bounce off the tent screens and wondered if the castle would hold against the fierce invaders. I impressed myself with the ability to hold it all night when necessary.

For the drive to Bend we wrapped ourselves like mummies. The mosquito hitchhikers would not vacate Val. Brian drove and I swatted and smacked the blood suckers with a dishtowel. For hours.

In Bend I washed the blood bath from my memory. And the playa dust from my hair. All that mattered was getting to Boygenius. Obsessed with this trio for years, I pre-orded “The Record” and was set to sing every word with Phoebe, Lucy and Julian. They are each brilliant as individual artists. Put them on a stage together and they are a revelation. It gives me such hope to see that kind of passion and pride and vulnerability reaching a rapt crowd.

They played every song. Line by line they laid their truth bombs.

“So many hills to die on”

“Always an angel, never a god”

“I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself”

“And I can feel myself becoming someone only you could want

“Spinning out about things that haven’t happened

“You said, ‘I might like you less now that you know me so well.”

“I ask you how you’re doing and I let you lie.”

A week in a remote corner of Oregon had revealed wide-open lands. But also closed minds. The territory was peppered with hostile flags and warning signs. Picking fights. It stuns my spirit to know that all people aren’t my people.

The contrast was not lost on me as the show began. A moving land acknowledgment came first from the Warm Springs Tribe. We listened with respect and collective empathy. I was allocated a mere towel-sized patch of lawn. But the eight thousand people surrounding me were freethinking and inclusive. The phrase “come as you are” popped into my head. It was one of the best views of the week.

P. S. A.

To the young people at the venues. Even though you mostly know and do better than me in so many ways. But kids keep skipping one crucial concert step. The drinking of the water. I admire the dedication. The singular focus of waiting in line in the sun for hours to get that front row view. But then fainting? Scaring the crap out of the artists on stage? A show in the flow stopped while security gets you on your feet? It’s lame and completely preventable. Trust me about the water. And also thank you to these kind-hearted artists who are watching out for the kids who fail to hydrate.

Writer. Photographer. Future Master Gardener. Artsy miid-life mama planting seeds for the second half.

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