I woke up to a beautiful birthday morning on the desert.
We said goodbye to the Alvord Desert and headed to Fields, Denio, Highway 140 and Medford.
My mother-in-law and I share a birthday. Bill and I balanced our wish for an unhurried day with some time to explore with our wish to share a birthday dinner in Medford.
We enjoyed driving by a flying saucer on 140, the Sheldon National Antelope Refuge, and the opal mines beyond the refuge headquarters. Nothing was open, which was helpful for our itinerary.
There are some spectacular grades on this route (complete with curves and abrupt, immense drop-offs). We saw a sign warning of wild donkeys and got excited. We didn’t spot any.
Other signs left us baffled.
We made Medford in time for a leisurely, lovely dinner with Bruce and Jo. (Did I tell you that I have the best in-laws?)
When mom called later that evening, I thought it was just for birthday wishes, but it was much more somber. She let me know that dad had only 24-48 hours to live.
My dad underwent chemo and radiation for esophageal cancer more than a year ago. It was a tough couple months, but the outcome was more than a year of pretty vigorous life. He’d not been feeling well for a month or so, but still. It was a shock.
Dad lived for another month, cared for with great love by mom, my siblings, and his grandkids. He enjoyed sharing stories right to the end.
After a magnificent sunrise and breakfast on the desert, we headed out to explore. I had found three springs (Wild Horse Spring 1, 2, and 3) on an online map and wanted to find them and Borax Lake was also on our agenda.
We took note of the geographic features near us and checked to make sure we’d dropped a pin, then headed out.
Never pass a potty
The bathroom at Alvord Hot Springs was a very welcome sight. The people waiting to use it were a little disappointing, but I like meeting new folks. The woman I chatted with (both masked and distant) was quite nice.
While I was using the facilities, Bill had an, um, fascinating? conversation with another woman. She and her husband were travelling–and sleeping–in separate cars because she needs her own space. She was fascinated with Brave Horatio and explained to Bill that it would be perfect–she and her husband could travel in one car, then he could sleep in the car while she slept in the teardrop.
While she’s explaining how much of her own space she needs, she’s also continuing to crowd in close to Bill. He said he just kept backing up and backing up.
I’m thinking her husband might want to reconsider his marriage contract.
Hot springs are gorgeous and they don’t always smell
I am fascinated with hot springs. I’m always thrilled that hot water just comes out of the ground. Magic. That said, I’ve been in very few hot springs. Sometimes I want to, but am not sure how one goes about it. Sometimes they’re kind of a smelly mess …fascinating, but a smelly mess.
I wanted to be brave enough to soak. It’s a stretch for me, but I would have liked it. Bill was not going to join me. Because we’re in the middle of Covid-19, I would have to occupy the tub all by myself. I’d have to wait until it was available and then try to nicely dissuade others from joining me.
I did not even get my towel out of Freya.
BUT–hot springs are about more than soaking. They are magical, beautiful, and fascinating even if you never dip your toe in. I walked down the path and followed the steaming stream back up toward the road. So cool. Big pools and small cascades and tiny trickles. All steaming. All coming right up from the ground all by itself. Everything surrounded and surfaced with a skim of odd colors and textures.
Searching for Wild Horse Springs
While researching this trip I ran across a map that showed three springs: Wild Horse Springs 1, 2, and 3. They looked close-ish to roads and I wanted to find them. I had unlikely thoughts about herds of horses drinking and milling about.
I’d clipped three snaps of the map, close in then farther and farther out. What I didn’t have was a map that actually showed where they were in relation to the desert or the mountain. Somehow I thought they were just up the road from Alvord Hot Springs. We turned right out of the driveway.
Have you ever looked at several maps and thought you had a good idea of where things were in relation to each other…then they’re just not? This was one of those times.
We drove with Steens Mountain on our left, down the Fields-Denio Road a lot farther than I expected. We passed Mann Lake and Juniper Lake and Ten Cent Lake. When Fields-Denio T’d with 78, we turned right. Bill kept asking me if I was sure of the directions. Of course I wasn’t sure. This was an adventure.
Past North Fork Ryegrass Road (which I’d also like to explore) and Iron Mountain Road (which I’m sure is lovely, but didn’t capture my imagination) and a whole lot of wide country.
We finally found the road we wanted and it was closed. Oh well. Onward!
We stopped to top off the tank at the intersection with 95, then turned south to head back to Fields via White Horse Ranch Lane.
White Horse Ranch Lane is gravel, but nice gravel. Wide and open with low plants on both sides. Another vehicle turned in ahead of us and we saw it parked on the road a little bit in. We waved at the guy crouched off the road a couple feet. He didn’t wave back. As we passed I noticed that his backpack was making a rudimentary shield as he squatted to do his business. A mile or so farther on we noticed that him turn around and head back to the highway. Clearly just a comfort stop. Bathrooms are few and far apart out here–never pass a potty.
We had the road to ourselves the rest of the way into Fields. It’s a great road! Slow gentle rises and slow gentle curves delivered us to view after beautiful view.
At the top of one rise a driveway rambled away to the left curving around a little hill. I think I’d like to meet these people. They’ll probably never know how much I enjoyed their roadside art installation.
Down some more gentle swoops, through ever greener, human-touched land we turned right toward Fields.
I’d read about the amazing milkshakes at Fields. They also have gas and potties–a pretty much perfect triad.
Fields also has hotel rooms–two of them–we sat in the sun at a picnic table in front of room 1 and thoroughly enjoyed our milkshakes. They come in those tall metal containers, all frosty on the outside and are nice and thick. Of course we didn’t split one. Bill had fresh banana and I had raspberry.
Our dinner plans quickly changed to less.
We chatted with some folks who come here every year, staying at Fields and spending their days on the desert. The hotel rooms were cute. Separate little buildings with tiny green lawns.
Borax Lake sits above the surrounding desert
I don’t always suck at map reading. I took us pretty much right to Borax Lake and Borax Hot Springs.
Not to far off the south end of the Alvord Desert flat is Borax Lake–home to the endangered Borax Lake chub. There’s a short, reasonable dirt road to a gate then a walk to the lake. As you get closer the ground begins to be covered with white crystals. They look a little like those dribble sand towers we used to make when we were small, very delicate feathery crystals. That’s the boric acid and arsenic. Don’t taste.
It’s odd to be walking on a flat, flat part of the earth and have to walk up a 20-30 foot rise to the edge of the lake. There were a couple ducks near the edge and you could see where the water wells up in the middle. The lake is elevated above its surroundings because it continually brings up minerals, so keeps raising itself higher. The lake is pretty warm, it varies between 61 and 100 Fahrenheit at the edge.
It’s a pretty little lake. We didn’t see any fish, but weren’t looking for them. I didn’t know they existed until I googled for more information on our way back to camp.
From the lakeside we could see the surrounding country really well. I didn’t see any hot springs.
We went further down the road, through some squelchy stretches of grassy vegetation and finally saw steam rising.
These are pretty incredible hot springs. You look down and down and down. Holes right into the middle of the earth. These springs run between 105 and 300 Fahrenheit and the ground near them is undercut and fragile. We were extra careful.
After not-passing-the-potty at Alvord Hot Springs, we were back on the desert.
Did I mention that there’s nothing to do on the dessert, except what you bring to the experience?
I walked, and twirled, and made bubbles. Bill played guitar and took pictures. We talked and read and shared some wine.
Then I took our little wine charm guys for a hike up one of the little sand bumps.
As we packed up and headed for the Alvord Desert, a song clip kept running through my head, “Off we go, home in tow, down the highwa…son of a gun we’re gonna have great fun on the playa.” It was the wrong song. The Alvord Desert is amazing, beautiful, and very, very quiet. For us, not a place of boisterous fun. Absolutely magnificently wonderful.
A quail chorus sang us out of Page Springs Campground and we headed to Fields around the south end of Steens Mountain. We passed Skull Mountain Road and a small airstrip on the Roaring Springs Ranch. We saw pronghorn and a magpie hitching a ride on a cow, then an entire cow parade.
The folks keeping an eye on the cows grinned as I shot video with my phone out the window. I wonder if they’d find my workday as interesting as I found theirs.
As we drove up a rise a white surrealistic landscape appeared in the V framed by the road cut. It grew into a remarkable view of the south end of the desert. Amazing.
I was a little nervous about actually getting onto the desert and a little nervous about figuring out where to set up camp. Neither was worth worrying about.
I’d called Alvord Hot Springs to make sure they were open and to get an idea of how desert access worked. They were really nice and I almost understood the process.
There were cars in the parking lot, a couple people near the accommodations (pretty charming looking repurposed modular MASH units) and a masked couple talking at a picnic table in front. I was happy to pay for a couple days use of their private road and so, so happy to use their bathroom! We paid for a days use of the hot springs but didn’t. Covid and hot spring use are difficult to manage.
The road was nice and we appreciated the tip about the damp mud near the outlet. We dropped a pin on our map to make sure we could find the road again. The mountains make good enough markers, but the pin was reassuring.
Pulling Brave Horatio out onto the dry lake bed of the Alvord Desert was a little unnerving. There aren’t many places left where you can just drive anywhere at all. It took some getting used to. We’d decided to camp toward the north end, but not too far from the west edge. We drove into an area of small bumps and parked, deciding that the small bumps would slow down anyone out for speed.
It was weird to just stop and camp. It’s flat, flat, flat. Like camping on a gigantic dried up mud puddle. Amazing mountains around all the edges and miles and miles of light pinkish brown dried mud. I took my shoes off and enjoyed the softness on my feet.
We dropped a pin where we left Brave Horatio and went out for a spin in Freya. It felt like we were flying over that flat space–we got up to about 30 mph. It felt fast and a little thrilling to just steer where ever we wanted. No lines, no signs, no people or vehicles. Miles and miles and miles of flat. We drove toward the south end of the desert, then around the eastern edge and back north. It was interesting to see where larger dunes formed and the areas that included some fist size black rocks. We only saw a couple other vehicles the whole time.
Back at Brave Horatio we started to realize how very quiet it was and how very little there was to do. Bill played guitar. We read. I knitted. I twirled in a circle with the bubbles I keep in the galley.
We could see two camps. One to the southwest and one southeast. Both were so far away that binoculars showed people, but not their features. We later discovered that the camp to the east of us were friends of my nephew. Such a small world.
Peeing in the desert is also a little surreal. It’s flat, it’s unvegetated, it’s dry. Pick a direction, walk away from your camp, pee, and pack out your paper. Kind of fun.
I worried about poop.
My primary plan was to wait and use Alvord Springs’ bathroom. Luckily, my backup plan was untested.
We sang What a Wonderful World into the quiet desert dark, enjoyed the milky way, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars and tucked ourselves into Brave Horatio.
It got windy for a bit. Brave Horatio wiggled a little as the wind whistled around, but he stayed put and we stayed snug.