Even though I’ve traveled to nearly every part of Oregon over the years, I’d never ventured into the south-east corner of the state. A little research yielded scant information about the area, but two things did spark my interest: a dry lakebed and wild horses.
In mid-October 2018 I chose to spend several nights at the historic Frenchglen Hotel which housed the only lodgings and restaurant for many, many miles in any direction. My very basic room was located in the “modern” annex (circa 1950) behind the hotel, and my meals were served family-style at the restaurant located in the hotel. It was during dinner on the second night that I learned where to find the wild horses, which was a relief because I had spent the better part of the day searching up and down sketchy and rough dirt roads with no results.
Early the next morning (and the next several mornings) I traveled about ten miles south of the hotel, turned off the main highway and drove slowly for about 2 miles. After pulling to the side of the dirt road, I remained in my vehicle and waited. Within five minutes I spotted a herd of about 12 wild horses of all colors & sizes coming over the hill. Within minutes they had started grazing nearby; the stallion keeping constant watch for any dangers. Now, I have absolutely no interest in photographing these noble creatures, but I’m very happy to have them take up residence in my memory bank. Each morning that I visited this spot, an entirely different herd of wild horses appeared, which filled my heart with joy.
My other keen interest in this area was the dry lakebed, also known as the Alvord Desert, located just east of the mile-high Steen’s Mountain escarpment in south-eastern Oregon (about 60 miles from the Frenchglen Hotel). At 4,000 feet elevation, the 20 mile by 7 mile playa today is only a remnant of a huge lake that extended 100 miles from end to end with a depth of 200 feet. Since it rains here less than 5 inches annually, the alkaline lakebed is dry and drivable from July to November. However, heaven help you if a sudden rain storm hits while you’re either camping or driving on the lakebed since that cracked dry surface can transform into a sticky quagmire within minutes, making locomotion impossible.
There are several hot springs encircling the Alvord Desert, some are private, but you can often pay a small fee to use them. I’ve also heard that wild horses can be seen on the far eastern side of the desert, although it would be hard to approach without causing them to retreat immediately.
Fields, Oregon is the nearest town to the desert, but it only offers a place to fill-up, a no-frills motel, and a small restaurant known for its milk shakes & hamburgers. Your main concerns about exploring the area should be having a full gas tank and being aware that cell service is virtually non-existent in much of the desert. You may camp on the dry lakebed and, due to near zero light pollution, enjoy the clear star-filled nights as well as the occasional booming noises from the seismic activity beneath the desert.
It was while I was driving on the dry lakebed that I started noticing the swooping tire marks which criss-crossed the cracked & baked surface in every direction. Minutes later, camera in hand, I drove slowly over the lakebed, stopping from time to time to capture the unintentionally artistic evidence of spontaneous vehicular movement. I spent a brief 30 minutes recording the auto-glyphs for my own enjoyment, which is the main reason that I make any photograph. Ultimately, these tire tracks will be etched onto the surface of the lakebed until rain and wind gradually erase them. Until that time, they remain as firmly in place as the petroglyphs, some as old as 10,000 years, which can be found on boulders in the surrounding area.
After returning home, I started to notice tire skid marks everywhere on city streets. A trip to a favorite park disclosed an entire parking lot covered in tire tracks which appeared to be laid down playfully and quite enthusiastically. I’ve included them along with the images from the Alvord Desert to illustrate how humans seem drawn to leaving their mark on any surface and to contrast how ephemeral and temporary the marks in the desert were compared to the near permanent marks made on an asphalt surface. Interesting, but certainly not an earth-shaking conclusion.
In my humble opinion, the south-eastern corner of Oregon is certainly an undestination worthy of a few days exploration, especially if you enjoy quiet contemplation in a natural setting.
“We’re on a road to nowhere…..” – Talking Heads
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