The locals all tell stories of laying bricks on their gas pedals and tying off their steering wheels when they were young, so they could climb in the backs of their trucks and drink beer and watch the stars spin in the night sky. That was the Alvord Desert to them.
I always imagined a gradient leading up to a desert; an area where things got hotter and drier and the plants became fewer and further between, until, finally, you reached parched earth, and you were there.
That’s not how it works with the Alvord, a 12-by-7-mile dry lake bed in southeastern Oregon that averages seven inches of rain a year. It starts abruptly, and when I rolled out onto it, I felt like a boat that had been dumped by a small river into the sea. There were no painted lines, no curbs, and no signs. The road stopped where the desert started, and from there I could drive in any direction.
Andre Gide once said that one doesn’t discover new lands without first consenting to lose sight of the shore. I thought about that as I watched the end of the road fade away in the rearview mirror and I rolled out onto the unknown.
There was no place to go. Nothing to aim for. No reason to turn the wheel. So I just went, because it felt like something I should do. This was a place for the restless. A place to move just for the sake of moving.
When I first stepped out of the van somewhere near the middle of the playa, I felt like an escaped house-cat seeing the sky for the first time. There was nothing in any direction; no plant, no pebble, no ripple in the terrain. There was nothing to step over, nothing to hide behind, and nothing to see. It was just flat, and empty, and exposed. I was treading water in the middle of an ocean and the van was my only life raft to cling to.
I sat there for a bit and wondered if it was time to go back. How do you know when you’re “done” with something like this? It’s wasn’t like a mountain. There was no summit. No way to measure the success of the endeavor. Had I seen the desert? Was there even anything to see?
In 1976 there was: a rocket-powered car named the Motivator, and a deaf stuntwoman named Kitty O’Neil briefly made the Alvord Desert famous. Together they’d reach speeds of over 600 mph, crushing the previous women’s landspeed record by more than 200 mph and leaving it in their salty dust. I turned around and headed back, thinking about landspeed records, and stomped the accelerator to the floor. My speedometer stops at 85, but the van had more to give, and I got back quick.
I’d come to find that all the interesting stuff around the Alvord Desert existed in the fringe; in that low scrub that still sustained life all around the periphery. There were boiling hot springs in vibrant colors bursting through the desert’s chalky white crust, and gurgling mud pots flinging slop as steam popped and hissed into the atmosphere. There were jack rabbits and herds of wild pronghorns grazing alongside cattle on small ranches, and the homesteads of hardy folk.
It was a bizarre and beautiful landscape, but I’m no desert rat. I drove well into the night to get up into the mountains so that I could sleep under the trees in the snow.
—Columnist “The Rubber Tramp,” aka Jeff Kish, writes a weekly article on a laptop aboard the customized Ford Econoline in which he lives. You can catch up on Kish’s past stories: The Rubber Tramp And The Ranch Hand, Dangerous Beauty: The Glacial Caves Of The Cascades, The Rubber Tramp Diary, Entry One, and his back story about shuttling through-hikers on the PCT.