I pulled over somewhere south of the Alvord desert and unfolded a map so large it blocked out the light from all three of my front windows.
I was on a 400-mile loop without gas stations near the Idaho and Nevada borders in southeastern Oregon, and couldn’t afford to waste fuel on a wrong turn.
I pressed the door into the current of the wind, and stepped outside to get the lay of the land. The desert was framed by the snowy-white Pueblo mountains ahead of me and the rugged Steens behind, and a gritty chill blew across the barren expanse between. I climbed back in and slammed the door. I was on the right track.
Soon, I’d follow an unmarked set of ruts that would lead me off the gravel and out across the plain to a remote hot spring that I’d find vacant and steaming in the cold.
The air temperature was well below freezing, so I staged the site before undressing. I set my Jetboil, some food, a 12 pack of beer, and a fresh towel at the edge of the spring; then left my Capilene baselayers and a heavy alpaca sweater on my bed to pull on later.
Flurries fell as I stripped out of my clothing and slid down through the swirling fog and into the bubbling water. I opened a beer, found a comfortable perch, and then settled into the silence.
I dug my toes into the sweltering silt and felt the water draw the tension out of my muscles like a hot penetrating salve. The longer I soaked, the more the steppe came to life around me. Ducks called amid the babble of a nearby creek, and frogs began to croak from the balmy microcosm of soft mud surrounding the spring. Then I heard another sound that was faint and distant, but familiar and growing louder: frozen gravel snapping and popping under the weight of truck tires.
The pickup drove just passed the spring, turned around, and shut off. A large dog puffed and whined from the bed, and his nails made loud scrapes as he impatiently pawed at the bed liner. The driver stepped out, clutching an open tall-can of beer. He said a few words to the dog, and then turned to approach the spring.
We exchanged greeting nods, and then he sat down on a large rock above me. He was dressed in rugged work clothes and boots and bundled in a heavy parka. I sat just below him, naked as the day I was born, in terribly clear water. He said nothing.
“Nice night.” I said, breaking the silence. It was about 20 degrees, windy, and overcast; but it sounded like the right thing to say.
He nodded in agreement and took a long draw from his can.
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
“I work on Whitehorse.” he said, referring to the 145-year-old cattle ranch abutting this land.
We talked for an hour or more and watched the sun set over the Pueblos. He told me stories about his life on the ranch, about drinking beer in the barracks with the cowboys, and of high-speed drives across the desert to Reno for some action. I asked him about the land and heard tales of the two mountain lions that roam the area and the hunter they employ to protect the calves from bobcats and coyotes. Then I heard about his friend that traps beavers in the creek, the bull terrier they have to hunt badgers, and the time that a fire in the hills sent the bighorns down into the lowlands. He was fond of this place, and keen to talk about it.
Then he asked me where I had come from.
“Portland mostly, I guess.” I said.
“I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s a lot like California.” he replied; and it was clear that that wasn’t a favorable comparison to make around these parts.
By now, night had fallen, a few stars shown through gaps in the clouds, and the farmer was out of beer. He thanked me for the conversation, climbed back into his truck, and had begun to drive off when he rolled down his window.
“Have a good night out here!” he hollered
And I had.
—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: 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.