Alvord

Someone to lean on. Ray and I in the Alvord Desert.

Someone to lean on. Ray and I in the Alvord Desert.

The Alvord Desert is 12 miles long and 7 miles wide (19 x 11 km). Located in the far southeast corner of Oregon at about 4000 feet (1200 m), it's an ancient dry lake lying in the rain shadow of Steens Mountain, a 9,733 foot (2,967 m) fault-block of basalts and lava. The nearest community is Fields, Oregon, population 86. The desert is ideal for the breaking of speed records (Jessi Combs lost her life here in August attempting to beat her own record) and land sailing is popular. But the remote location keeps casual tourists way. We drove 846 miles RT from Portland.


At 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning I woke to the still brightness of the slowly setting harvest moon. It lit the tent like daylight and I could no longer resist its call. I pushed myself off the cot, dressed, and walked into the desert. The sun was merely a hint of orange in the eastern sky and it would be more than an hour before it touched the desert floor.

All was silent. We had camped on the south end of the flat playa and as I looked north I could see nothing but mountains and the pale, utterly flat ground at my feet. I started walking.

There were no lights, no people, and no noise. I watched as the moon, who seemed to be taking her time setting, turned pale and translucent against the blueing sky. I kept walking, ambling really, in no hurry to get anywhere, just walking north on the endless flat with the rising sun off one shoulder and the moon off the other. Utter silence. Even my footsteps were muffled on the dry cracked earth.

Ever so slowly the sun began to show itself above the low hills to the east, and I looked west toward the Steens to watch the first light touch its ragged top and begin its journey down the mountain. The moon had not obviously moved but clearly Earth was turning.

I looked back toward camp and was surprised to see how small, alone, and distant it was. There were other campers, but miles north near the hot springs. The world was soundless and I was alone in it, walking and watching the shifting light and stopping occasionally to internalize as much of the beauty as I could.

There are mountain goats and wild horses on Steens Mountain, and deer, and other native creatures, but if there is life on the desert floor I saw no evidence. No bird showed itself. This dead sea floor always reminds me of the parched earth around my Northern California home at the height of summer. Parts of the yard never saw water unless it rained, and as the summer lengthened the earth dried and the cracks widened and broke open.

The Alvord is miles of cracked white playa, though five to seven inches of moisture fall yearly, mostly in summer thunder showers. On this morning the rising sun had painted the cracked edges—just for me apparently, since I was the only one about. They are no longer shallow fractures, but artistic black shadow-lines, like carefully etched India ink drawn across the pale floor. I looked for patterns and wondered if fractals were at work here.

The Alvord was always a favorite spot for Ray and I to visit, camping at the west foot of the Steens and driving around the foot of the mountain to the desert, to soak up the soundless, empty space. Sometimes we came with friends, sometimes just the two of us. It is a place of memories for me, and though it seemed odd to be here without him, I felt an overwhelming peace.

At last the laggard sun had reached the desert floor. The moon still hung in the west but her light had gone and she was barely discernible. The western foothills glowed ocher and the distant mountains to the south were pale pink and purple. My shadow, which at first touch of sunlight had been all legs, was now assuming a more human shape, and I turned my back on the silent beauty and longed instead for coffee.

I walked and turned back, walked and turned back, reluctant to leave this loved and lovely place. Life, however, has its own demands, and when I finally reached camp my friends were awake and water for coffee was on the boil.