The Ore­gon Desert Trail is just that, com­plete with canyons and rat­tlesnakes

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - Lowcountry life - BY EMILY GILLE­SPIE

I felt ev­ery drop of sweat make its way down my face, neck and back as I stared down the rat­tlesnake, its beady eyes locked with mine, dar­ing me to move. At this point, a few miles into my solo-back­pack­ing trip through Ore­gon’s re­mote desert, I con­sid­ered turn­ing around and head­ing the sev­eral miles back to my car. Af­ter I caught my breath, I shook off the idea. Test­ing my­self, I thought, is ex­actly what I signed up for.

Though Ore­gon is of­ten de­picted in terms of Dou­glas fir­filled forests, the truth is that half the state is a water-starved desert. The Ore­gon Desert Trail, a 750-mile, W-shaped path, weaves through the state’s most arid land­scape. The trail shows off some of the state’s un­sung at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing the Ore­gon Bad­lands, Lost For­est, Owyhee Cany­on­lands and pic­turesque Steens Moun­tain, a sin­gle moun­tain that stretches more than 9,000 feet high and 50 miles north to south.

The trail is un­usual in many ways. A big one: It isn’t re­ally a trail. Way­points on a map will help guide you, but the route isn’t marked. One-third of the route is cross-coun­try, so a GPS de­vice and com­pass skills are nec­es­sary; find­ing your own way gives the jour­ney a choose-yourown ad­ven­ture qual­ity.

Be­cause I’m not a thru-hiker, I set­tled on a 22-mile loop that tra­versed one of the canyons that makes up the Owyhee Cany­on­lands, an area af­fec­tion­ately called “Ore­gon’s Grand Can- yon.” Tucked in the south­east cor­ner of the state, the un­de­vel­oped area is also one of the largest un­pro­tected ar­eas in the Amer­i­can West.

I spent the night be­fore my hike at Birch Creek His­toric Ranch. Homesteaded around 1900, the prop­erty along the Owyhee River is now a pop­u­lar spot for rafters. The next day, I left the ranch on foot and fol­lowed an old jeep road to an open field be­fore re­con­nect­ing with the river. The scenery was so breath­tak­ing that more than once I stopped abruptly and said “wow,” even though no one was around to hear it. Craggy red rocks jut­ted out from the sloped canyon wall, cre­at­ing mag­nif­i­cent spires and rock for­ma­tions that looked like a pet­ri­fied crash of a wave.

Af­ter only a few hours of hik­ing, though, I felt the desert’s ruth­less ef­fects. It was, in a word, gru­el­ing. The first 6 miles, which on a path would nor­mally take me about three hours, took eight. With the glar­ing sun beat­ing down on me, rat­tlesnakes restart­ing my heart and ex­tra time and en­ergy spent cal­cu­lat­ing my next step, I was ex­hausted by the end of the day. I was also out of water. In prac­tice, in­stead of three liters a day, I’d gone through three liters in half a day.

Af­ter set­ting up my tent along a rare bit of flat, sandy ground, I de­cided to turn my three-day trip into an overnight out-and-back. I was learn­ing an im­por­tant les­son of the desert: Water is king.

The ex­pe­ri­ence left me with a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for this part of the state and for hik­ing with­out the ease and com­fort of a trail. Do­ing just a small portion of the Ore­gon Desert Trail re­minded me of na­ture’s ri­otous side and chal­lenged me in the best way. It pushed me out of my com­fort zone and forced me to trudge a path full of lurk­ing rat­tlesnakes and stun­ning star-filled skies that was uniquely mine.

EMILY GILLE­SPIE Wash­ing­ton Post

Rem­nants of Mor­ri­son Ranch, homesteaded around 1900, still stand near where the au­thor started her jour­ney at Birch Creek His­toric Ranch on a bend of the Owyhee River in east­ern Ore­gon.

GARY HALVORSON Ore­gon State Ar­chives

The Pil­lars of Rome are a rock for­ma­tion near the com­mu­nity of Rome, Ore­gon.

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