On the morning of our third day, the only thing on our agenda was to get to the Alvord dry lakebed an hour away. That meant we could take advantage of the lax schedule to ride the Steens Mountain loop. It’s a massive and relatively unknown mountain that forms the western border of the Alvord dry lakebed. The loop is beautiful but frequently closes due to weather, and while we weren’t able to make it to the top, we enjoyed some stunning views before turning our bikes towards Fields.
Fields, the third in our tour of single-gas-pump towns, held a surprise - the best milkshakes in all of Oregon which are made in the back corner of this tiny combination gas station, grocery, restaurant, and motel.
After burgers and milkshakes were enjoyed al fresco on a creaky picnic bench, we picked up a can of chili for dinner that night on the playa. Hopefully a night under the stars would make up for the decidedly pedestrian dinner.
The Alvord Desert is a 7-mile (11 kilometer) wide by 12-mile (19km) long playa lakebed in the rain shadow of Steens Mountain. With an average of only 6-7 inches (15-18 centimeters) of rainfall each year, the dry and cracked mud is billiard-table-smooth across its entire surface. And is a spectacular site. While I’ve been to the Alvord a half dozen times or more, I’ve never ridden a motorcycle across it - something that has been eating at me since I moved to Oregon 10 years prior.
As we left the dirt road from Fields and rolled onto the playa to the north, I was thrilled to have finally achieved another motorcycling goal. The magic of the Alvord was what was missing: no turns, no straights, no speed limit, no ruts, and no end to the thrill that is just opening the throttle and leaning any direction you want. Riding a motorcycle is an experience that is always bounded in some form but the playa is boundless - it is a blank page under your wheels.
After a few hours of exploring the entire perimeter, we began to consider our options for camping. My goal was always to camp in the middle - not something that makes sense in any practical way but something that makes sense in a photographic way. Away from the detritus of the lowlands, we could photograph our tents and bikes in a way that would convey the spectacular vast emptiness.
While unpacking the bikes, dark clouds began gathering, circling, and menacing but not showering us with their gifts. The rain, however, was around us; on the distant hills to the east, rolling in from the plains to the north and south, and pouring over Steens Mountain to the west. But somehow it was not raining on us. Matt grew up in the Midwest where skies like these meant tornados and brought back his memories of hiding in a storm shelter. Scott and I were more mesmerized by the dark swirling clouds and not bothered by the wind, so when Matt announced he was headed in to camp at the hot spring we figured the storm held more adventure on the playa.
What made our decision foolish wasn’t what we knew but rather what we didn’t. A bit of rain on the playa might mean a slippery ride off the following morning. Then again, that seemed like a small price to pay for what would surely be amazing photos as the sun dipped and our tents glowed orange on the vast openness. We hadn’t seen any lightning in the clouds so we figured our biggest threat was a little mud if it rained. Who cares about a little mud, right?
As night descended, we set up our tripod and got the photographs we had been hoping for; ominous clouds towering over our small tents on the enormous expanse of the empty lakebed. And with dusk came the rain, light at first but severe gusts of wind flattened the tents to our faces so we felt the rain through the nylon skin.
At 0500, it was still raining. Apparently the entire annual rainfall took place the night we camped in the middle of the playa. Not able to sleep any more, I decided to get up and take a look at our situation in the faint dawn light. Slipping on my camp shoes, I found the first step I took peeled a layer of mud from the surface. The next step peeled another inch and another, and another until, like walking up small stairs, you were standing on 4 inches (10 centimeters) of mud and each shoe weighed 20 pounds (9 kilograms). This was not what I was expecting.
The water had soaked into the top layer of the playa and its glue-like nature meant it would stick to anything it touched except the dry layer below it. We considered packing up and trying to ride off but one revolution of our tires would pack the fenders solid with mud so patience seemed to be the only solution. We had no idea how long it would take to dry - hours? Days? A week? With no alternative, we donned our riding gear, grabbed cameras and swimsuits and started the long walk toward the hot springs.
Our choice to camp on the playa lead to one of the most surreal and delightful days I’ve ever spent motorcycle adjacent. After almost 2 miles (3 kilometers) slogging across the playa, Scott and I arrived to find Matt contentedly soaking in the springs. Matt was rested, packed, and ready to go until we told him we were stranded in a literal sea of mud. With no other options, we got coffee from the office and sat in the hot mineral water watching the snow fall on Steens Mountain behind us.
As far as dilemmas go, this was actually not too bad.
After a while we were joined by an eclectic and entertaining assortment of individuals - from a trans quantum physicist to a Jeep-owning knitter - and we watched with wonder as snow fell on the peak behind us while two cowboys on horseback descended the fence line. Surreal. After a while, the sun came out and the winds picked up letting us check on the playa to see if it had dried enough to rescue our bikes.
Brian, the knitter, offered to deliver us and came prepared with walkie talkies in case we were to get stuck. But as we rolled out of the hot springs and onto the surface of the dry lakebed, it was evident that the rain had been absorbed enough to let us reach camp which was surrounded by muddy foot prints dried in the clay.
Scott and I broke camp then set off making a wide berth of the low areas that we thought might still have water in them. Along the way, we caught sight of a small plane and rode over to talk to the pilot. He was an adventurer, similarly stranded by weather and it was fun to compare our methods of travel.
As we rolled back into the hot springs, we met a long distance cyclist and Tvula, our quantum physicist friend from the spring. They had always wanted to ride on a motorcycle and we were more than happy to oblige. Tvula’s 100mph (160 kilometers per hour) jaunt across the playa was probably the highlight of their trip.
All of these crazy interesting people and this amazing interlude happened because we took the chance to stay on the playa. It’s worth noting that it’s not enough to make an adventurous choice if you don’t immerse yourself in that choice. That means talking to those that you meet and sharing your story and listening to their story. Perhaps this is a larger lesson couched in advice for planning a motorcycle adventure…
Finally, around 1400, we started toward our next destination - Leslie Gulch; a small canyon intersecting with the Owyhee Reservoir on the eastern edge of Oregon, and is unlike the rest of the state with its soaring red cliffs and winding canyons. Our plan was to try to get to Rome Station and spend the night there as it was close to Leslie Gulch and the only food and fuel between Alvord and Leslie.
When we rolled into Rome, the final installment of our one-horse-town tour, we were excited to find the restaurant still open and one cabin still available. Rome is yet another town comprised of a single gas station/café/motel. You don’t get choices in Eastern Oregon unless your choice is to go hungry or to run out of gas. Or both.
As we unpacked we saw couple on fat-tired gravel bicycles and, because it’s what I do when traveling, I went over to chat with them. Cameron, as it turns out, is mapping a 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometer) gravel route across Eastern Oregon and has a massive amount of local road knowledge. We invited them to join us for dinner on the shaded patio. Cameron proceeded to tell us of a secret warm spring to the south with a natural infinity pool right next to the river. We couldn’t believe our luck and his generosity. Being inspired, we scrapped our entire plan for the next day so that we could visit this magical place that he calls, “the most beautiful spring I’ve ever been to...”