I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I didn’t have a plan. I just had an idea. With plenty of food, water and wine, I drove east toward Steens Mountain. For those unfamiliar, it’s this remote mountain in eastern Oregon, one whose features from afar seem smooth, approachable and warm, but when viewed closer—when experienced up close—its beauty is raw, rugged and, at the right time, can appear to be something out of the Arctic.
My intentions took me to Burns and then south on HWY 78 at which point I drove past the allure of Crystal Crane Hot Springs in favor of something remote, something that promised solitude and that feeling of being “out there.” By chance, I happened upon an information stand describing a route that promised such solitude, but also wildlife and beautiful views. It’s called the Diamond Loop, and what I thought would be an afternoon tour, turned out to be 24-hours of complete solitude. I drove past a herd of wild horses, the Kiger Mustangs, which are thought to be one of the most pure herds of Spanish Mustangs. They were true to their pack, not totally weary of me, but certainly interested in maintaining a comfortable distance. They were beautiful creatures, with jet black manes and medium coffee colored buckskins. Twelve I saw that early afternoon.
I continued up the dirt road, passing a enticing camp. There the adventure morphed once again and instead of driving to the end of the road, I parked my truck and headed up the gently rising road, by bike, for another nine miles. I passed miles of simple desert terrain, a sea of sage, wild grass and intermittent Juniper trees. I also passed a few herds of pronghorn antelope, whose speed and pose are a marveling thing to gaze upon. At the top, I was awarded by stellar views of the Steens. I felt both pleased and fortunate that I allowed spontaneity to lead me there.
When I returned back to my truck, I knew I had to drive back up there, to the Kiger Wild Horse Area. An easy drive, with only one small obstacle. Nothing that my ol’ Rosie can’t handle.
By morning, after a night under clear skies, I headed out on a hike along an old jeep track. To where I was wandering, I was unsure of, and in the end, it turned out to be a four-hour hike along old jeep tracks, cross-country through sagebrush and one rocky traverse down a rather steep and ancient lava field. The highlight of the hike was meeting another herd of Spanish Mustangs. I first walked up on four of these beauties, lazing about along the path. My attention immediately shifted to the left when the sound of a stampede galloped out from under a small rise, a mere distance away. Now I beheld in my gaze a herd of twenty of the most healthy and strong horses I’ve ever seen. I felt privileged. With some 60,000 acres of open country, it’s not always this lucky to be in the presence of such wildlife.
That afternoon I hopped back in my truck and wandered south, headed down to an off-the-beaten-track hot spring. It was delightful, in that its scenic beauty was like that of a little Yellowstone that lay way out in eastern Oregon. White, soft and sulfuric earth lay all about, while deep, opaque springs boiled their water untouchable…Except for one spring, which proved to be a wonderful soak.
Night melted into morning and I awoke to the most wicked dust storms I’ve ever seen. The steam of the hot springs was swept off to the east, caught in a race with everything else not tied down in this open country. Meanwhile, to the nearby west, an arctic Armageddon seemed to cloak the steep contours of the mountain and the valley’s edge. In every direction, the elements were at some of their finest, revealed both an exciting and unnerving experience.
On that note, with this story already having become long enough, I’ll leave you with one more detail. I was driving along the wide, gravel country road that leads you to the heart of such a place, when I ran right into a wall of copper brown dust. Literally, everything behind this swift moving wave of dust was opaque. I stopped just before its wrath—my truck rocking uncertainly in the wind. Figuring I didn’t have much other option, I flushed away the butterflies and dove it. Complete isolation. The temperature in my truck dropped to where I could see my breath. Each inhale drew in the fine dust that had made its way inside. Not knowing how or when, I passed the most starting sight. A herd of the biggest, meanest looking bulls cowered at the corner of a nearby fence. They looked like penguins in the arctic, huddled together, unsure of what might become of them. Moments later, I emerged. I honestly think that was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. At least the top ten anyway.