written by Mackenzie Wilson featured photo by Bruce Couch

It took me six years to drive 239 miles to the Alvord Desert. My brother, Matt, husband, Jake, and I left Bend late, too late, on a Friday night after work in June. The last townhome disappeared behind us as we took off down Highway 20 for a four-hour drive to the desert.

There’s absolutely nothing to look at between Bend and Burns, but everything to see. Sagebrush spreads out across the expanse of empty fields. Rolling hills in the distance are the only relief from an otherwise flat horizon. As we drove into Burns, our last stop for gas, there was a distinct change in the weather. The wind was whipping with enough force to make it difficult to push open the doors to the truck. We shrugged it off and continued east.

Alvord Desert

photo by Jill Rosell

As the sun threatened to set, I was still confident we’d be able to set up a tent when we got to the desert. Then, we missed the turn.

We were looking for Fields-Denio Road. With no cellphone service and fading daylight, we kept going. Twenty miles later, as the wind pushed the truck around like we were driving on black ice, I made the call—time to turn around.

Turning left onto East Steens Road was the first of many changes to our unplanned plans. I knew Mann Lake was supposed to be only 13 miles down the gravel road. We settled on camping there for the night.

A stillness blanketed the Alvord Desert. Cows were our only competition for a campsite. Sacrifices needed to be made. We found a space behind the bathroom as a protective shield to the onslaught of the incessant wind. Humans are temporary guests to these gusts. A tent wouldn’t go up in such conditions. So we slept in the truck for the night.

Hours later, Mother Nature called. Pounding a few beers hours earlier incited us to do a little impromptu stargazing. Not all bathroom breaks are equal in this life. The night sky lit up and enveloped our truck.

Alvord Desert

photo by Bruce Couch

We woke with the sun. Exhausted with stiff backs, we pushed ahead into the Alvord Desert, and the ultimate jewel, Steens Mountain. The sheer size of the fault-block mountain in the northern Great Basin made it difficult to keep our eyes on the road. Jackrabbits raced across it, kicking up small pebbles of gravel in front of our tires.

As the Alvord Desert appeared on our left, a luster of blue blanketed the playa. Why is there water in the desert, we thought. We darted down a path with faded tire tracks to get a closer look. Our wheels hit the salt flats. Was it legal to drive here? How could it be possible people were allowed to drive on something so fragile and unique? We chased the water. As we got closer it retracted. It was a full-blown mirage.

We found our next camping spot in the desert. Not ten minutes after we slammed the last stake into our tents against another windstorm ramping up, a pickup sped closer to us. Dust built up like a thunderhead behind the truck. About three feet from one tent encampment, the driver slammed on the brakes, stalled and then shut off his Ford. Sun-washed two by fours made up his truck bed’s rails.

“I got some bad news for y’all,” this stranger said out his window. He hopped out of the truck and walked with swagger. “Y’all are on private property.”

This desert swath—6 miles wide and 11 miles long—we had somehow chosen the only spot on private property. “Really?” Matt asked. “The crazy part is, just about 50 feet away, it’s not private property,” this man said. His name was Woody.

“I watch this piece of land for a guy, and this is where he likes to camp,” Woody said.

Alvord Desert

photo by Bruce Couch

He needed to call the landowner about our campsite.  “No answer, I’ll have to drive up and ask him.”

When Woody left, we rehashed our options: move the campsite, stay our course or leave altogether. When Woody returned, my brother, gripping a nine iron, greeted him at his truck.

“What’s the verdict?” Matt said. Woody told us he’d convinced the property owner we were good people and to let us stay for the night-for a small fee of ten bucks. He told us about the milk shakes at Fields Station, about 23 miles southwest of the desert. “They make a milk shake so thick you could turn it upside down,” he said.

Before leaving us alone for the rest of our trip, Woody reminded us to get in touch with him if we wanted one of his desert tours. To get ahold of him, ask around for the one-armed guy. “I’m the only one in town,” he said.

We watched the light on Steens Mountain like a movie. Imagine a screen 10,000 feet high and enveloping your entire field of vision. The crickets creaked, while we huddled around the campfire as day slipped into night.

Alvord Desert

photo by Bruce Couch

Stars packed together so tightly across the sky it appeared more light than dark through our tent’s skylight. I can’t promise Woody won’t pay you a visit if you travel to the Alvord Desert, but I can guarantee, no matter what you experience there, you’ll return home with a story to tell. The milk shakes at Fields Station were, indeed, thick enough to turn upside down.

Getting there