Bikepacking Oregon’s Big Country
Photos and words by Gabe Tiller
Third time’s the charm, right? Taking our combined knowledge from two previous bikepacking trips deep into Southeastern Oregon’s Big Country we had linked up the best features of this stark, vast landscape. We would start by traversing the until-recently occupied Malheur Wildlife Refuge, head up and over Steens Mountain, across the dry Alvord playa, and up into the the unknown Trout Creek Mountains before briefly slipping into Nevada and returning to our car by way of Hart Mountain eight days later. Logistically it’s an intimidating route, so we scheduled short days, therapeutic hot spring soaks, and ample time for sage bush whacking and accidental mud wallowing.
Joining me on their first foray into this corner of the state were two longtime friends: Kevin Purcell of River City Bicycles and Kyle Heddy from Treading Light Photography. They met turning wrenches together at High Gear Sports in northern Michigan, where I was unwittingly taking my first offroad pedal strokes just a few counties over. We took a break from the wisecracks of the long drive and afforded ourselves some time to breathe in the emptiness and mellow pace. We set up camp well before dusk, and bullshitted late into the morning until a high sun forced us back onto the dusty doubletrack. We flirted with the caretaker of the hot springs and chatted up the locals curious about our fat-tired bicycles. We took naps—at least two a day. And the days slid on by, just like the perfectly-spaced cumulus clouds above us. The Trout Creek Mountains did not disappoint—high on their treeless slopes we found cougar tracks, sign of wild horses, deep snow, and zero other humans.
When we dipped our sunburnt legs into Nevada’s Virgin Valley hot springs our bourbon and luck ran out. Thunderheads formed in the distance cracking desert rock with jagged electric columns. The waitress at the Denio Cafe regaled us with stories of two bodies found in a local hot spring recently. Possible cause of death: lightning. We looked around and it became uncomfortably obvious how much taller we were than the sagebrush desert for miles in every direction. Not to mention knowing this playa dirt turns to instant immobilizing cement at the first drop of rain, and our remaining route covered a lot of rugged and remote dirt roads. A cold, heavy, suffocating rain began to fall.
So we swallowed our pride and thumbed a ride. Next year—a place this big isn’t going anywhere fast. Fourth time’s the charm, right?
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