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Extreme Car Camping: The Steens

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

I went to visit Lael Powell-Rusing, West Coast and Car Camping Editor, a few weeks ago. The purpose: get a first-hand taste of what Powell-Rushing calls “Yogic Extreme Car Camping 101.” Lael also promised that that he’d give me a sneak peek at a new sport he was developing: Extreme Adventure Golfing.

It all sounded good. Car camping, yoga, a new sport, a four-day trip, Lael’s home-made vegan pierogies (a Powell-Rushing staple)

There was, however, one problem.

Moments after I arrived in Portland, at PDX, Lael, who had sheared his dreds, and was wearing his new trademark, a colorful hemp yarmulke, posed an incredibly difficult question.
Where to?

There were two options.
Option #1: We head north into Washington, to the Olympic Mountains. We hit the coast, for a few days of coastal bush wacking, perhaps a two-day hike up the Hoh River valley. Then maybe a drive to Port Townsend, followed by some Hood Canal hiking, possible vistas of Puget Sound. There was one major con: Rain, very probable. Cloudy. Temps in the low-50s. Wet and cool.

Option #2: The Steens.

I had heard little about The Steens. It’s not a national park, Internet sources on the place are scant. There are no guidebooks to the Steens. But Lael said The Steens are well-known among Oregonians. The Steens, he said, would have sun, warmth; The Steens would be paradaisical for car camping, and for Extreme Adventure Desert Golfing. The likelihood of running into some IT staff from Beaverton or Tigard or some other PDX suburb would be minimal.

More promises from Lael re: The Steens: big mountain action, some snow crossings, ghost towns, some Badlandish-landscapes (en route).

And a desert.
Yes, desert. The Steens is a geologic anomaly, a 50-mile long mountain ridge, rising to almost 10,000 feet. It’s a wildly different side of Oregon. Think Nevada. Think Basin and Range. And to the east of Steens Mountain, in the rain shadow of the massive uplift, is the Alvord Desert.

More than anything, I was intrigued by the possibility of seeing, for the first, time a desert in Oregon.
The one hitch to The Steens plan, though, was location. The Steens was as far from Portland as you could possibly be in Oregon. 3 hours south of Burns, Oregon, four hours from the closest Interstate highway, the closest big city to The Steens was Winnemucca, Nevada. It became clear that the best airport access to The Steens was actually Boise. (And later I learned that The Steens holds the distinction of being in the part of the lower 48 further from an Interstate Highway than any other place. The only way into The Steens was a dirt road, departing the base town, Frenchglen, Oregon (population 80ish).
I stared momentarily at Lael’s hemp yarmulke, with it’s rainbow color lettering, and then reminded America’s Most Famous Car Camper that we had only 4 days. Less than 112 hours.
Why would we want to drive to Nevada? We were just two hours from Mt. Rainier, an hour from Mt. Hood. The Olympics, our original destination, was a roughtly three hours drive, less than half of The Steens trip.


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