Monday, June 20, 2005

Alvord Desert

I thought I'd have to work all weekend but when I went in on Saturday I found that the servers were fucked and my hardware key was missing. Having nothing to do for the rest of the weekend (everyone is gone for the summer), I figured Sunday presented a great opportunity to scratch my road-trip itch.

In eastern Oregon there is a tall ridge known as Steens Mountain (or sometimes The Steens). It's very gently sloping on one side and has a 5000 ft cliff on the other. Joe and I drove up to the top one weekend last September -- it felt like the roof of the world -- but we ran out of time to explore anything to the east of there.

I figured it was time to explore that big empty area in the background. Steens wicks what little moisture there is from the dry air and just downwind, on the eastern side (right side of pic), is the Alvord Desert, one of the drier places in North America. It's a big basin with a dried-up lake bed, or playa, filling a good portion of it. [Before you go off spouting about playa-hatin', pronounce it with me: PLY-uh. Eez hispanish for teh "Beach".] This shot is looking west up toward The Steens.

There are a shitload of playas in Nevada, western Utah, eastern California, and eastern Oregon. Both Burning Man and the Bonneville Salt Flats are on playas. When the Space Shuttle lands at Edwards AFB in California, it's landing on a playa. Badwater, the lowest point in Death Valley, is filled with a playa. All of them are coated with salts and alkaline minerals that are intensely corrosive: at Burning Man our tent stakes began to rust in the span of three days. They're prone to windstorms, flooding, and intense heat. They kick up a fine dust that infiltrates everything and lends food a salty taste.

As you can see, playas are rad. The wagon and I pegged the insane-o-meter as we sizzled across the flats at 100 mph, weaving big S-turns and leaving a long plume of dust on the horizon. I suppose I could've pressed it harder but the surface wasn't totally firm and I was a bit wary of tire damage. There is also the danger of running into a mud patch, which would've been an unbelieavable mess. This is pretty much in the middle of nowhere--about 2 hours from the nearest town and at least a half-hour from the nearest paved road.

A co-worker told me about heading out there when he was in college. Sometimes they'd all stand back-to-back and run with their eyes closed to a count of 100. Then they'd turn around and run back, eyes still closed, and see where they ended up. It's that empty.

There were a few others out there during my visit (maybe 20 total) staked out in their RVs. They were driving ATVs and land-sailers back and forth. I'd watch them until they disappeared into the mirages on the horizon.

The Alvord Desert is well-known for attracting land-sailers and I saw three or four rigs while I was there. Unfortunately there wasn't much of a wind and they weren't running, but I did chat one of them up on how they're made and what I could do to make one of my own. I was told they can easily get up to 50 mph and certain special rigs (rigid sail, 1500+ lbs ballast, etc) have reached 100+ mph. That's so cool.

There are a handful of full-size pics on filebox. Too bad it's not closer: despite pressing the mach-meter on those empty desert roads, it was still an 800 mile/15 hour day. It felt really good to get out there though.