Portland to San Francisco, Overland
Four years in Portland came to an end on May 31st. Working in San Francisco for the summer, Kate and I needed to head south, and so a road trip was inevitable. We were unable, however, to move into our new apartment until June 14th, and so in some manner neither of us remember we ended up deciding to spend two weeks on the road, exploring the lesser-known corners of Oregon, with several backpacking interludes. What follows is a narrative of our trip, told mostly through photos and a few captions, from the sober, wistful light of life in a crowded, busy place.
Our rough route took us from Portland on Highway 26 over the pass to Warm Springs Indian Reservation, and then down I-90 to Bend. From there we drove east, to Burns, and then down the east side of Steens Mountain to the Alvord desert in Oregon’s magnificent outback, where we would spend the better part of three days. Our next move, inelegant and meandering but necessary to avoid backtracking, took us through the lonely vastness of northern Nevada and south-central Oregon back to the Cascades and over Crater Lake before crossing to Grants Pass and Selma, OR. Here, we planned five nights in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, the great roadless expanse of Klamath mountain convolution in the southwest of the state and a hotspot of botanical diversity that had captured both our imaginations. On leaving the Kalmiopsis, we had vague plans to drive down 101 and visit the Lost Coast.
Our first night out was in the the Oregon Badlands Wilderness, lying just 10 miles beyond the sprawl of Bend, a hinterland of of old growth juniper woodland amid volcanic outcroppings, petroglyphs, sage, and the sandy beds of long-dry rivers. After dinner at the Depot in Terrebonne (a Smith Rock climbers’ favorite; never have I had Boneyard’s already-exemplary IPA so fresh) we laid out our pads under a sea of stars and let the anxiety of packing and waiting to leave the city slip away. In the morning, before driving on towards the Steens, we ran to Flatiron Rock, a basalt castle that is one of the few unique markers in a landscape Kate described as being the kind of place where covered wagons drove in circles for days.
Across from the Steens, the Sheepshead Mountains, dubbed by Sullivan the most forboding range of hills in all Oregon, are indeed bleak. But they are also alive with all manner of wild and wonderful things. As we crested the first ridge, a pronghorn sprinted off not 20 meters away, with a stride any runner would envy. Somewhere in the tawny beyond also lay Oregon’s only known population of kit fox.
The Sheepheads are a range that invite speculation on desperate trips across the scorched valleys to the bony bluffs on the horizon.
In the evening we would lie for hours with our backs to a giant rock and watch the last light of day fade from the eastern horizon across the shimmering playa, the land pastel and purple and finally black. Each night we woke to the yapping cry of coyotes behind us and around us. In the morning the blood red sun would drench us well before six, the mountain flaming up into the clear pale sky and I would make coffee in the sand near our pad. Rarely have I felt so content.
We climbed up a steep canyon, redolent of all the great North American deserts, an idyllic creek at its heart, the crags of the Steens above. Our path took us past a mine shaft and into meadows of wildflowers and then through a woodland of mountain mahogany and juniper. Eventually on the highest slopes showed the pale green of quaking aspen. Ever the Coloradan, Kate was glad to see it. Some time after lunch, four men on horses came down off a nearby ridge. They were scouting out the canyon to bring cattle in sometime this season. We were somewhat surprised to hear it, given the sheer walls and poor footing of the area, and somewhat sad about the canyon’s impending transformation through cowbombing. But the four men seemed to have ridden out of a different era — silent and cautious, well dressed cowhands on ornate saddles. It was hard not to feel we were lucky to catch a glimpse of a way of life that has mostly slipped away.
We climbed to a high, flat ridge, with seemingly hundreds of bitterroot flowers among other, more delicate blooms Kate said were a plant that grew at an infinitesimally slow rate and were thus good indicators of the health of the meadow. Perhaps the grazing is limited and infrequent enough to keep the desert healthy. So we hope.
Obligatory Crater Lake shot. The drama of the site cannot be exaggerated, but as you perch your vehicle on its rim it’s hard not to hear Ed Abbey beseeching you to leave your car and walk, and feel as though you have somehow cheated: “So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while” (Desert Solitaire)
After a night at Crater Lake and a morning running errands in Grant’s Pass, we headed for the Kalmiopsis. To reach the trailhead, we drove 20 miles down what began as a precipitous and windy (albeit paved) access road that gradually deteriorated into the worst surface I have ever driven outside of field work — certainly the worst I’ve (well, Kate was at the wheel) tackled in a low-clearance passenger vehicle. For the final mile, I’d run ahead, throwing the larger rocks out of the way lest they further distress Sturgeon’s (named in reference to the vehicle’s color and Columbia river roots) undercarriage. It probably took us two and a half jarring hours all told.
The Illinois River Trail is the best maintained of all Kalmiopsis trails and, so we reasoned, therefore the best introduction to the region. Rattled from the journey in, we spent several hours packing, eating dinner, and waiting out the heat of the day before departing. Sometime after 7PM we started down the trail, aiming to put three or four miles in the bank before sunset. We began cautiously dodging what seemed to be the greatest density of poison oak plants on the continent, before realizing that our once-confident identifications were tarring nearly every low shrub with the same fearful brush. This and the impending darkness put some urgency into our step, and I’m sure brushed up against the wretched thing more than once, though neither of us experienced a reaction.
We reached our first camp in the Kalmiopsis a little after dark, and threw up our tent under assault by clouds of mosquitoes (not the only arthropodal menace; I found a tiny scorpion curled up in my pants the following morning). We were some thousand feet above the river, nestled in the the most diverse North American forest outside the southern Appalachians. Madrones, chinquapins, bay laurels, and numerous oaks mixed with incense cedar, douglas fir, jack pine, sugar pine, among many others.
The Illinois is among the most beautiful of all rivers. Here, we swam in an idyllic pool by a long-abandoned homestead before marching over 3000′ up to the summit prairie of Bald Mountain, the last third a hellish bushwhack through manzanita and worse.
Our camp in the ancient Douglas fir forest atop Bald Mountain. We arrived to displace a herd of elk grazing on its unusual understory meadow. The trail past this camp rapidly disintegrated as it passed through large areas burnt in the Biscuit Fire of 2002, an apocalyptic blaze of unprecedented proportions in the lower 48 (~500,000 acres). While arguably a boon to the greater Kalmiopsis ecosystem, the fire prompted numerous debates about the benefits of salvage logging and fire suppression. 11 years on, the understory has come back with a vengeance, but where the blaze “burned hot” the forest remains eerily gray and exposed, ashen branches falling across any open path. The trail network has been all but decimated.
Near where we gave up and turned back, we spooked two bears not 20 meters away.
In the timber wars of the 1980s, Bald Mountain was the site of an important Earth First! blockade (and infamous confrontation) as bulldozers bore down on the wilderness boundary, leaving a strange dead-end Forest Service road along it in their wake. Now, thirty years later, the site has been mostly forgotten. In our five days in the Kalmiopsis, we saw one other person, a Forest Service botanist surveying trail conditions prior to a plant survey. He was as surprised to see us as us him. Once, he told us, when botany was a trend, this was a popular wilderness. No longer.
A typical view of the Kalmiopsis. In The Klamath Knot, the classic work of natural history on the region, David Rains Wallace describes the range as less immediately ingratiating than the Sierras and the Cascades, and as being “wizened.” I can’t think of a more apt descriptor for its rugged, pyramidal depths. Staring to the vast roadless wilderness to our south, it was easy to dream of grizzlies one day again plying its rivers for steelhead, a once and future bastion of an intact trophic pyramid in the largest area of wildlands on the Pacific Coast.
Darlingtonia californica, the only pitcher plant west of the Mississippi, a relict of Eocene climate that persists only in the Klamaths. Kate found it growing amidst orchids in an enchanting brook in the red rock serpentine and periodiotite badlands high above the Illinois. The habitat defied my attempts to photograph it.
In the Lady Bird Grove, Redwood National Park. There are certainly similarities to Oregon coastal forest, namely its austere silence and its understory. But for some reason, some inherent bias no doubt, the California coast seems more sterile to me, purged of clamor and muck by fog and not the relentless rain of further north.
And then, a few more days with friends scattered across Northern California, and we were done. It’s been hard to let go of the rhythm of trip and adjust to life in San Francisco, for however short a stint. Come August, we’ll be more than ready to leave the city once more. Whereto? That will have to wait.