Why I’m Excited to Hike the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT)
For those of you who have never heard of the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT), it is a 750-mile route that stretches across the eastern side of the state of Oregon. It makes a horseshoe shape across the eastern high desert of Oregon as it winds through canyonlands, long stretches of open desert, and beautiful mountains.
I have hiked through a few deserts, all of them for a short amount of time. The Lower Mojave Desert on the Low 2 High Route, Joshua Tree National Park for my work with Outward Bound California, and some of the long stretches of sandy beaches on the Te Araroa in New Zealand felt like a desert of sorts as well. I am beyond excited to attempt a thru-hike of the ODT eastbound this coming May and June with my partner, Carolyn. Below are a few reasons why.
The Remote Nature of the Route
One thing I have learned from all of my preliminary reading is that the ODT itself isn’t a trail. It is more of a route. On the Oregon Desert Trail’s website it states the following: “The Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) is conceptual in nature; it is largely unmarked, does not verifiably exist in the field and is, in essence, a name we’ve given to a plausible route on public land and legal rights of way across the high desert.”
I love that!
The fact that the “trail” may not even be a trail at all is exciting to me for the sense of adventure that this experience may carry with it—getting lost, the careful planning for water, and the possibility of running out, and the feeling of connection—walking into the desert knowing that the people who have walked before us may have stepped in the same spot as us or not because we are all figuring out our path through the landscape.
The Challenge of the Environment
Bottom line—the desert is harsh. Sunburn, windburn, chafing and dryness, dehydration, pokey things, snakes, coyotes, inclement weather, water, water, and, yeah, water. Likely we will not encounter any pristine high alpine lakes that you may find in the Sierra. And there may not be any majestic sequoia trees to provide shade in the high desert of Oregon. And yet this challenge calls and appeals to me. It can be hard for people to continue meeting their basic survival needs in a desert environment. The temperatures can fluctuate dramatically from day to night. The sun (which keeps us all alive) is also a major factor in movement or rest throughout the day. Should I wait until the sun comes up for warmth to start my day? Should I stop in the middle of the day for a catnap in order to avoid walking in the heat of the day? Should I attempt to curl up in the fetal position to capture the shade of this small scraggly bush? I am highly aware of the sun’s intensity, and am planning on bringing small things such as a sun umbrella, a high-coverage sun shirt, and ample sunscreen while traveling in the Oregon high desert. (More to come in a later post on my gear list.)
Water is hard to come by in the high desert. This main resource that keeps things alive seems to be the biggest challenge of traveling across this particular expanse of eastern Oregon’s high desert. Will there be water at the next supposedly “unreliable” spring that had water in it this time last year? These are just a few challenges that the environment of the Oregon high desert presents, and the ones that seem easily identifiable before entering into the experience itself. I am sure that once I am in the experience the environment will present countless additional challenges that I was unable to predict.
The Community Behind the ODT
One of the biggest parts of my excitement for the Oregon Desert Trail is that it really feels like there is a strong community of people who are passionate about the ODT and about Oregon’s high desert in general. For being a newer trail, I have noticed that people are talking about it because there is a strong presence and passion for people to get out and explore this often overlooked part of the country. If you spend any amount of time clicking around on the ODT website it will become apparent that the people who represent this trail and past hikers have put so much energy into creating helpful resources and guides, including water summary charts for the past 5+ years, to a well-organized town guide with resupply options and town information all woven in. Not only do they provide helpful information, but they hold an overarching commitment to land preservation and restoration which I find to be important. Honestly, it is surprising that there aren’t more entries in the online trail register. At the moment I only counted about 50. There is so much passion for many of the trails that exist in the thru-hiking community, but I am specifically excited to be a part of the community that encompasses the ODT because it feels similar to the hike itself—unique in its nature, and focused on preserving and restoring the land.
Just like any long adventure—whether a road trip, mountaineering objective, or long-distance hike—it tends to bring out the best and the worst in people. I see all of these moments as bigger metaphors for the rest of our lives and I am sure the Oregon high desert will provide ample opportunities for both. With my hiking partner, I am excited to continue tapping into what it feels like (and who we are) in the moments when we are running out of resources, or when we realize we are lost at the end of an already long day, and have to put in a few extra miles to get back on track. I have found that in these moments I learn more about myself than I knew before, and I know the Oregon Desert Trail will create the space for me to continue learning.
Thanks for reading and feel free to follow this adventure on Instagram: @walkingplacestogether
Starting May 1.
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