Eastern Oregon is a rural part of the West. Heading east, out of Bend, OR, there is very little to speak of in terms of the population until you hit Boise, ID, a solid five-hour car ride away. Two hours east of Bend, in Burns, OR, the home of the Highlanders and the former starting QB of the New York Jets, Kellen Clemens, you see the last gas station for miles as you continue into the barren and remote outback.
Every year I make a pilgrimage to Eastern Oregon, normally in the fall. It’s my way of regaining key personal perspective and getting peace and quiet. The formula is simple: the phone goes off, no wifi, and I go off the grid for a few days. Last Wednesday when I began my trip, about seventy miles outside of Bend, while driving through the pristine Ochoco National Forest, I had a moment that helped kick me out of busy mindlessness and back into a fleeting reality, one that I’d like to normalize once more. On top of mind were an annoying encounter with an egotistical maniac just a day earlier, a bum shoulder, and a benignly irrelevant memory of something that happened in my life a full decade earlier. The noise was loud and my emotions were following their nonsensical pathway to nowhere. However, the moment I crested the summit of Ochoco pass on Oregon Route 26, and down towards the ranching town of Mitchell, OR, I had a firm revelatory sensation and shouted at myself, “Shut up, Spence!” This moment clicked me over and signaled the beginning of my road trip.
On Thursday evening I found myself in the remote town of Frenchglen, OR, writing in an old rocking chair on the porch of the National Historic Frenchglen hotel while awaiting the family style dinner that is served every night to the guests. The evening’s menu consisted of pork chops, salad, and potatoes. In the quaint hotel dining room, the smells are reminiscent of how the dining hall at Burke Mountain Academy smelled after our long-tenured cook Harry spent all day preparing a communal meal for the students. The hotel, which used to serve as a lodging house for the cattle industry, has been around since 1923, seemingly forever in this rural nook of land.
To the east of Frenchglen lie the Steens Mountain Range, a gorgeous geographic sight. From Frenchglen, the range gradually and unassumingly slopes up to 9000ft from the west, only to drop off two thousand feet within the span of just a mile or two into the Alvord desert to the east, an area akin to Utah’s Bonneville salt flats where numerous car commercials and movies are filmed (think the Area 51 scene in Independence Day). On my trip last year I got my rig drastically stuck in an unsuspectedly damp part of the desert and had to get pulled out by some dude that was trolling for amateur desert-goers like me. My truck had sunk a foot into the desert. The whole ordeal only cost me fifty bucks, a hell of a deal out in the outback.
The pace of life here is seemingly slower and much more casual than the rest of the world. It’s almost like time forgot this land and left it as a distant memory. It’s here that I find it easier to breathe and feel a sense of calm. I really like it here, in fact, I could live here someday.
Perhaps my favorite go-to spot in all of Eastern Oregon are the remote and barren Pueblo Mountains, just south of Fields, OR. A couple of years ago I stumbled across these mountains almost by mistake, thinking there was a trail system to experience. I had caught wind that the Oregon Desert Trail ran through this country. Let’s use the term “trail” loosely, the path is almost unrecognizable in most spots, which nowadays adds to the allure of the area for me. One of the owners of the local diner/grocery store/hotel (which I came to find out was haunted) mentioned to me, as I was face deep in a pile of greasy eggs and bacon, that she did some running up in the Pueblo’s on occasion while preparing to run ultramarathons. Curious about her comment, I implored to learn more. With her recommendation, I sought out a sparingly traveled and un-marked dirt road which led up to Domingo Pass, a scenic lookout over vast miles of rangeland to the south and into northern Nevada. While on top, the goal of my trip, to get back in touch with wilderness, peace, and solitude, was actualized. I had found what I was looking for.
The West is known for its big sky, open lands, and unique wildlife. Its aura and mystique serve to keep me coming back year after year. Its various mysteries are just as wild as the landscape. Just up the road from Frenchglen is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a place made famous when Ammon Bundy and his crew of armed militants took hostage a couple of years ago to seek an opportunity to advance their view that the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are constitutionally required to turn over most of the federal public land they manage to the individual states. The case caught the attention of the national media. In terms of the animal life, on my way down to the area and throughout the trip, I saw a smattering of animals cross the road including elusive pronghorn, frantic coyotes, and the random heifer cow casually crossing the highway minding his business, without regard to oncoming drivers. The beauty of the open range is beholden to the landscape.
On Wednesday, after I turned my phone off on my way out of Bend, I was fully charged with a busy mind and relentless open-ended thoughts. In a way I had let the last couple of weeks, mostly spent in another depressive episode, get the best of me, while tempting to bring me down. Seven years ago I was medically diagnosed with depression, which is different than having bad days every now and then. Over the last couple of years, I find that it’s just about every three months where I am struck with an episode. With time, they seem to get more manageable, however, they still hurt. Being out on the open road, with the relative silence as my backdrop, I felt the episode begin to pass.
When I’m tuned back into the world, surrounded by the noise and bustle of everyday life, my pseudo-ingrained insecurities tend to pop up when I’m not being mindful. Largely through a weekly dose of psychotherapy, my crux of being in recovery as an addict/alcoholic, I’m able to step back and realize the noise that I entrench myself in the day-to-day. Without a sense of awareness, the noise can come from anywhere and everywhere and affect me in profound manners. When I tend to get in patterns of paying close attention to the media, both social and news, I begin to lose my sense of awareness in a sweeping cascade of constant outside stimuli. This is one reason I travel to Eastern Oregon, to purge my sense of being entrenched in things that really, when it comes down to it, just don’t matter to me day to day. I come to this landscape to purge out the noise.
On my journey back to Bend, after being on the road for four days, I reflected as to why this trip was important and what I could take away and re-implement back into my life. The profound notion that sank in was that I have the ability, to a large degree, to control my reactions to the surroundings in which I live. Left unchecked my mind can wander to places that are not productive for me. Perhaps it’s the constant bombardment of noise that helps contribute to depressive episodes. Yes, some of it’s chemical, but I’ve got to believe that part of it has to with my surroundings. Re-integrating myself into the barren Eastern Oregon landscape that I love sure seems like a complementary remedy to help soothe the longevity of an episode.
I look forward to returning to Eastern Oregon soon, for I have a pretty cool idea brewing in my head for a race down there. For now, as I’ve written down on my vision board, I strive to reimplement the sage teachings of that vast remoteness and beauty the landscape lends to me. Plus, I’ve got physical proof of my experience in a collage of photos that I took over the four days to help remind me of why I go in the first place.