The thirsty Alvord Desert

My own Steens adventure began when a friend and I scooted out of Bend early one Friday afternoon and checked into the hotel, which once housed the town’s tiny post office and today remains the only place within about 40 miles to get a beer. Ruhl and two more of our friends would arrive later with the plane. In the meantime, we sat in lounge chairs on the porch and whiled away an evening beneath a mason-jar chandelier.

The mercantile and saloon have been lost to weeds and poplars.

The town of Diamond used to have all of 50 people back in the early 1900s, when Basque herders and homesteaders ran sheep on the mountain. That was before America lost its taste for mutton and the town withered, losing its two mercantile shops and a saloon to weeds and poplars. Now livestock are banned from grazing on at least 100,000 acres in the Steens Mountain Wilderness, but the hotel, an ambling hulk of dark wood built in 1898, has carried on just as ranching has. Locals with sandpaper hands frequent the hotel on weekends for dinner, when owner Shirley Thompson and her grandchildren serve fresh bread and stiff coffee. And Diamond is on an upswing once again. The year-round population jumped 33 percent—to four people—last March when Justin McAulay was born to the family across the street.

Frenchglen, a town about 30 miles south of Diamond that serves as another jumping-off point for Steens, is huge by comparison—population 15. On a roundabout approach to the town—named after that same Pete French and his father-in-law Hugh Glenn—we drove through lion-colored hills and stopped to poke around one of the state’s last circular corrals, or “round barns,” used for breaking horses in the early 1880s. Back then French’s ranch, one of the largest in the nation, covered a whopping 200,000 acres, and the town survived by supplying its workers with food and drink and mail. The ranch started falling apart after French was shot, and by the end of World War II, the town had all but withered away.

Today there isn’t much in Frenchglen—a school, a few homes, and a mercantile with shelves so bare I wonder whether it’s open. Despite the ghost-town setting, rooms are all booked at the Frenchglen Hotel, an eight-room relic of the stagecoach days built in the 1920s. So we pitch tents in Page Springs Campground near a lazy creek on Steens Mountain’s western slope. When Ruhl arrives, our group grows to five.

We spread a map out on a picnic table and pick a hike to do in the morning, an eight-mile push into Big Indian Gorge, one of four glacier-carved valleys. We don’t even make it halfway, instead choosing to nap on warm rocks by the river. In spring and early summer, these gorges turn bright green as the meadows drink melt water. Alpine lakes twinkle in their bellies, and wildflowers—Indian paintbrushes, lupines and daisies—burn around their banks. The urge to meander through them is inescapable.

Or fly over them, as the case may be. Ruhl takes off from a remote landing strip near the mountain, and soon we’re drifting through the deep walls of Kiger Gorge. He guns the engine over the crest and puts the plane down in the desert. Today it’s too hot for a soak in the 102-degree water of Alvord Hot Springs—a concrete pool sunk in the desert—so Ruhl flies to Fields, a one-building town on the Alvord’s southern end, to fetch burgers and milkshakes.

I stay behind and walk out onto the playa. Less than seven inches of rain falls here a year, making the Alvord Oregon’s most arid region. A gentle breeze stirred by the heat rising off the sand carries away the dust from my footsteps. Each stride I take seemingly brings me no closer to the mountains lingering in the distance. There is no frontier here. Sky and sand blur into a sea of hazy ripples.