Kelli Martinelli | 09.29.2017

This story is not optimized to rank high in search results for “backpacking in Eastern Oregon”. It doesn’t include a list of the must-see places, outdoor spaces, or gear guides for making the adventure more comfortable, convenient, or #authentic. It’s hashtag-free. It doesn’t want to be another like in a social media feed. And it can’t be reviewed under a 5 star system. Because the stars … well, there are simply so many of them!

Part I: The day we drove and drove and plans changed because the Earth thinks it’s silly that we try to predict weather in the first place.

Today we set out in someone else’s van, adjusting to the throttle and grind of an unfamiliar clutch, infinitely baffled by the simplicity of the 1970s thermostat but romanced by the vehicle’s Sherpa-like confidence. There was something magnetic about this journey. It wasn’t that the place was pulling us toward it, but rather we were drifting to a place on the map where we hadn’t yet drifted, like skittering curves of early autumn snow dancing across a dry desert highway.

Cast: John Waller (photographer and boyfriend), Mr. Mike (trusty steed courtesy of GoCamp). Location: Eastern Oregon, more or less.

Technically autumn hasn’t arrived. But it’s clear that summer is ready to shuck off the uniform and put on sweats for the off season. And I’m all in for that plan. The sky widens and brightens as we wend. Instead of scanning the roadsides for squirrels and cats, (and maybe, if I’m lucky, a raccoon!), I search for jackrabbits and antelope, (and maybe, if I’m lucky, a good place for breakfast!).

"It's best if you just stay to the side of the road, and drive slowly through," said the cowboy. 

Incredibly, we have cell service, so Fleetwood Mac streams unfettered, a Camper Van karaoke dream all the way from Second Hand News to Gold Dust Woman; Stevie’s sultry, graveled voice a fitting soundtrack to the occasional rattle of the Westy on a washboard road. She croons as we crest toward the summit, slowed by the thickening of powdered sugar snow. We have no idea how this vintage rig will do in the snow, and since it isn't ours, and trucks with all-wheel drive are turning around too, we accept the defeat, grin and shrug, and turn around. Plans tend to change no matter where you go or where you end up.

On the search for the Black Rosy-Finch! Together we shared an appreciation for the flickers flitting through the aspens at lower elevation. And though John and I had sort of intentionally drifted here, while these birders had deliberately flocked -- we all came just to witness, and hopefully return the favor of enjoying this place by supporting the organizations who help preserve the land and the wildlife.

So why go here? Why this place?

I don’t know. Why not here? Because places are here, and they’re out there. And in fact, places are everywhere. I didn’t scroll through Instagram to poke the fomo monster and find the viral secrets others have uncovered. I don’t want to try to recreate someone else’s vista, or become a hashtagged cliché. 32,376 likes and a John Muir quote doesn’t mean that I need to go to that place, too. In fact, it means I probably shouldn’t go there, and instead give the place time to recover from the trample of everyone’s me-too moment.

"No matter how lightly we may try to tread, nor how few traces we try to leave, our tread makes an impact. A wheelbarrow pushed down the same path will eventually wear a rut, no matter how well-intentioned its driver or how light its barrow burden."

I have only recently begun poking my nose into the opposite corners of Oregon. After a childhood staring in wonder and familiarity at the understory of Redwoods and daydreaming into a horizon thickly coated in fog, the vastness of a resting countryside that rolls out endlessly beneath uninhibited sky has my curiosity piqued. The more I sniff around the nooks and crannies of this state, the more I find I love the smell of sagebrush as much as salty ocean air. So following my nose, and driven by a reverence for the fall equinox, I set my sights on Eastern Oregon. I wanted to experience that brief moment of balance beneath an exposed and decorated sky, layered and dripping with ancient sparkle. The vista I was after didn’t require a specific geo-tag, it simply meant heading east and looking up. I don’t have to be here. But my intention let me drift here.

It’s not the name of the place I want to fall in love with. I want to fall in love with the details.

Not an illusion.

Part II: The day he said “short cut” and I believed him, and my knees shook, but then there was a caterpillar that resembled my cat, so all was forgiven.

Half a mile down a steep and scraggly drainage and I feel like Sarah tumbling down the hole in Labyrinth, gripped and snagged by the Helping Hands. “She chose down?” “She chose down!” The hands mischievously release their grip and so I stumble, my left foot shoots out like a snapped rubber band, my ass goes down in a spray of pebble and twig, and a songbird breaks out laughing behind me. My whistling mountain goat boyfriend far in front of me does not notice, so precise and confident is his prance over boulders. My knees feel like coffee cake trying to support the weight of a Subaru. I am in love with the hillside, and bitter at its unrelenting obstacles at the same time. These are the moments that Instagram doesn't tell you about.

As I wrestled with blame toward my shoddy knees, this little guy deftly inched along blamelessly. Blame only inhibits momentum, I suppose. Love the skin you're in, folks. And then love it, too, when it changes into wings.

So now I’m about five minutes away from taking a much-needed nap. I’ve already zippered the tent door, removed my contact lenses, slid my crooked glasses up my face, tucked a hand warmer between my breasts, and am in full prone nap position on top of my sleeping bag. I did hesitate about closing the tent door. I kinda wanted to leave it open, to be cozy inside but still have a fairly immersive backcountry nap experience. But then I was caught off guard by the sound of horse hooves on a trail not far off, so I decided to close the tent flap completely, to give the horses their privacy as much as I craved my own.

Near-naps can happen anywhere. I certainly intend to have them as often as I can, wherever I may explore. Near-naps can happen in a hammock, in a tent, in the grass, on the sand, on the snow, on the water, on a porch, or in a camper van. Near-naps aren't tied to a particular place, and neither is experience. Experience is defined by our intention, our reactions to the place we're in, and how we adapt to the circumstances that arise. Yet we tend to flock to the same places, repeatedly, because we expect the delivery of a particular experience or feeling; an expectation created by a perfectly cropped landscape photo, awash in a dreamy filter, an Instagrammer's face strategically turned away from the lens toward a gleaming horizon, suggesting casual anonymity, suggesting if only we could go there too, we might find our own Narnia. We're suckers for illusion.

But I'm not here to experience someone else's Instagram moment. Nor to create one for someone else. My experience is that I started somewhere high, bombed down a hillside to get somewhere low, and there is no app or filter that could replicate my own moment, happening right now.

Right now my heart is beating warm and my fingers are icing up and I’m listening. Exactly and only that. Listening. I’m both lulled and on high alert. Soothed but electric. The stream and its alternating shooshes and wooshes, the aspens rattling their leafy maracas, the cottonwoods knocking neighboring boughs, an errant rockfall in the distance that I hope indicates there are mule deer in the neighborhood. I’m just listening. Listening for what it all is. Listening for what might be next. Listening for when my love may return, unzip the door, and say “I met some folks on horses!”

Neigh - bors.

Today is the equinox, which is always a timely reminder to me that it’s not only okay to not be in perfect balance at all times, it’s actually a part of life to not be in perfect balance at all times. We transition in an out of balance. Summer shifts to autumn, day and night pausing in the middle, briefly. Balance isn’t a forever state, it’s a state of transition, a parting kiss before lips start to pull away. I find that comforting. To not have to try so hard to find perfect life balance, but instead just ride the transitions as they happen. My intention in being in this place is so that in this seasonal moment of pause, before the lengthening of night and the shrinking of day, I might share it with the wide sky above me and the canyons around me, appreciating the light and dark in equal measure. Balance, but only briefly. 

But I’ll appreciate it more after a nap.

Part III: Walking out is easy until it’s harder but then there is a road with an open gate and so we drive through it, we park, and the coyotes don’t seem to mind.

It’s always the third night that I finally sleep well. My hips have adjusted to the confinement of the mummy bag, my racing brain has slowed to a saunter, and all that I have left to think about is food, water, and sleep. A pendulum swing from having thirty tabs open in my mental browser at all times. After an evening gazing into an aspen grove opposite the canyon, I sleep soundly and wake up on the other side of the equinox. Today is fall. The balance has shifted. Coffee in hand, we head out of camp in the direction of the rising sun, John's eyes on the twinkling horizon, mine entranced by the fractals of frost on the faded rock spiraea.

Fractals of frost.

The trail dips and rises gently, and then it winds into a grove of quaking aspens. They're flirty, and I can’t help but pause for a dance with them, their slender trunks thrusting out like sassy hips. Then the trail dips and rises again, pouring into another grove, this one older, the aspens taller, trunks thick and smooth except where spoiled by someone's carved initials. The grove is guarded by the most disapproving of grandmother aspens. We pass her quietly by, fingers brushing gently over scarred bark, and come to greet a couple camped further up the canyon, where the frost has only just begun to melt in the sun rays. The woman asks, “Do you like it?” when we chat about the trail. She had been a part of a volunteer trail maintenance crew this past summer, and she hoped the trail didn’t look “too hacked.” We assure her it's beautiful, not too wide, not to chopped, but ideal for helping keep people and horses from trampling sensitive areas. We thank her graciously.  

There are so many explorers, and far too few stewards.  

Around a bend I duck behind a thicket to pee, where I scoop up a frozen towel left behind by another camper. It's a nice chamois, and I'm sure it wasn't left behind deliberately. But even when we're mindful, we still leave a trace. Perhaps there is more we can do to offset our impact, to uplevel our stewardship. By volunteering, cleaning up after others, and supporting the organizations who care for the many places we love, particularly those that we inadvertently love to death as we chase the illusion cast by someone else's social feed. 

Of course there is more we can do. There is no perhaps about it. 

Thank you to the Oregon Natural Desert Association volunteers for keeping me on the trail. 

We hoist on our packs and I blow a kiss to the cottonwood canopy, the tall tufted grasses, and the mule deer who remain elusive. The trek back down the trail is easy and I sigh contentedly as my fingers pinch the tops of mountain sedge. Then the glimmer of the van is spotted up high and I'm reminded of the shortcut that will most definitely make me sweat and swear. I lower my gaze in order to mind my own less-than-sure footedness and start the ascent behind my mountain goat of a boyfriend. We don't know where we'll camp tonight. It may be a place that's built to echo the smallest mouse whisper, or a place of silence so thick even the chainsaw of my brain noise can't slice through it. The sky may be wide, the travelers few, the roads unfamiliar. Or maybe we'll climb back into the van and start the journey home, to a place intricately woven with intention, a cocoon of stories that no Instagram illusion could ever replicate.

The best stories aren’t the ones shared by the masses. They’re the backlit bunny ears amongst the sage tangles. The four-point buck tucked into a thicket, unaware of the controversy of his home, its refuge the subject of last year’s headlines. They’re the stories that took a different path, or missed the trailhead altogether on account of a late summer snowfall. They’re the shortcuts that weren't short at all, not by a damn sight. They’re the slaps to the forehead by low branches, the slip of a toe on loose rock, the heart-racing terror of tumbling backward down a canyon, the occasional glowers at the graceful climb of the hiker above who barely breaks a sweat. They’re forgiveness with the crack of a post-summit beer, the unclipping of a dusty pack, and the exchange of burr-studded socks for bare feet on warm boulders. 

"The best stories have little to do with the place we are, and everything to do with why we are there."

Just ... go. Destination not required. 

Thank you to GoCamp Rentals for hooking us up with the sexiest Westfalia this side of Idaho. And to my mountain goat partner, John Waller, for letting me include his photos here, not to create an illusion, nor to drive an eager audience to retrace our footsteps, but to remind me I'm in love, with no place in particular. 


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