197. Desolation and Day Trips

Desolation and Day Trips: We flew to the moon for Labor Day Weekend, or at least what passes for the moon around here, the vast rocky desert of southeastern Oregon. Seven hours from Portland, deep in the Fremont Wilderness we found a scrubby peak called Bald Butte. And on that peak, we found an eighty year old glass box fire lookout, whitewashed against a dark blue sky and a completely unobstructed wraparound view of the world beyond.

This is the third Oregon fire lookout we’ve stayed in this year and there’s no question that Bald Butte was the most breathtaking. In large part that’s because this is a starkly isolated yet comfortably equipped cabin, where you can enjoy a spellbinding view of both the sunset and sunrise, galaxies of twinkling stars and raptors soaring on eye-level updrafts all from the same cozy bed. But the full enjoyment of this place is also owed to the reward of merely finishing the bone rattling journey there – the most direct route requires hours of driving on unpaved Forest Service roads, a rocket trail of dust stalking the rearview mirror and a constant spray of gravel crackling against the undercarriage.

With perhaps too much blind faith in our little Toyota hatchback, we ignored somber warnings from the USFS that the last few miles of road would be “minimally passable for low clearance vehicles.” But optimistic is how we roll. And rattle and shake.

Amy: Oh my god that was a bad one! Be careful!
Me: Ugh, that did sound pretty bad.
Amy: There is going to be bright green stuff pouring out of the bottom of the car and we are going to be stranded.
Me: I don’t think they put that bright green stuff in cars any more since it was always leaking out and stranding people. I’m being care-
Amy: Aaaaaaaah! Slowdownslowdownslowdown!

And so on. But we made it to the to the top, checked under the car to confirm that there was no bright green stuff pouring out, and then reveled in the reward. No sign of civilization for hundreds of miles in every direction – save for an outhouse, a picnic table, a flag pole and a stout little cabin strapped to the windy butte by four thin guy wires. It was late in the afternoon, but sunset was still hours away thanks to our height above the horizon. And the flipside to all that extra evening light is a whole lot of extra morning light, because you’re also among the first to see the sun rise. Eye masks are mandatory if there’s going to be any sleeping past 5:30AM.

But it’s hard to stay asleep anyway when your first bleary glimpse of the world is the sun burning deep orange over a moonscape of sheer ridges and salt flats. There isn’t much to do but wake to watch the sun rise then start waiting for it to go down again on the other side, the hours between melting by with books, naps, games, whiskey and well timed day trips. We had a couple of those day trips, the most notable a bumpy drive back out of the forest to the hot mineral pools at Summer Lake Hot Springs. We happened to make that day trip just scarce hours before the place was inundated with dusty revelers returning from Burning Man. The current owner of the hot springs has done some wonderful things with canvas sails and old timey wood fencing and the effect has not gone unnoticed to the hundreds of burners who pass this way en route to and from Black Rock City, looking for a place to relive the glory of the Man and wash the playa from their leathery hides.

We didn’t stick around for that eyeful, retreating instead to our own burn of afternoon sunlight, wine and another competitive round of Charley Harper Memory Game, interrupted only for long, distracted looks at the horizon. Same as the day before. Same as tomorrow.

(see more photos on flickr)

(find out how to reserve PNW lookouts and cabins)


  1. Jed says:

    Awesome, as usual. What’s your source for all these lookouts?

  2. sloanschang says:

    Thanks JJ – Check out this page for the deets on PNW government rentals. There are some crazy cabins and houses for rent too. I’m looking at you, “Murderer’s Creek Work Center.”

  3. George says:

    Wow. Wow, as always.
    Great writing, awe-inspiring photos, smart choice for places to visit.
    Happy to see a photo of both of you in this post!

  4. Melanie says:

    Awesome! I love the high desert. Jeff and I will have to check this one out sometime. As for Murderer’s Creek Work Center, I have been there and have some hilarious photos of me and my friends posing with axes and a pulaski or two (found in the shed by the cabin). I’ll try to dig it up to show you. We x-country skied in.