If you have been following the development of the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) over the past few years, you are probably aware that one of its primary goals is to engage the recreation community in conservation issues across the high desert. An excellent example of how the ODT has helped harness the passion and drive of the long-distance hiking community can be found in the story of 2018 ODT thru-hiker Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa.
Spoiler alert: Whitney has created a fundraiser for our work on the Owyhee…scroll to the bottom for more details!
Whitney was first introduced to ONDA’s long-distance route when he attended a presentation by our first Oregon Desert Trail hiker, Sage Clegg. He was no stranger to long-distance hiking, having completed the entire Appalachian Trail in 1996 before entering college on the east coast.
Over 20 years later after that first AT hike and with several more thru-hikes under his belt, Whitney was ready to give the Oregon Desert Trail a try. “A big draw to hiking the ODT was getting to see the state I have called home for 20 years at human speed,” he explained. “Bonus: I got to visit places in Oregon I had only read about, but had always wanted to see. It was amazing!”
His thru-hike of the almost 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail in 2016 was great training for the challenges of the Oregon Desert Trail. In 2018, Whitney decided to undertake a west-bound thru-hike in the fall with two friends and experienced backpackers, Katie “Salty” Gerber and Katlyn “Swept Away” Pickett.
The group expected challenges like long distances between reliable water sources, exposure, heat, and difficult bushwhacks, but in reality, those difficulties made the sweet moments even sweeter.
“The day we walked out of McDermitt we were pretty heavy with a big load of food and water for the next stretch…we had to trudge through some pretty thick bushwhacks and ended the day with a butt-kicker of a climb. As we were setting up our camp we walked out to edge of the mountain and watched one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen, and I remember thinking to myself, this is why I do this!”
The three hikers had a fairly short time-frame in which to complete their hike, and in order to finish before their other commitments, had a steady schedule of 30-mile days — mileage that led to a whole other set of challenges.
“We had so many difficult moments, but the one that sticks out the most to me was the day we went across Diablo Rim. We had been pumping out 30+ mile days for over a week straight, and this day we were all a bit sluggish. With each ankle-rolling step on the cross country section, we winced at our slow progress and aches and pains. That night as we sat on the rim watching the sunset I received news that an old friend had passed on to that great hiking trail in the sky. I sat by myself below Diablo Peak, shed tears, and said goodbye to a legendary hiker. In a way, it was really hard. On the other hand, I felt embraced by the wildness around me on that spot.”
Whitney, Katie and Katlyn finished their thru-hike at the Tumulus Trailhead in the Badlands Wilderness on September 30, just 30 days after they departed Lake Owyhee State Park. All had various minor injuries, but it turned out that Whitney had aggravated an old tendon tear on his right foot, a result of those punishing 30-mile days, and spent the next four months in a walking boot.
But the desert continued its siren call, and Whitney and Katlyn returned to the ODT last summer to join ONDA on a trail maintenance stewardship trip in the Steens Mountain Wilderness.
“My work trip to the Steen was one of the most rewarding vacations I have had in years,” he explained. “ONDA does a great job of organizing the trip and having a great balance of fun times, hard work and free time to explore while out there. As a hiker, it will help you appreciate how much work goes into the trails you get to use, and it feels good to be doing something physical while leaving the resource in better shape for future users.”
Whitney’s engagement with the high desert didn’t end there, however. Right before leaving on his 2018 hike, he had started a new position at Oregon-based backpacking company Six Moon Designs.
“Hiking shaped my career,” he said. “I went from being a commodity broker in the wood products industry to now selling tents and backpacks, and even designing new gear. While I am out hiking now, I listen to other users so that I can identify problems that need to be solved. I am constantly thinking about new gear ideas and jotting them down in my notebook so that when I get home I can do some design work and get on the sewing machine.
And now…for the good stuff!
“I feel that one of the best parts of my job is being able to leverage our company’s success to help the greater good by supporting non-profit groups and the work they do to protect the wild places we get to explore,” Whitney explained. “On my thru-hike of the Oregon Desert Trail, I was absolutely blown away by the rugged wilderness of the Owyhee. It is truly one of the most remote and wild places I have ever hiked through. The work that ONDA is doing to permanently protect this area for future generations is something we feel strongly about and we wanted to create a way to help support the effort.”
“Naming a new shelter after one of Oregon’s most amazing landscapes was a no-brainer, especially since the idea for it came up while hiking through the Owyhee Canyon. Having a portion of each shelter sale going to help its namesake just made perfect sense to us.”
$20 from each Wild Owyhee tent that Six Moon Designs sells will be donated to ONDA, and our work to preserve this incredible landscape. Visit the website to learn more.
Whitney left us with these parting thoughts; we have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of him in the future:
“We are in some crazy times right now and there is a lot of uncertainty out there, however, I know that once the dust settles myself and many others are going to need some much-needed nature therapy,” he said. “I take solace in knowing that when the time is right I will be able to once again go explore the remote areas of Oregon’s desert, soak in its hot springs, and hike among the sagebrush.
“Now more than ever is the time to keep supporting groups you believe in, or a small business you care about and want to see survive. I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy and using this time to plan their next trip in the wild regions of Oregon once we can get back out there.”