12 Explorers We’d Love to Bump Into on the Oregon Desert Trail

Patrick French

Authors: Renee Patrick and Lace Thornberg  |  Published: October 25, 2022  |  Category: Profile

Go out for a long hike in Oregon’s high desert and you will see more pronghorn than fellow hikers. That’s a fact.  

So, when you do run into someone on a remote stretch of the Oregon Desert Trail, a largely cross-country route through Oregon’s high desert, the conversation is guaranteed to be interesting. Admittedly, any conversation is richer when your only companions for the past week on the trail have been meadowlarks and horned lizards, but there are some qualities of the high desert that really seem to draw out thoughtfulness and wonder.

The Oregon Desert Trail has already intrigued many mighty explorers, including Heather “Anish” Anderson, Christine Thuermer and Christof Teuscher. Today, we’re going to share a few of our adventurous idols that we’d love to see in the Sagebrush Sea. 

We’re picturing bumping into Pattie Gonia high-stepping across the Alvord Desert playa, or maybe pulling up a bar stool next to Cheryl Strayed in the Paisley Saloon, or meeting Emily Ford quietly traveling along a high ridge in the Pueblo Mountains. 

We’ll be eager to hear how the unchecked potential for pure adventure found along this rugged 750-mile route compares with their other adventures. They’ll be eager to see if we have some water or calories to share. It will be a fair trade. 

Who might you like to run into amidst the twisted towers in the Owyhee Canyonlands or the deep gorges of Steens Mountain? Our list grows daily, but here are a dozen people we’d love to see on the Oregon Desert Trail.

listen

Western Meadowlark Dawn Chorus

Western Meadowlark Dawn Chorus

listen

Great Basin Spadefoot Toads – a sleepy chorus

Great Basin Spadefoot Toads – a sleepy chorus

watch

Oregon Desert Trail Map

Oregon Desert Trail Map

EMILY FORD

As you can read in this profile by Outside magazine, Emily Ford’s interest in long-distance hiking started early. While still in middle school, she hiked 12 miles – solo – through her hometown in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Fast forward a few decades and Emily’s penchant for wilderness trekking has taken her to a pretty unexpected place: as an ambassador for greater inclusivity in outdoor recreation. 

Why we think Emily would be up for ODT: If you can hike 1,200 miles across Wisconsin in the winter like Emily has, you can do anything. And, we love how Emily is now also using her adventurous treks to raise awareness of places in need of protection, like this 200+ mile ski trip across the Boundary Waters

CRAIG CHILDS

Craig Childs is known for following ancient migration routes on foot and writing beautiful and awe-inspiring stories of a desert past and present. His moving books include The Secret Knowledge of Water (a topic you’ll think a lot about on the ODT), Atlas of a Lost World, which is a vivid travelog through prehistory that traces the arrival of the first people in North America, and House of Rain which chronicles Craig’s journals and exploration into archaeology as he traces the so-called disappearance of the Anasazi.

Why we think Craig Childs would be up for the ODT: Craig’s life-long interest in understanding those who traveled and lived in desert environments since time immemorial is bound to be piqued by Oregon’s high desert. The oldest definitively-dated human presence in North America can be found at Paisley Cave, just a short distance away from the Oregon Desert Trail. 

J.R. HARRIS

A lifelong resident of New York City, J.R. Harris has completed more than fifty multi-week treks, “all unsupported and most of them alone,” and all while holding down a full-time job running JRH Marketing Services – which, fun fact, is the oldest African American-owned research and consulting firm in the United States. 

Harris was elected into the prestigious Explorers Club back in 1993, and his book, Way Out There: Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker chronicles many of his adventures. 

Why we think J.R. would be up for ODT: In his seventies now, Harris is still an active and enthusiastic solo explorer who backpacks in some of the most remote wilderness areas in the world.

CHERYL STRAYED

Cheryl Strayed is renowned for her best-selling memoir Wild, chronicling her 1995 hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, but did you know she actually finished writing that book on the Oregon Desert Trail, nestled in a cozy tiny house in Plush, Oregon? She even hosted a screening of the film at Lakeview’s Alger Theater in 2016. 

Why we think Cheryl would be up for the ODT: She’s seen the sunrise over Hart Mountain and the Warner Wetlands. How could she not want to wake up there again?


Download the free Oregon Desert Trail guidebook now.


James Edward Mills

JAMES EDWARD MILLS

As the creator and host of the Joy Trip Project, James Mills seeks to find balance with adventure and the natural world, a mission close to our hearts. This well-known journalist is an important voice and advocate for a more inclusive recreation and conservation community. If you aren’t familiar with his book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, we highly recommend the read. 

Why we think James would be up for the ODT: Challenging the recreation community to play a more active role in conservation issues is what the Oregon Desert Trail was envisioned to do, and that is right in line with the subjects that James writes most about. We’d love his take!

Photo: Evan Green

Nicolas KristofNICHOLAS KRISTOF

This Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has traveled the world to report on global health, poverty, and gender issues in the developing world. For years, he’s relayed the stories of the world to readers back home via The New York Times and, in 2022, this Oregonian threw his hat into the governor’s race. It’s hard to imagine how he also sets aside time to hike long-distance trails, but he does.

Why we think Nicholas would be up for ODT: What thru-hiker can resist another long distance trail? And should Nicholas decide to pursue Oregon’s highest office again, we know the time he’s spent in the high desert will yield rich insights into our state’s dry side.

JOLIE VARELA AND AUTUMN HARRY

Did you know that the central California trail currently known as the John Muir Trail was built and maintained, millenia ago, as a popular trade route by Paiute, Shoshone, and other tribes? You know now, thanks to the work of Jolie Varela. Jolie has advocated for years for better acknowledgement of the Paiute history of this trail, which in Paiute is named Nüümü Poyo meaning the People’s Trail. In 2018, Jolie was planning to hike the 200-mile Nüümü Poyo solo, but her plans changed when several other Indigenous women, including Autumn Harry, wanted to join her. Autumn works to restore traditional food systems in her community, is the first Paiute woman fly fishing guide at Kooyooe Pa’a Panunadu (Pyramid Lake), and has become one of the foremost champions of Tribal and environmental rights in Northern Nevada and the region. In March 2022, Autumn was named USA TODAY’s Women of the Year Nevada honoree.

Their shared journey on Nüümü Poyo ended up giving rise to a new organization, Indigenous Women Hike, which Jolie founded and leads today. 

Why we think Jolie and Autumn would be up for the ODT: They’ve already spent many days hiking together and, since both women are Paiute, they may feel a deep sense of being at home on this route which travels through the current and ancestral homelands of the Northern Paiute. 

Andy NealANDY NEAL

This filmmaker, podcaster, and outdoor enthusiast is doing important work role modeling a more accessible and inclusive outdoor community. Andy Neal uses his platform to review gear, explore hiking trends, and discuss the way hiking can inspire people to grow, create, and improve the world around them. Here’s his feature about the Oregon Desert Trail on The Hiker Podcast from a few years ago.

Why we think Andy Neal would be up for the ODT: This Oregonian loves to hike with his kids on the trails near his current home in Ashland, but he originally comes from the desert of Las Vegas. We know he and his family will be just as awe-struck by the scenery and wildlife found east of the Cascades.

PATTIE GONIA

Patte Gonia makes an impression wherever she goes. This dynamic drag queen addresses important environmental issues while hiking in platform heels and dramatic dresses made of recycled plastics or upcycled backpacking gear. We love their style, their incredible skill in drawing attention to climate change injustices and their commitment to bring more diversity and accessibility to outdoor recreation.

Why we think Pattie Gonia would be up for the ODT: For starters, Pattie Gonia lives in Bend, so the Oregon Desert Trail starts right in their backyard! And, we’re certain that Pattie’s recent Western Meadowlark look would be a hit with both birds and bird-watchers in the spring. The sandy Oregon Badlands Wilderness will be tricky in heels, but a challenge is fun, right? 

John FrancisJOHN FRANCIS

Here’s another must-read book for you: John Francis’ Planet Walker. His novel approach to drawing awareness to and inspiring action on behalf of environmental issues across the globe – 22 years of walking, 17 years of silence – has moved people across the planet to action. In Planet Walker, he describes how he launched a movement promoting environmental education, responsibility and a vision of world peace and cooperation. We’re also looking forward to checking out his new children’s book, Human Kindness: True Stories of Compassion and Generosity that Changed the World.

Why we think John Francis would be up for the ODT: If past experience counts for anything, the ODT’s 750 miles will pale in comparison to his other treks. The ODT may have to wait though; word is he will embark on his longest walk ever in 2023: a 4,000-mile continental trek from South Africa to Ethiopia, all with a message of love and understanding to overcome political gridlock. That’s something we can definitely get behind.

YOU

Consider yourself invited to experience the Oregon’s high desert. Vast fault-block mountains, mesmerizing canyons, colorful wildflower meadows, grand aspen groves and delicate streams await you on the Oregon Desert Trail and you’re sure to learn more about your own resourcefulness, resilience and creativity as you approach each challenge this route provides.    

How we know you would be up for ODT: While its true that thru-hiking the Oregon Desert Trail isn’t for a beginning long-distance hiker, there any number of shorter trips, from a single afternoon to a week or more, that are available to anyone who’d like a taste of the Oregon Desert Trail experience. ONDA has tips, advice and resources to help you acquire the skills you need to take on any length of journey on the Oregon Desert Trail. 

Download the Oregon Desert Trail guidebook now and dream some desert dreams.