Walking the High Desert

Karen Withrow

Waterston Walking the High Desert

A new book about the Oregon Desert Trail debuts this month: Walking the High Desert: Encounters with Rural America along the Oregon Desert Trail, written by Ellen Waterston, published by University of Washington Press.

In this book, Waterston, an ONDA member and former high desert rancher, writes of a wild, essentially roadless, starkly beautiful part of the American West.  She embarks on a creative and inquisitive exploration along the 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail, introducing readers to a “trusting, naïve, earnest, stubbly, grumpy old man of a desert.” The book grapples with issues at the forefront of national, if not global, concern: public land use, grazing rights for livestock, protection of sacred Indigenous ground, water rights, and protection of habitat for endangered species.


Western Meadowlark Dawn Chorus

Western Meadowlark Dawn Chorus


Connecting Trails

Connecting Trails

The Oregon Desert Trail ties into two National Recreation Trails: the Fremont National Recreation Trail and Desert Trail.


Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, ODT thru-hiker 2017

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, ODT thru-hiker 2017

“To me, it’s a thru-hike in an isolated place that promotes a conversation in land management, ethics and usage. Hiking across a vast and remote landscape and having a random and chance encounter with cowboys and hunters to discuss how ‘all of us’ should treat the land, how we all have a responsibility, no matter our political leanings, really showed me the pulse of the people in rural areas, especially here out west.”

Ellen Waterston, author of Walking the High Desert

In this excerpt from Chapter Seven, “Vapor Trails,” Ellen describes encountering the work of a photographer Terri Warpinski, who had taken to walking out onto the playa at Summer Lake and was slowly drawing a line across the gray, brittle, cracked surface of the dried lakebed with black volcanic rocks, while serving as an artist-in-residence at PLAYA.

When I first noticed it, I assumed it was a fence line. That didn’t make sense. Were those footprints? Eventually we learned it was Terri’s creation. Did the line of rocks go to the far shore? Why was Terri doing it? How did she get the rocks there? These musings in and of themselves expanded our relationship with the playa whether we set foot on it or not. A few residents, giving in to their curiosity, walked the Morse code of it as far as it went then turned around and came back; still others kept going to assess the remaining distance to the far shore, which, mirage-like, always remained a mile or so out of reach.

That’s what I did. I walked past where Terri’s trail of rocks ended. I soon found myself running as though afraid, as though I wanted to get it over with, wanted to get to the other shore and then return to the security of the marked trail that had disappeared from view behind me. The absence of the rocks was somehow unsettling to me. No guide. On my own. Unmarked, uncharted, wild out there in the middle of that vast, inscrutable playa. Life’s trail. Maybe a trail is a way of challenging death. Start at the beginning of something, go to the end—and then, instead of stopping (dying), step off into an undefined else. What are each of us leaving and going toward? Maybe too much of what we do in life is taken up by trying to find the right trail, to resolve ourselves and our lives into a discernable pattern and direction and always in denial about the fact that the trail, as we perceive it, has an end. Even better, make that trail one you don’t have to bushwhack, that is already charted. Most of us are happier with a trail than without one. The reassurance of knowing the remaining distance back to home base, of a known trail, makes us brave-ish. Most of us are happier when someone else is with us on that trail rather than all by ourselves. Most of us are happier with mediated wilderness, guided wilderness, the cruise-shipping of wilderness.

The real McCoy requires that we actually know about survival, finding our way, being without contact, being dirty and uncomfortable for more than a few nights, maybe even lost. Maybe the whole point is to get lost from time to time. Maybe “I found the trail!”—the call you shout back to your hiking companion when you have both lost track—couldn’t possibly feel so good without first getting lost.

Here’s to the Oregon Desert Trail. It gives you ample room and opportunity to feel lost because it doesn’t hold your hand. You map your own way. You swim or sink in the sagebrush ocean. You have the freedom to roam, to call your path your own.

excerpt from Walking the High Desert, Encounters with Rural America Along the Oregon Desert Trail by Ellen Waterston, University of Washington Press, June 2020


Ellen Waterston

About the Author

Ellen Waterston’s published works include a collection of essays, Where the Crooked River Rises; a memoir, Then There Was No Mountain; and four poetry titles: Hotel Domilocos, Between Desert Seasons, I Am Madagascar, and Vía Láctea, A Woman of a Certain Age Walks the Camino, which she subsequently converted to a libretto that premiered as a full-length opera.

She founded the Writing Ranch, which offers workshops and retreats for established and emerging writers, and The Nature of Words, a literary arts nonprofit featuring an annual literary festival in Bend, Oregon, and the Waterston Desert Writing Prize, which recognizes nonfiction work examining the role of deserts in the human narrative.

The recipient of numerous awards, fellowships, grants and residencies, Ellen received an honorary Ph.D. by Oregon State University Cascades for her accomplishments as an author, poet and literary arts advocate.

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