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Wanderlust in Oregon's outback.

Byline: Bob Welch The Register-Guard

Say, Friday night when Frenchglen Hotel owner John Ross pokes out his head on the screened porch and tells his guests: "If anybody needs me I'll be out pitching horseshoes."

Or on Saturday afternoon, when you get a flat tire on the fringe of the Alvord Desert, 85 miles from the nearest tire store, in 92-degree heat, and have only a doughnut spare. (You're also 60 miles from cell phone coverage and haven't seen another vehicle in two hours.)

Or on Saturday night when, out of the darkness, an SUV pulls up to the 92-year-old hotel and a young woman pops out and says, "Do you know, like, where the nearest store is to get something to eat?"

And all of us on the porch just laugh.

According to the University of Oregon Info Graphics Lab, the Steens Mountain country is the only place in the lower 48 states that is more than 100 miles from the nearest general hospital, 150 miles from the nearest Starbucks and 100 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart.

Remote? In Fields, 23 miles north of the Nevada line and where we stopped for one of their famous hamburgers and shakes, the owners of the restaurant get their meat from Idaho.

"We meet the butcher in Winnemucca (Nev.), which is 119 miles south of here," says 64-year-old Eugene Davis, who pumps your gas while wife Gayle flips your burger and nephew Jake makes your blackberry shake.

"The stretch of road south of Frenchglen gives me a feeling of remoteness more than any place in Oregon," says Jim Meacham, a UO geography professor.

After a four-day, 1,050-mile, 43-stop trip, with my wife and another couple, I wouldn't disagree.

The centerpiece to this overlooked nook of the state is Steens Mountain, which isn't a typical mountain for those of us brought up on the snow- covered Cascades. With only splotches of snow, it stretches the equivalent length of Eugene-to-Corvallis like a stuffed and folded omelette, rising gradually from the west - 23 miles - and falling sharply down to the Alvord Desert to the east, only three miles away.

We spent one day driving to the top and down, another looping around it, a 100-mile journey (longer, we found, if you have a flat tire and require a detour). Nearly all was done on gravel, meaning that by the end of the day you feel as if you've just stepped off a giant electric sander.

It is the highest peak you can essentially drive to in Oregon - 9,740 feet, on gravel, the north loop a breeze, the south a bear.

Its beauty - more vibrant in fall and winter, I'm told - is not the stuff of the Alps-esque Wallowas or North Cascades; in fact, it takes a while to figure out just where the summit is. Its beauty is not postcard stuff, the single, striking image of a Haystack Rock or Mount Hood. Its beauty is more subtle and complex: in the deep gorges on its flanks, in the wildflowers that burst from its high reaches, in rocky ridges that look like the plates and spikes of a stegosaurus.

This land is "Lonesome Dove" meets the "Sound of Music": sagebrush, dry lakes and bleached junipers around one turn followed by green meadows and wild sunflowers around the next.

Those of us who've come to sample such views - me for the first time - can't help but feel small amid mountains and gorges and deserts seemingly without end. Indeed, to see a gumdrop tent in this wide-open landscape is to see a barnacle on the back of a blue whale.

So much land - Harney is the ninth-largest county in the nation - and so few people. The biggest congregation of humans we noticed over this long weekend was a few dozen runners who were part of the Steens Mountain Running Camp, at the 7,500-foot level. You see a few people sprinkled in campgrounds, a few on the road, and 20 of them around you at the Frenchglen's group dinner each night. But that's about it. In two fly-fishing?trips on the Donner und Blitzen River, we never saw another line in the water beyond ours.

As for "locals," if you ignore antelope - we saw dozens - and deduct the, uh, population hubs of Hines and Burns - 60 miles north of Frenchglen - you have 2,885 people spread over a county that's larger than eight U.S. states. That's about 3.6 square miles for each person.

Frenchglen, home to about 12 people, has a mercantile that's rarely open, a walk-up cafe open even less, the hotel and a school (K-through-8, two teachers, 30 students). But, then, you don't need police on site at the school, the biggest safety threat being hunters tracking deer on school grounds.

It's rare to see anything - people, cars, ranches, barns or cattle - as you drive the roads. Anything but the natural world, which falls away from you and rises above you like a geologist's dreamscape.

Which is wonderful for a sense of wanderlust, but not ideal when you've just blown a tire midway between nowhere and really nowhere. It happened Saturday about 2:30 p.m. on a gravel road as we were headed north, halfway up the far side of the Alvord Desert.

The challenge wasn't how to continue; we had a spare, though one of those cheap doughnuts. The challenge was getting to a Les Schwab in Burns, 85 miles away, by their 5 p.m. closing time on a tire that's not recommended to be driven faster than 50 mph or more than about 50 miles.

Should we have a second blowout, we're looking at hanging in the shade-less desert probably until Monday morning, when someone could get into Burns and get a tire repaired - providing that the vultures hadn't picked us clean by then.

But we limped into Schwab at 4:50 p.m., having ordered four new tires over the phone once we got cell coverage 25 miles out, and were back in Frenchglen in time for the nightly 6:30 p.m. dinner - steak, potatoes, salad and apple crisp.

It was an eclectic group, a dozen birders from the Audubon Society of Portland, retirees from Bend, two macho motorcyclists and a couple that seemingly mistook the eight-room Frenchglen Hotel for The Love Boat.

Afterward, those well- lathered in bug spray sat outside; others gathered on the screened porch.

We talked. Sipped drinks. Read books, most of which had at least one mosquito smashed on the back cover. And watched a couple of birders track turkey vultures with binoculars, while a lone set of headlights wound its way down the mountain beyond.

Some would say there's a whole lot of nothing out here in Steens country. Others a whole lot of something, as long as you take time to look. And listen. And smell.

As darkness descended on our final night, I was comfortably in the latter camp, for reasons as grandly complex as a 10,000-foot mountain and gloriously simple as Ross stepping onto the porch and flipping the hotel's "Open" sign to "Closed."

"Would the last person up," he said, "please turn off the lights?"

Bob Welch is 338-2354 and bob.welch@registerguard.com.

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Title Annotation:City/Region Columnist
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 3, 2008
Words:1240
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