10 Things Learned On The Oregon Desert Trail

By Whitney La Ruffa

From September 1st to September 30th this year I thru-hiked the Oregon Desert Trail, a 750-mile route created by the Oregon Natural Desert Association which highlights the wild desert of my home state. The route is roughly 9% trail, 35% cross-country, and 51% unpaved/dirt roads, and in my entire hiking career it was one of the hardest hikes I have ever done mile per mile, yet one of the most rewarding. Traveling along this route one enters into the lowest population density in the lower 48, making it a truly wild and unique experience.

Here are 10 things I learned while hiking the Oregon Desert Trail:

1. Any water is good water

The water along the ODT left much to be desired, from slime-covered cattle troughs, cow pooh water tanks, to green water from a reservoir to the alkali water in Hart mountain that gave me the runs; one could say the water was more a necessity than a treat. However, when the temperature is cresting 96 degrees and there isn’t a lick of shade in sight for over 100 miles, one must savor every single drop of the life-saving water no matter how bad it looks or tastes.

2. Not all blue sponges are created equal

A long-time technique by thru-hikers is to use a blue sponge to clean up at night, however, when only one of the 3 of you remembers to bring one, becoming sponge buddies takes intimacy with hiking partners to a whole new level. Halfway into the trip our friend got us each a new sponge, but they were cheap and all foam. After two days these sponges fell apart and it was all we could use them for to wipe off our daily grime.

3. Keep your feet clean

It might seem like an obvious thing, but never have my feet been as dirty as on the ODT. By spending 5 minutes each night and occasionally during the day to wash off the dirt and grit from my feet, my blisters were minimal, my feet felt great, my sleeping bag stayed much cleaner, and my TR-1 Treks lasted longer too without the grit working from the inside to destroy them.

4. Showers are a luxury

In the 750 miles we hiked, we only enjoyed 2 hot showers. Often when we arrived for a resupply it was late, forcing us to forgo a hotel room and a much-needed shower. While swimming in hot springs helped, the constant 30-mile days in the hot desert had us smelling like hobos. I never realized how much of a luxury a shower was until stepping into a hot shower 400 miles since my last one.

5. Town is a loose definition

When I think of a town on a trail, I envision hotels, Post Offices, supermarkets, and places to dine until my gut is ready to bust. Towns on the ODT were more of a small store that comprised of all these things in one. Lodging comprised of sleeping in a few parking lots because the 2 rooms available there were booked, resupplying from a gas station, and eating some of the saddest looking salads you could imagine. Bonus – this was the cheapest trail I ever hiked, and the people were generally friendly.

6. Walking in sand is worse than walking in swamps

I walked many miles in various sand over the ODT: some were like the sand on a beach, other sand was a fine talcum powder. It made me use muscles I was not accustomed to, made my gait wonky, and forced me to stop often to dump out my shoes. The flipside is the borax salt we had to navigate for miles was way worse, the mud smelled terrible and oozed into my socks, the constant wet feet took a toll on my callouses and each step was like pulling my foot up from wet cement.

7. Good hiking partners makes trip better

I hiked the ODT with two amazing women, Katie “Salty” Gerber and Katie “Swept Away” Pickett. These two made the tough days so much better, by smiling and laughing when the bushwhacks got tough, shrugging and overcoming when we were lost, and never complaining once. We shared snacks, taped each other up when injured, and helped each other overcome the obstacles in stride. Without them I am sure I would of cried at times, especially going up Wildhorse canyon.

8. Pronghorns are fast but not bright

Pronghorn antelope are the fastest animal in the western hemisphere and can run at speeds up to 60mph, see threats from 4 miles away, and jump up to 20″ in the air. With that said, their curiosity makes them sort of dumb. Whenever we saw Pronghorn in the distance looking our way we would pause, raise a hiking pole in the air and shake our handle straps in the wind. The pronghorn would see this and start walking towards us to see what we were – I guess they use the fight, not flight technique.

9. Every Sunday should be a Fun day

Quickly on our trip, we realized we wouldn’t be having the fun associated with a thru-hike, like meeting fellow hikers, long days goofing off in town, or lounging under trees for an afternoon siesta. So, we started Sunday Funday, which meant listening to music on barren road walks, taking funny photos, and other shenanigans we could come up with. These little breaks made the day go quick and gave our minds a much-needed break from the self-induced suffering we were undertaking.

10. Cheat Grass is the worse

Just hearing the word Cheat Grass, gives me shivers down my spine. This grass covers the landscape in the desert. The seed heads pop off as you walk through the expanse fields sticking into your shoes and socks causing sharp needle-like pain and they dig into your feet. The worse part is spending 30 minutes to remove as many as you can just to be inundated by them a few steps later. My TR-1 Treks were so full of them that when I got home and set my old shoes outside, a rain storm started these seeds’ heads to sprout from my shoes.

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