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Exposed

Reflections from the Oregon High Desert

Jim Helmich

October 11, 2023

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“The last person I saw was two days ago and 210 miles away at the last gas station. What am I doing out here in the middle of nowhere? There’s nothing out here and there’s lots of it. It’s 105 degrees and my rig is stuck in fine volcanic silt. Think: talcum powder but finer, deeper and sticks to EVERYTHING. I broke the bead on my tire, and my pry bar has managed to dent the rim preventing me from getting a good seal. I aired down my tires way too far. The engine has overheated, the air compressor won’t hold pressure and the rear locker won’t engage. I have everything I need but nothing works. The dust and sweat on my face have formed a perfect clay that drips down my neck. It’s almost laughable; I know how to extricate myself from this predicament, but I’ve decided to sit under this lone juniper tree watching free range cattle on the playa wilt under the desert sun. The slight breeze is incredible. It’s always hard to tell people what this is like when you haven’t been here yourself…and that’s why I love this. This is my experience.” -Journal Entry, Summer 2020


I had spent the last three days traversing remote high desert in Oregon. It’s not hard to find solitude out there. Old mining camps and remote settlements from a bygone era provide a sense of belonging and a feeling of esprit-de-corps with those who travelled out there long before modernity set in. It’s hard, unforgiving country. An oversight in preparation can result in epic stories of survival, mayhem, and good old-fashioned hardship. If you don’t curse now, you will soon. If you find yourself wondering if you’ve gone too far down an old wagon trail, you’re probably lost and in over your head. Yet despite the exposure, there is a profound sense of adventure; the kind of thing where your surroundings are desperate and unmistakable, but somehow, you’ve fallen in love with the experience. The land lures you in and you find yourself deep down the rabbit hole contemplating your life and the surrounding terrain.

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Some called it obsessive; I called it necessary.

It is often said the way to navigate adversity is to lean into it. Ernest Shackelton said it best: “difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” In late summer 2020, I was not a beacon of courage and altruism. I found myself in the middle of a seismic shift, a personal crisis that would redefine the rest of my life. My mother said it best: my get up and go got up and went. I was like the twisted, gnarled juniper tree baking in the desert heat, alive but in desperate circumstances. Coming to terms with my new reality was best contemplated while driving endless miles across the desert with plumes of volcanic ash trailing behind. Scouting potential campsites, searching out vistas, and hiking remote calderas became a ritual. In that first year of the second half of my life, I spent 170 nights sleeping on the ground or in the back of my offroad SUV. No car fridge, no rooftop tent - nothing overly exotic. I put 36,000 miles on my rig that year; 28,500 of those miles were on dirt, harsh volcanic debris, and endless miles of corrugated forest road. Some called it obsessive; I called it necessary.

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Living in a mountain town nestled between ancient volcanoes and the high desert, I was desperate to escape the moment and contemplate life through wilderness travel. I could head out at a moment’s notice after work and on weekends. During that summer, I had an insatiable urge to escape the usual, customary, and mundane aspects of life. Conventional wisdom was my nemesis. I harkened back to an earlier period in my life where I spent a lot of time in the mountains climbing peaks in the US, Canada, and Europe. I embraced the dirtbag lifestyle back in the day, but in the years following found new purpose in raising a family and establishing a career. A lifetime later, I had transitioned into a new phase of life. I reclaimed my former glory and hit the desert overland tracks of Oregon.

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During that summer, I was a solo traveler – generally not recommended – but it fit the ethos of my life. To do it right, solo travel like this requires a mind-numbing effort of preparation and the right frame of mind. The barrier to entry involves learning from other overland enthusiasts, along with a reasonable knowledge of mechanical field repair and a personal discipline of safety and environmental awareness. I have found most of my inspiration from our overlanding friends in Australia and South Africa. They’ve been doing this a lot longer and can impart practical wisdom that provides context and perspective amidst the massive wave of innovation sweeping the overland lifestyle in the US. Ironically, the best piece of advice I got was don’t wait for the perfect rig or gear. If you have a car or truck that can travel on dirt, you can probably find an area suitable for your overland adventure.

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I have often been asked why I like travelling through the high desert. People tell me it’s a desolate country, devoid of life and color. Most, it seems, prefer mountainous landscapes where jagged peaks rise, and green forests meet the valley floor. Finding a mountain summit or vista of alpine crags satiates the hunger for easy inspiration. The desert, in contrast, makes you work for that inspiration. It’s a land of extremes where frigid nights are juxtaposed against the brutal heat of the day. It requires a certain fortitude, a willingness to discover what the landscape is telling you. It is the inauspicious journey through a fierce and barren landscape where we are given the opportunity to abandon our need for control and evaluate the delicate balance between emptiness and insight. The easy answer to the question of why is because of the solitude, the unobstructed views, and endless miles of ancient raw land. The deeper answer is because it represents soul time. It is the opportunity to gain wisdom from an experience where the destination may be unknown, the risks are palpable, and the still small voice inside you makes the path forward unmistakably lucid.

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The years following that pivot point in my life have been met with different forms of hardship countered by many moments of hope and joy. I am a changed man but very much the same young kid who used to explore the dense woods behind my house in the Rocky Mountains. Life changes you, sometimes suddenly and sometimes like the slow measure of geologic time. My time behind the wheel, hiking remote buttes, and watching the landscape unfold has been the great equalizer in my life. The solace experienced in these wild places is sacred. If you approach it responsibly with humility, patience, and intention, you will find something truly special.


“I feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, desert-colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself through the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape…” -Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey


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