Bikepacking 2 sun

State of Denio

Fear, Loathing & Bikepacking in the Desert

Photos and Words BY:
Aaron Theisen

This story was first published in Issue #25, buy your copy today: HERE.

IN TALES of struggle and survival, the wind is often the unnamed accomplice, whispering XYZ and goading the weary traveler to insanity. Ernest Shackleton’s doomed crew in the Antarctic spoke of it, and the westward pioneers even had a term for it: prairie madness.

I’m descending into full-on desert madness as my riding buddies Derrick and Justin and I cross the forlorn border between southern Oregon and northern Nevada at the halfway point in our eight-day bikepacking trip.

We’ve covered perhaps thirty miles on the day, our sights set on Denio Junction, a gas station / bar / motel just south of the Nevada border — the only one on the 360-mile route, and key to our refueling plans for the next four days. But it’s taken longer than planned, and we haven’t considered the time-zone change. It’s 2:45. We call the store to check its hours. It’s stopped serving food, and the store closes at 4:00. It’s six miles away. The wind pins us in place while the sun sucker punches us. We’re pedaling no more than five miles an hour on a flat road. The diner-food daydreaming that has grown increasingly mythical as the days have ticked by has just been crushed.

With camera gear on my back and chest I’m essentially a giant sail, so I suggest that the other two ride ahead so that at least someone gets a foot in the front door before it closes.

“Is there anything you want?” asks

“To be put out of my misery,” I reply.

I watch Derrick and Justin pedal into an obscuring sandstorm as I saw my front wheel through skiffs of wind-drifted sand that sting bare skin and scour my drivetrain.

“Fuck this wind and fuck this place!” I yell. The wind throws my words back in my face before anyone can hear them.

“Is there anything you want?” asks Derrick. “To be put out of my misery,” I reply.

Black white bikepacking thiessen

Theisen bigcountry 11

There aren’t a lot of folks out here to hear my complaints anyway. Over the span of 350 miles, the route dubbed the “Big Country loop” crosses three mountain ranges and millions of acres of uninhabited land on dirt tracks and imperceptible paths through sagebrush and salt pan. Only a handful of hot springs and a single town with services provide respite.

The window for riding the Big Country route is small; riders must wait until enough snow melts in the high country — snow drifts block the summit road on Steens Mountain well into June — but complete the ride before unbearable heat sets in. And spring rainstorms can turn the tracks to impassable, tire- and soul-sucking soup. Because of its remoteness and rugged character, the potential for trip-derailing technical issues and trail conditions is high. I hadn’t thought of the psychological hazards.

We’d begun four days prior in tiny Frenchglen, a small community of roughly a dozen residents in south-central Oregon. Lying on the edge of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge with hundreds of thousands of acres of high desert peppered with ponds, the area is well known to birders. It’s also known as the gateway to Steens Mountain; the largest fault block mountain in the northern Great Basin, it looms some 5,000 vertical feet over the Alvord Desert to the east and is the hub around which our route revolved.

We’d pass the occasionally slow-rolling sedan of birders, who gawked at our loaded bikes.

“Where’d you start?”


“Where are you headed?”


Bikepacking sunset

Bikepacking 2 packs

Creeping along as if the sun wouldn’t see us if we avoided sudden movements, we climbed the stone-flecked shoulder of Steens. Songbirds chirped in the juniper; cattle lolled in the heat. Out here, you can damn near see the curvature of the earth. For long stretches of the route, there’s nowhere to take shelter from the sun, the wind, your own thoughts.

The next day we streaked down Stonehouse Road, our brake pads burning on the steep, loose descent out of the mountains. Nominally a jeep track, Stonehouse was, like most on the route, a road in name only.

Setting up camp by the last tree for 90 miles, we passed around the boxed wine and prepped for our next day: some 50 miles, including a crossing of the dry playa of Alvord Lake, where high desert turns to actual desert.

It was a big itinerary, but our campsite promised a restful night of sleep —until about 1:00am, when gale-force winds began howling out of Stonehouse canyon with the same speed at which we’d descended it. I crowded myself into the corner of the tent to pin it in place as the wind curled its fabric over my face, the gusts threatening to snap my tent poles or my sanity.

After a sleepless night, I was convinced the rising sun would tamp down the winds.

It didn’t.

With the wind having awakened everyone early, we set off shortly after sunrise. Three hours later, we sat soaking in Alvord Hot Springs under the minimal shade of the tin-walled structure drinking beers and putting off the inevitable: Alvord Lake and the Alvord Desert.

Turns out, the middle of nowhere is on the way to everything.

Aaron Theisen

Justin having stuffed his face with ice cream bars out of the hot springs store’s cooler to stall for time, the three of us finally set off across the desert. We crawled across the playa like a fly across a bare light bulb, the white crystalline cracks of the playa matching my salt-starched shirt collar. Two hours later we stood at the crest of aptly named Big Sand Gap, up which we’d heaved our heavily laden bikes through miles of deep sand. On paper it seemed patently insane; in reality, the sheer unreality of the landscape had us giddy.

Bikepacking 2 hotsprings

Sunny bikepacking ride

The next day, we climbed into the little-traveled Trout Creek Mountains along forgotten double-tracks. After reaching the 8,200-foot high point of our route among a tundra-like swell of sagebrush, we dropped into our camp for the night along Trout Creek just as the setting sun lit up the aspen-clad hills above. The aspen grove felt like a totem of good fortune. Those were the last trees we’d see for four days.

I pull into Denio Junction at 3:55 —somehow, miraculously, only minutes after my friends. They greet me with cold drinks and good news: “we got a motel room — the last one available.”

Denio Junction is merely an intersection of two stretches of Nevada blacktop, south of Denio proper (population: 47). But it becomes the crux of our trip. It’s the only place on the trip where no one asks the three of us — sitting in front of the store, punch-drunk (and getting actual drunk), eating grass-fed steaks off a platter made from the box they came in — where we are headed. Perhaps it’s because we’re merely another group of travelers in a land of transients headed to the Carolinas, the Florida coast, the Midwest. Everyone we meet is either taking a shortcut or the long way to their destination. Turns out, the middle of nowhere is on the way to everything.

We’ve raced to beat the locking of the store’s front door, but it turns out the store never really closes. (It doesn’t help that three cyclists out front keep telling curious travelers “Technically it’s closed, but if you go in they’ll still serve you.”) While we lounge in the shade, a refrigerated truck pulls into the parking lot, “Grass-Fed Steaks” printed on the side.

Like kids chasing down the ice cream man, we pepper the driver with questions about the contents of his truck as he steps outside.

“I’m not supposed to separate
boxes, but…”

We’ve raced to beat the locking of the store’s front door, but it turns out the store never really closes.

Bikepacking 2

Two minutes later we are pan-searing steaks on a camp stove in front of the store, thanking the steak salesman profusely for the stroke of good luck he’s delivered in a cardboard box.

“Everything happens for a reason,” says the driver as he climbs back into his rig.

The following morning, we take our time rolling out of Denio Junction, letting our sink-laundered chamois air dry on the motel balcony as we load up on diner bacon.

The man outside the store stretches and strikes up a conversation while we secure our belongings to our bikes.

“You want some acid?”

We exchange glances.

“Yeah. Yeah we do.”

Now a day behind schedule, we pedal 35 miles, a mix of highway and hike-a-bike, to our next camp in Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. The flat, treeless, shadeless dirt campground lacks charm, but its proximity to world-renowned opal mines means it’s packed.

In the bathwater-warm soaking pool of our campground, we strike up a conversation with an old-timer, an opal miner who’s been visiting this spot for 49 years. We tell him the gas-station steak saga and he nods sagely.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he says.

I’m not one for signs and wonders, but his words, which echo those of the driver, strike me. In retrospect, this is probably the natural counterbalance to prairie madness: in a featureless and forbidding landscape, it’s a necessity and a desire to plant mental guy-lines to avoid being swept away.

That evening, with the wind shaking down camps and stirring up squalls of sand, we unfold the foil-wrapped package from our friend in Denio Junction, and near the pile of rubble and rebar we’ve dubbed an “art installation” (actually, a crude grave for a long-dead animal), watch a slowly unfolding sunset pulse from orange to pink to purple. Staring into the sun, tears streaming down my face, I realize: the struggle is all in my mind; my reaction to my surroundings is whatever I choose it to be. The middle of nowhere truly is on the way to everything.

Waking up robbed of sleep but gifted with the secrets of the universe, I resolve to meet the wind head on. Which is perfect, because the wind has the same thing in mind for me.

Bikepacking 2 packs water

Sunset bikepacking

Waking up robbed of sleep but gifted with the secrets of the universe, I
resolve to meet the wind head on. Which is perfect, because the wind
has the same thing in mind for me.

My resolve to place mind over matter eventually flags, although the wind never does. We end up spending the next couple days tucking into sustained headwinds in the sprawling sagebrush expanse of the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge of northern Nevada, a landscape I vow never to set eyes on again. We finally tack north, antsy for the breeze to be at our backs. But the wind changes tactics. Shortly after we descend out of the high-elevation aspen and pine groves, shoals of storm clouds chase me out of the campground hot springs to set up my tent as an early summer storm begins to drop rain, turning to snow throughout the night.

By the time we get back to Frenchglen, saddle-sore and sun-crazed, out of food and water, we are already scheming ways to tweak the route to minimize tedium and maximize payoff. It leads to even bigger questions about the nature of challenges such as this one. Why do we choose to go on adventures? Is there inherent value in challenge, or must there be some payoff? There’s struggle that seems to have some intrinsic value for the novelty, the scenic rewards, the story factor. And there’s struggle that seems utterly pointless when divorced from its surroundings. Why was Big Sand Gap, the uphill struggle against a sand dune, a memorable achievement, when the subsequent 100 miles of gravel grinding through saltbush scrub was not? I suppose Sisyphus was stoked the first time he got to the top of the hill too.

Maybe everything does happen for
a reason, after all.

Except the wind. Fuck the wind.

Maybe everything does happen for a reason, after all.


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