Alvord Desert

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When most people think of Oregon, they think of fog-shrouded evergreens characteristic of the Pacific Northwest.  Before my husband took me there three years ago, I could not even have imagined that the eastern half of the state was actually a high desert, complete with the most desolate looking dried lake bed that turned out to be the campground of my dreams.

It’s not too surprising that not many people know of this place–it is really, really far away from anything.  It is literally the boondocks out there.  And really, there is not much to see there, unless you’re into stargazing.  The main attraction of desert camping is the sky.  It arches from horizon to horizon, the perfect infinite canvas for the show that starts from sunset until sunrise.

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There is something about being in the desert that makes me feel closer to the stars.  The dry and lifeless landscape makes me feel light years away from home.  I’m no longer on a blue planet teeming with water and life; I’m on a rock hurtling into space, getting closer and closer to the stars.

This was Ellie’s first trip to the Alvord and we initiated her with all of our favorite activities.  When the sun goes down and it becomes black outside our ring of campfire, we run full speed into the darkness.  There is nothing to run into but the wind.  I think Ellie and baba broke the land speed record for the stroller.  Then, the three of us would lie down on a blanket and stare at the bowl of stars above us, looking for shooting stars and satellites.  The next morning, we pack up quickly and take a dip in the hot springs.  Pure bliss.  The trip out there is always hard-earned, especially with a toddler in the car, but it’s always worth it.  The vastness of space puts all our problems into perspective and I always recall one of my favorite Carl Sagan passages:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

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Always worth stopping by the Painted Hills on the way to the desert.

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Enjoying the sunset with some dry legs and dry wine.
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That eerie blue light right before sunrise the next morning.

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“Struggling Mom: A Memoir” (Actually we were just having a great time with Ellie playing on my lap and I probably just had dust in my eye when my husband captured this great candid, ha.)

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