A Long Walk

I’ve always told my children “stupidity usually leads to pain,” or at least inconvenience. It seems we’re never too old to learn things the hard way.

On my latest trip to the high deserts and basin & range region of Oregon and Nevada I chose a different route, which led me through some of the most isolated and starkly beautiful parts of the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge. For two days I didn’t see a single other vehicle or human. There are no towns anywhere in the region, and the night skies are some of darkest in North America. It was fabulous—except for a complication. I turned off the road to park and got “Kermit,” our 1990 Toyota “minnie-winnie” stuck.

With no cell service I had no choice but to walk the approximately 25 miles to the highway. I got up early and, after a pot of coffee and some calories to get me going, hit the road at about 6:30 AM. It was surprisingly warm. The mud puddles hadn’t frozen overnight. As I walked it turned into a perfect day, clear skies and mid-70s. I observed hawks, pronghorn antelope, and piles from the wild horses in the region. A couple of coyotes crossed the road—probably hoping the old man would soon collapse and they could be first at the feast. About half way my stroll I crested at 6700 ft. At least the altimeter application works even when there is no cell phone service.

I reached the highway about 1:00 PM (Not too bad for an older dude, I thought.), a bit sweaty, but otherwise no worse for wear. It seems the folks in the vehicles speeding by at the rate of approximately one every fifteen minutes regarded me as some sort of suspicious homeless creep. (In their defense I might not have stopped for myself either!) Finally an older couple in a newer pickup pulled up. I convinced them to drive me the forty miles to the ranger station. The head ranger told me he’d already been stuck three times this spring, and agreed he needed to check out the road for himself.

On the drive back I learned much about the region from the head ranger, who has been there 21 years. One cool fact: In the last 11 years they have removed over 350 miles of fencing, so now you can ride a horse or walk anywhere without encountering a fence, as it was before ranchers arrived in the 1880s. I learned that only two rangers work year round to manage this 550,000 acre refuge (though they hire some seasonal help). Imagine if this was privately managed. It would be dozens if not hundreds of workers, subcontractors, managers, etc. Don’t tell me private for-profit businesses can always do things cheaper and more efficiently than government. In fact, the refuge’s infrastructure owes its existence to the WPA and the FDR administration’s policies of the 1930s.

As I walked my mind wandered—one of the reasons I’ve always loved to walk. While editing my great grandfather’s memoirs, “The Roving Fitzgeralds,” I thought about what it must have been like before the automobile, when people walked or rode great distances. I’ve read that most wagon trains heading west did well to average 20 miles a day. Now I don’t have to imagine—I know what it was like!

Still, next time I’m down in that area I will be far more likely to stay away from mud puddles! On the other hand, I hope to get in a few longer hikes in the future, while I’m still able. There is much to be said in favor of traveling on foot. Even a bicycle can be too fast to fully appreciate your surroundings.

The Last Chance Ranch, at about 6,200 ft in the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge.

A park building seasonal ranger post. Another legacy of the WPA projects of the 1930s.

It was great to get to this sign. Only five miles to go!

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