The Alvord Desert

After leaving the Steens Mountain high country, I spent a night at the South Steens Campground — where uncouth visitors in need of firewood were hacking down large tree limbs within the campground proper — and then proceeded on to the Alvord Desert. My stay at South Steens was unremarkable. There’s a reportedly amazing trail that ascends Big Indian Gorge, but the amazing part demands an overnight backpacking trip that I couldn’t squeeze in. The first three miles or so that I hiked out and back are rather pretty in their own right, though.

The Alvord Desert was more my cup of tea. It’s a large, desolate, beautiful playa that sits at the eastern base of Steens Mountain. This time of year it’s dry enough to drive across, and I even saw a handful of little sail-powered cars zipping along the windy flats. I spent a few days out there exploring, including some long walks to nowhere and also a scramble up Tule Springs Rim, just to the east of the playa.

Here are some pictures of the playa. Since then I’ve driven across Nevada and Utah. I’m writing this from Colorado, where I’m retrieving stored personal belongings in anticipation of resuming a normal life with a roof over my head.


Letters from the road: The scene in Hood River

Hey Duncan! Greetings from Hood River, Oregon. I started drawing this in a coffee shop, but left when it was invaded by a skater kids. Now I’m parked on a patch of gravel near an I-84 on-ramp, and it’s way more peaceful.

I just moved. Now I’m at a nearby county park overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. When I finished writing that last paragraph I realized that I could probably do even better than a gravel patch near an interstate. I’m sitting at an oak-shaded picnic table overlooking a beautiful river … near an interstate.

Today I woke up near the east fork of the Hood River, hiked up to a place called Lookout Mountain, and then hiked another trail out to the tricky-to-spell Tamanawas Falls. It was a pretty good day.

The night before last I camped up on a Forest Service road near treeline on Mount Hood. When I woke up there yesterday I met two vegans, one of whom explained the outcome of the Vietnam War as a result of our adversaries’ ability to subsist on rice alone. He also explained that you can eat moldy rice. I am skeptical.

This is a bonus comic that I sent to Duncan. He’s a friend, so I figured he would forgive the hastily made drawings. Click to embiggen.

This is a collage from the reverse side of one of the pages in Duncan’s letter. Click to embiggen.

Letters from the road: An encounter with Bigfoot

Hey Aimee! You can see here (above, in the squiggly letter “E” in the word “maybe”) where my dog Skillet jumped off the picnic table. It’s getting late in the afternoon, and these days the sun sets early. At the outset of my travels this year I could look forward to early morning sunrises and lingering sunsets that hung in the sky until eleven p.m., but now the sun is going down without much fanfare and the equinox is almost here.

I’m camped on the banks of the Hood River in Oregon, and across the river to my west is a forested ridge that’s going to be hiding the sun in maybe half an hour. When I hold my hand at arm’s length I can fit two fingers between the ridgeline and the sun. Somewhere along the way I learned that each finger is worth fifteen minutes of daylight.

I have a couple friends who have done work processing employee injury claims, and I’m guessing that somewhere along the way they learned to value fingers not in minutes, but in multi-thousand dollar increments.

Full disclosure here — after I finished this letter, I realized I’d inadvertently ripped off the “warm heart, make you think” line from the book “Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir” by Graham Roumieu. Sincere apologies.

Hey Aimee, it’s Mike again. I’m writing this with the pen held between my teeth. You see, Bigfoot ripped both my arms off. He only let me live because I promised to plug his new T.V. sitcom, Sheriff Bigfoot, premiering this fall on CBS. Here are some clips.

I’ve never seen the sitcom, so I had to imagine what it might look like. Halfway through drawing the third clip I realized that the “avenge my death” line is also in the first season Bigfoot episode of The Simpsons, but I was in too deep to back out. Anyway, Bigfoot is gone now, and I’m going to seek medical attention. Thanks for your time!


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Reverse side of the page. Click to embiggen.

Letters from the road: The Government Camp dispatch

Hey Zak — Greetings from Oregon. This is the story of my trip up to the ski cabin in Government Camp, Oregon, a little town that sits at about 4,000 feet above sea level on the side of Mount Hood. “Govy Camp”, as the slang-slingin’ ski and snowboard set likes to call it, is maybe an hour outside of Portland. I went to college in Portland, and my alma mater has a ski cabin in Govt. Camp that’s open to alumni. The schools’ outing club built it in the late forties … it sees a lot of use during the winter months, but it’s reliably quiet during the summer months. I had the place almost entirely to myself for a few days. It’s a good place to sit and think and return to at night after a day of hiking in the Mount Hood Wilderness.

The full page. Click to embiggen.

Collage from reverse side of page. Click to embiggen.

Steens Mountain: Yow

After visiting Frenchglen, I drove the Steens Loop Road up to the high, high county. I spent a few days up there. Of all the places I’ve visited this year, this is one of my favorites.

Aspen trees along the two-track leading up to my first night’s campsite.

The Kiger Gorge, too big to fit into one photograph. A guy I met up there told me that his fighter pilot nephew would do inverted fly-throughs of the gorge on training flights.

Looking north from the east rim of the mountain.

Sunrise on the summit.

Wildhorse Lake from the summit.

Wildhorse Lake from the shore.

After leaving Steens, I drove south along the Catlow Rim and then hooked north toward the Alvord Desert, where I’m writing this today. Lots of good pictures from the playa yet to come, but that’s enough for now.

Letters from the road: San Francisco and Portland

Mike: Tamara, where are we?

Tamara: Where are we?

Mike: Yeah.

Tamara: Uh, we’re in Dolores Park in San Francisco.

Mike: What’s it like here?

Tamara: There are less hipsters and people selling pot brownies than usual. I think because of [the nearby music festival] Outsidelands.

Mike: Here comes Flink … that’s a question.

Tamara: That’s a question?

Flink: [Suggesting an interview question] Dear diary, what’s your fucking deal?

Tamara: Did Mike ask you really probing questions? Like “where are we”?

Flink: He asked “is everything okay”, which I answered somewhat peevishly.

Mike: I’m sorry, these are hard to do and the pace of the interview is really slow.

Flink: I doooooon’t knooooooow — No, don’t write that for God’s sake.

Mike: Tamara, we saw a goat and a camera crew earlier. Can you describe some cinematography that you thought was especially moving?

Flink: Man, some of these guys are really good at throwing frisbees.

Tamara: That’s a really bad segue. I watched this short documentary in China [wherein a guy wanted to explode a really big rock for the sake of art and the final explosion shot was really cool. He had to find the right rock and bribe local officials.]

Flink: I can safely say I would watch the fuck out of that.

Tamara: When we walked in, we didn’t realize it was 45 minutes long, and the story leading up to it got kind of boring. But the explosion was good … Now I want to watch this documentary about the goat.

Hello, Portland! It’s about 6:30 pm at the Stumptown Coffee on Division St. in Southeast Portland. The Dolores Park interview is from August 12th. Today I went for a hike in the Mount Hood Wilderness with Tamara; she flew up here from San Francisco for the weekend.

I went to school here in Portland, at Reed College, and lived in Southeast Portland for four years after I graduated. In a lot of ways, Portland still feels like home. The summer after my sophomore year I spent a lot of time in the Mount Hood Widerness, and it was nice to revisit an old trail that I still sort of remembered. We hiked up to Burnt Lake from the south trailhead.

Portland is a nice city. And I’ve tried to settle in my home state of Iowa as an adult, but it’s never quite worked out right for me. So I think I’ll spend some more time traveling this month, then settle here in Portland, again. The trick to living here is not to be bothered by skinny guys with ridiculous mustaches. For years and years I wished Civil War-era facial hair would make a comeback — be careful what you wish for, I guess.

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Collage from reverse side of page. Click to embiggen.

Letters from the road: Tom’s wedding

Good morning Carina! Last night was wedding night for Tom and Maria. This morning was clean-up morning, but as the old saying goes: Many hands make light work. All the tables under the big tent were cleared in about twenty minutes. With tablecloths pulled and garbage off the ground.

I took the dogs for a little walk after breakfast. That was when I found this pocketknife in a field. All morning long I’ve been asking people if they know anyone who lost a pocketknife. People keep saying no. I may own a slick new knife!

And now it’s Monday the 27th.

I kept asking around. I couldn’t find the rightful owner. I kept the knife.

I’m house-sitting for Tom. He’s out in Hood River with his new bride.

Weddings are kind of hard for me. For a variety of reasons that aren’t worth getting into here. I spent a fair amount of time after the actual ceremony just wandering around the farm, avoiding people. Then I shook it off and joined the end of the line for dinner, and getting food made me feel better. And I wound up staying awake until two a.m. dancing and socializing.

Socializing is another thing that’s hard for me, for reasons that I can’t get in to here because I don’t know what they are.

Being bad at weddings and being bad at socializing means that I overcame a synergistic life skills hurdle this weekend … I’m totally putting that on my résumé.

I feel fortunate to have good friends. I don’t do well with the typical “oh hello tell me in three minutes about the last six years since I’ve seen you” wedding chatter. I sucked it up and had a few of those conversations, but I also had some good conversations about the heavy things in life. You never really figure life out with these conversations, but for me at least it goes a long way toward making me more comfortable with not having it figured out.

#1. Bow and Arrow. Mr. Bow and Ms. Arrow joined forces to kill. In a rugged land of prehistoric bloodshed and survival it was at first a marriage of convenience. But soon they grew to love each other. Together they slew millions of men and beasts, but always returned home together to keep things spicy. Their offspring include the better known couple Guns and Ammo.

#2. Pencil and Paper. Although Pencil and Paper seem to be worlds apart from that other noteworthy power couple, Bow and Arrow, it was actually Bow and Arrow’s bloody pairing that made Pencil and Paper’s more cerebral coupling possible. Creating a stable society through the use of deadly force allowed for the creation of a noble class of philosopher kings whose important work paved the way for this steamy office romance.

#3. Pie and Ice Cream. The most delicious pairing of the bunch also has the saddest story. When Ice Cream began melting on Pie, these star-crossed lovers were eaten alive on their wedding day.

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Collage from reverse side of page. Click to embiggen. 

Letters from the road: Putting a bird on it

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Hello Carina! Greetings from the humble metropolis of Salem, Oregon. I assume this town is named after the city in Massachusetts or the brand-name cigarette or the Israeli extreme metal band and definitely not the Salem witch trials.

I stopped in Salem because I somehow managed to lose almost my entire supply of felt-tip pens. And so now I am sitting pen-rich in a downtown Starbucks.

The non-Starbucks coffee shop I found was out of business. I don’t know where the cool kids in Salem hang out, which is just as well because I’m thirty-two years old and about as cool as a pair of argyle socks.

The radio station they’re playing here seems calculated to make me feel as old as possible. My friend Tom gets married tomorrow on a farm north of here and south of Portland, and that also makes me feel old. But what really makes me feel old is complaining about stuff, so in a way all this bitching is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thankfully, driving around avoiding reality makes me feel not old.

Salem is a sleepy little town whose economy appears to be based on antique shops and road construction.

Hello again, Carina! This time it’s greetings from beautiful Portland, Oregon. Per the local city ordinance I have included a picture of a bird in this artwork; please find it below. Today I woke up and ate a waffle.

I am in town for Tom’s wedding, and this morning I met up with my friends Reid and Megan, who are in town for another person’s bachelor party. They brought their new baby, so I expect things at the party will be pretty tame.

It used to be that weddings were a good place to, you know, I guess what I’m trying to say is that most folks at the weddings I attend these days are already married or coupled up themselves, and my “date” for the shindig is a pair of dogs. Also, it doesn’t help that I have no house and live in a van, which almost necessarily entails a concomitant decline in daily hygienic standards.

I think I recall a recent Cosmo magazine poll on what women want, and “infrequent showerer” was second from last, barely edging out “man who lives in vehicle”. But that’s Cosmo readers, and this is Portland. I’m seeing a lot of grungy clothes and unwashed hair this morning, and suddenly the odds look good.

Letters from the road: Frugal alternatives to a Syncro Vanagon

Hey Mark! Greetings from California. I’m up in the mountains at Castle Crags State Park in Northern California, just south of Mount Shasta, sitting next to the Sacramento River. A Union Pacific Train just passed by on the opposite side of the river, and now that it’s gone you can hear the traffic on Interstate 5. Beyond I-5 is the rest of the park, including the campground where I spent last night and the actual crags for which the park is named.

I took some artistic liberties with the drawing above — I didn’t actually drive to the top of the crags, although I did hike up to a viewpoint. The helpful sign at the viewpoint informed me that Castle Crags is a rock formation known as a granitic pluton, although I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that information. I’m pretty cynical, so I assume that some granitic pluton awareness council placed the sign in hopes that it wool encourage me to buy granitic pluton futures or invest in a granitic-pluton-based hedge fund.

Ever since the pig attack earlier this summer I’ve had some impressive scars on my legs. Unfortunately, they are like magnets for crazy people. Yesterday in Redding a weird guy on a bridge started talking to me, and when he found out that my pig attack happened on the same day that he chose to leave his apartment and all his belongings behind, he started acting like we shared this great kinship and launched into a tirade about his former neighbor who smashed his window in, and how the cops didn’t believe that his neighbor did it, and in fact they thought that he had smashed his own window in, which proved that his neighbor was a cop. Fortunately, I’ve learned that it’s easy to disengage from a guy on a meth rant with the six simple words “I have to go now, goodbye”.

Later on, at my campsite, a weird but harmless dude who’d ridden his bike here from Florida talked about his plans to end his trip by climbing Mt. Shasta, which is not really advisable, at least not if you’ve never climbed a mountain before and plan on doing it alone and don’t know that having snow on a mountain makes it easier to climb.


Hey Mark — While driving this summer I’ve had a lot of time to think about what works well with the Vanagon — both mine in particular and the model in general — and what doesn’t. And I’m pretty happy with mine. Even though it’s only two-wheel drive, I haven’t had any problems getting around. But still, a Syncro would be nice. The problem is, everyone else feels the same way.

So I took the liberty of designing some budget-conscious alternatives. Do you think Rocky Mountain Westy might want to offer these conversions to customers? If so, I’m willing to license any of these designs for a modest fee (payable in either cash or sandwiches, depending on my financial situation).

The first design is the easiest to implement, but would require you to partner with an equine specialist. My advice is to beware of anyone who thinks it’s okay to give an animal a name with six or more syllables.

The second design is a little trickier, and plus it looks like the kind of thing someone on the Internet has already probably done.

But the third design — this is where the Vanagon aftermarket is definitely heading. Practical, but plenty of character. A V-8 diesel 4×4 powertrain for less than the cost of a barely running Syncro Westy. Better (i.e., non-zero) towing capacity. And cup holders that came built in from the factory.

Sure, the idea seems like Volkswagen heresy now, but give the world time. Pretty soon we’ll all be wondering how we ever lived without it.

Excerpt from collage on back of letter.

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