Some people drive hours to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and watch a sunrise peek through an impossible arch. Others carve out their schedules months ahead to try and capture the right conditions, in the right place, at the right time. While I certainly do my research and try to plan ahead, my favorite photos have always come from more impromptu circumstances — like screeching to a halt on a dirt road somewhere and rolling down my window to take a shot. Often, in places that most wouldn’t consider making a trip to. The boring parts of the map, if you will.
Granted, the wild and wonderful Owhyee Canyonlands is not such a place. Located in eastern Oregon, it is “considered one of the largest expanses of undeveloped land in the lower 48 states,” according to the state’s tourism agency, and, with good reason, sees its fair share of visitors seeking to play in this remote vastness.
That being said, it’s not a renowned locale like the Canyonlands of Utah or even the nearby Alvord desert. It’s not really a place to get Instagram envy points. For some, it doesn’t have that much appeal compared to the plethora of other outdoor opportunities out west. Not many people would say, Let’s go to the middle of nowhere for the weekend and spend some time with the cows in the dusty hills of eastern Oregon.
But that sounded like just what I needed. So I put a few pins in Google Maps. I hit the highway and stocked up on fuel and food. I aired down my tires upon the first sight of gravel, and — my trusty adventure partner Cleo eager to explore — disappeared into the hills for five days.
The first feeling I had was one sorely needed after a long winter. Spring had only just officially begun the same week, and the grasses were either still just burgeoning — those not nipped in the bud by the chomping mouths of bovines — or dull brown remnants of seasons past. But the feeling of renewal, of rejuvenation, hung vividly in the air from the moment my cell service stopped working.
It smelled like spring, sounded like spring, felt like spring. The land was waking back up. The first night, I closed my eyes to the yipping of coyotes, the mooing of cows, the warbling of songbirds, and the honking of geese, all contributing to the same symphony. The temperatures stayed far above freezing, and there was no chill in the early morning air. It was the perfect time to get lost.
As I soon discovered, it was easy to do so. The two-track roads that crisscross this vast terrain — branching off from the main arteries — are myriad. In relatively dry conditions, any old farm truck could run these roads without a second thought. I suspect they regularly do, to check the fences or the water reservoirs. You don’t need four-wheel drive or high clearance to access most of them, even if many are fading from neglect and could hardly be called roads at all (although Google Maps will cheerfully guide you down them without a second’s hesitation).
What you do need, however, is willingness. The willingness to spend hours ambling up and down the hills, in search of sweeping vistas and unique compositions, through muddy ruts and over cattle guards. The willingness to not count your day’s achievement by miles covered or landmarks checked off a list, but by times that you sat in silence, surrounded by emptiness, or the times you contemplated whether to go left or right, your decision swayed only by the location of the sun in the sky and the hunger in your soul for more.
The willingness to not go chasing the “perfect shot” or the right conditions, in the right place, at the right time. The willingness to just exist, and be content with where you are. And in my experience, if you play it right, you’ll find that the photography side of your adventure turns out more fruitful, regardless of how many shots end up in your portfolio or on your Instagram.
Of course, you could experience the Canyonlands like most visitors do — whizzing on by the majority of the terrain on side-by-sides or ATVs, only stopping occasionally at some scenic point to appreciate the surroundings. Skipping over the boring parts, if you will.
But I like the boring parts.
And in a truck that weighs six thousand pounds, with the original stock suspension nearing two decades of wear, you have no choice but to become closely acquainted with the terrain that you are traversing — boring or otherwise — and consequently develop another level of appreciation for it.
I felt every rock under my tires, every muddy rut that squelched and threatened to suck me in as I accelerated through them. I heard the water in the jerry can behind my seat slosh back and forth every time the truck tipped and tilted (and by the end of the trip, the water in my cooler as well). I had the time to make eye contact with every curious cow that watched me trundle on by, mooing at them much to Cleo’s consternation.
I couldn’t help smiling.
Evenings would find me sitting on the tailgate or perched high up on some rocks, watching hawks hover and the shadows lengthen. The dog roaming about or, more poignantly, sitting by my side, gazing off into the hills with me. Weary from being out in the elements all day, both of us dusty and a little stinky, we’d sit there together, waiting for the sun to pierce through the cloud cover and illuminate the land in vivid hues of gold and brown.
When it did — and no matter the weather, it always seemed to shine uninterrupted for a brief moment — it was a moment of pure ecstasy.
The sweeping landscapes that were originally rendered without sharp distinction in the muted light seemed to come alive in dramatic fashion. Rock formations stood out, gleaming golden, caught in the last light. Lines and textures and shapes caught the eye wherever I looked, leaving me giddy like a little kid in a candy shop.
So here’s to the boring parts of the map. It may be hard to describe later to your friends what exactly was so enchanting about some hills, some big rocks, and a lot of nothingness. The “perfect shot” is never guaranteed.
It’s worth it, though. It always is.