The Last Week of July
Aug 2 · 7 min read
Leaving the pavement for a week of dirt (Photo by the author)
Every year, for almost all of my life, I have had plans for the last week of July. Nothing gets scheduled during this time. Nothing gets talked about or planned for this time. My wife knows it. My kids know it. My friends know it. My family knows it. The last week of July, I go to the desert.
Once or twice, it was moved to the first week of August. But almost always, the last week of July finds me in a Jeep, driving around some of the most remote land in the western United States. This is one of my favorite weeks of the year and I always look forward to it.
The Desert Run
I call it the Desert Run. Some of the old-timers called it the Rabbit Hunt, although it wasn’t really a hunt. Since the 1970s, my Dad and his friends have been going to the place on the map where Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, and California come close together. I can remember as a little kid when my Dad would come home from the desert sunburned, dirty, and smiling.
He always kept quarters in his shaving kit because his friends would play poker at night. This, along with the fact that there were no kids and no women allowed on this trip, only added to my fascination and intrigue. I couldn’t wait to go to the desert when I was old enough.
Now, my son is old enough to go to the desert with me. My rule for him is he had to be old enough and strong enough to push the clutch in on the Jeep and responsible enough to live on his own: remembering to eat, drink, and not fall off cliffs. I think Brock went for the first time at 13.
Heat and Dust
In case you are new to Earth, the last week of July is always hot. It is usually the hottest week of the year. We do this trip in open-topped Jeeps with no air conditioning. Also, we spend most of the trip on dirt roads, so there is a lot of dust. This is not a trip for the weak-minded or weak-hearted.
The nice part about the last week of July is it rarely rains. My friend Alan says it never rains in the desert, but I have a couple of pictures that prove otherwise. However, he is correct that, usually, we have very nice weather for sleeping outside.
Alan also says the desert, and not Disneyland, is the happiest place on Earth. I tend to agree with him; however, some would think we are crazy.
People either love the desert or hate it. There is no in-between. Some guys come one year and never again. Some, like my dad, have been going for over 50 years. I’m trying to count how many times I’ve been, and it’s probably in the low 20s. You have to be able to have fun when it is hot, dusty, and somebody’s Jeep is broke down. A lot of our time is spent looking for shade, building shade, or leaving the shade. When it is 103 degrees, shade lives matter.
I ran into an old cowboy at the Denio Junction a couple of years ago. He was hot, dusty, and had just turned off his pickup. He ambled over to a chair in the shade and the lady working the bar brought him a beer from inside before he ordered. She said, “Hi so-and-so, time to shade up today?”
Shading up is essential in the desert. It is a daily ritual, one that goes unspoken and unordered for a local.
A hot springs in the middle of nowhere (Photo by the author)
When looking for shade isn’t occupying a desert runner’s thoughts, finding water is next on the list. Generally, the group stays pretty happy if every two days they can get in water and swim/splash around. It sounds counter-intuitive, but hot springs usually structure our trips and provide us camping areas.
I know where there are awesome hot springs in the desert. No, I won’t tell you where they are, but I will show you. However, you have to earn it by donating a week of dirt and heat. I spent time in three awesome hot springs this trip, early in the morning and late in the evening, and I didn’t even get to go to my favorite one.
There is something about sitting in the hot water, getting sunburned, while horse flies sting you. Getting in and out of hot springs, you always have to keep your eyes peeled for rattlesnakes at this time of the year. Despite these things, my body always feels better after a week of hot springs then it does at other times of the year.
Following rigs with no real plan in mind, only time to get there (Photo by the author)
Sometimes, my group of friends and I try to plan this trip. Since I live in Idaho and they come from Oregon, the extent of the planning is usually what intersection of main roads or hot springs we are going to meet at. There is never any real plan, just 12 rigs wandering around wherever they want to go. It is heavenly. No schedule, no time commitments, just fun and friends.
Sometimes, the group will split because somebody wants to go here but others want to go there, and then we meet up later. Sometimes, part of the group goes home early. This year, I was late and had to catch everyone a couple of days in. No matter. If you know the right dirt spot or hot spring, I can find you.
However, there is strength in numbers. Tires go flat, fuel pumps go bad, serpentine belts get shredded. Usually, there is enough equipment, tools, and good mechanics to get rigs over 1000 miles of desert dirt roads. Sometimes it takes us a little longer to get places because somebody’s rig is not running well or somebody had to run to Burns for parts, but almost always you will see between eight and fifteen Jeeps, dirty canvas covering their camping load, with guns in scabbards. They can be found at every gas station in the middle of nowhere, every place that sells ice in the middle of nowhere, and every once in a while, at a place selling cold drinks.
In the desert, most of the people are happy. This year, we had 24 guys and everybody got along pretty well. I can count on one hand where there have been group dynamic problems in my 20 some years of desert running. Dudes tend to get along well and have fun. Again, the people who end up going year after year know this is the greatest week of their year. Why ruin it by bitching about the heat?
Indian petroglyphs out in the desert (Photo by the author)
The desert is my favorite week of the year. My son loves it, too. He didn’t get to go this year and was upset about it. I love that I can give the gift of the desert to my son, just like my dad gave it to me. There are several of us 40 and 50 year-olds who go to the desert because our dads starting taking us. It makes me smile when I see my son sitting in a hot springs with a sunburn. I know, deep inside, that I am a good dad.
My dad is 78 and still goes to the desert. He probably has more past trips under his belt than future trips, but just two nights ago, a skunk came and smelled him while he slept on the ground in his bedroll. He didn’t get sprayed. My dad liked that the skunk came and said hi. Stuff like that appeals to desert runners.
My wife doesn’t get it. She sees how dirty, sunburned, and tired we are when we get home, and rightfully so, just doesn’t understand the fun of it. And in theory, I see her argument.
Another of the reasons my wife doesn’t get the desert (Photo by Keven Workman used with permission)
But there is nothing like sleeping under the stars 100 miles from the nearest guard light. There is nothing like not seeing a traffic light for six days. There is nothing like waking up every day, right as the sun is barely breaking over the horizon, and looking around at 24 really good dudes who are your friends and getting ready to have another great day.
I understand how the cowboys felt, waking up and getting ready for a hard day. I know that we are going to drive 100 miles through heat, dust, and rattlesnakes today, but I’m going to have more fun doing that than sitting at home in my air-conditioned house.
The desert has its very own special beauty and nothing can compare to it. It really is the Happiest Place on Earth, at least for one week in July.