I signed up for a hiking group camp-out at Bruneau Dunes. I’ve visited several times but never camped there so that sounded interesting. And I’ve never visited the observatory, which is on the itinerary, which also seemed interesting. And I don’t know any of the people so figured that could be interesting as well. Here goes nothing.
The military practice area south of the Boise airport is more active today than other times I’ve used its maze of dirt and gravel roads to avoid interstate. Groups of tanks are being readied here and there by helmeted soldiers, like chicks around their mother hens.
I wave as one rolls past on the road, the metal chatter of its tracks audible over earplugs and music in my helmet.
I hoped to find a continuing, unpaved route across the gap between the Mountain Home Air Force Base and the Snake River. It seems to be working.
It is not exactly scenic but speeding along the rutted and rocky dirt tracks is like a fun video game, quickly dodging oncoming aggressors to avoid destruction.
I detour to follow a spur road a couple hundred yards to overlook the Snake River where it enters C.J. Strike Reservoir. The sun is low and glinting brightly off the choppy water.
A boulder strewn and grass covered bar extends from below the cliff out to the water’s edge. The dark, desk-sized stones are in several places along the Snake River adorned with petroglyphs, the photo blogs of ancient people.
I stand a moment at the cliff’s edge, sharing stillness with the lichen at my feet and all I see in every direction.
Looking round, I notice two upturned, rusting car bodies at the base of the cliff, like insects crushed under the foot of time.
I return from the cliff’s edge to the main two-track where I resume a rapid pace until sighting another discarded vehicle, a newer SUV, I think, alongside a Jeep trail descending into the canyon.
I departed with plenty of daylight to indulge this kind of exploration, which I quite enjoy, and perhaps to find new places for Brenna and I to camp.
I stand on the pegs to weave between loose rocks lit sharply by the spring sun as I descend to another boulder strewn, grassy bar along the water.
Lumps of rock squatting haphazardly on what seems a green lawn gives me a sense of whimsy and I smile to think of the little adventures Brenna and I might have here.
The reason the grass is low and green is soon revealed by ash and charring. The tall dry grass usually here was burned last July in the “Five Cent” fire.¹
I find several campsites and fishing spots at the water’s edge while riding pell-mell among nature’s yard gnomes. I’m excited to revisit.
I think I’ve seen as much as I can without camping so I climb back out of the canyon to the powerline dirt road and resume my rush to Highway 51 which will take me south over the Snake River to the campground at Bruneau Dunes State Park.
Before reaching the river, I come upon a tangle of poles and canvas lying in my lane and a car pulled off the road ahead. When I stop to see if I can help, the driver asks if I would continue ahead to find her friend in an RV.
“Sure,” I answer, almost too eager for an excuse to speed.
It doesn’t take much speeding, though. The RV is pulled off only a mile farther. I come alongside and explain that she apparently lost something and her friend is back a ways getting it off the highway.
Further help is declined so I resume speeding the last few miles to the park.
I am surprised how many people are setting up in the Wagon Wheel campground this early in the year. It’s a busy place. I can’t tell which might be part of the hiking group so I set up my tent and take off on my own for some exploring.
I walk to the observatory and linger outside for the next showing of a NASA video presentation to be followed by a chance to look through the big telescope. A few people come and go and eventually one seems familiar.
“Are you Kari … with the Meetup group?,” I ask.
Remembering names isn’t my forte so I tried to compensate by going over names and faces ahead of time.
“Yes, I am,” she says.
I must have accidentally pulled on a breast pocket instead of vent zipper while riding sometime today. The pocket is open and the cash I had is gone so I’m not able to cover telescope admission. Instead, I wander around by myself and shoot a few twilight photos.
Lights at the Wagon Wheel campground are red to avoid light pollution that would interfere with the observatory.
I moved the picnic table so I could have covered parking at my campsite (the forecast has possible rain) but it doesn’t solve the no-firewood issue. I guess that means I need to find the rest of the group and hope they have a campfire to share.
I think I saw the RV that had the highway equipment problem pull into the campground earlier. I can at least start there and say “hello,” let them see me without a helmet. I find them along the next access road over with a few others encircling a fire. It turns out it’s my group!
The stars really are brilliant out here. We while away the night, laughing around the fire, as the ladies sharing the RV, Heather and Natalie, regale us with folk and protest songs they strum and sing together. It’s kind of magical.
Temperatures were freezing overnight and morning is still cold. A hot shower is a rare camping luxury that I’m happy to indulge.
Only about half the hiking group chose the camping option. The rest arrive as bright sun is just beginning to warm the day. We all meet in a parking lot near the observatory and begin a little hike that will take us out, back, then over the dune.
Having done this a few times, I came ready to remove my sandals and clip them to my utility belt (think Batman — or photography) to hike barefoot. I like the way it feels.
By the time we reach the sand ridge, we’ve shed morning jackets and worked up a sweat. That climb is always harder than it looks.
We regroup at the observatory, completing our loop, where we find shade at picnic tables to sit together eating lunches we packed. Those who came just for the day depart afterwards while the rest of us return to the campground for another evening of libations and laughter around the communal fire.
Sunday morning is no warmer than yesterday. I briefly join some in the RV to warm up a little before packing things back on the motorcycle.
Rather than retracing the dirt track south of the Air Force Base, I take the highway through the small cow towns of Bruneau and Grand View as far as Cinder Cone Butte.
At the Butte I leave the highway to cut back across the practice range. I’m sure it’s slower than jumping on Interstate 84 but it feels faster (and safer) and I’m curious to see if the tank teams are still crawling around.
The practice range is largely deserted so I ride top speed down its long gravel stretches toward home, the past ahead of me and the future behind.