The difference between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Oregon Desert Trail, explains Shane Von Schlemp who has walked both, is a lot of "space-out time." He goes on to explain that the famous PCT is well-marked—and increasingly well-trodden—while ODT is, at best, a faint trail that meanders through some of Oregon's most hard-scrabbled and remote reaches.
"It's so new," he says, "you have to be constantly paying attention." He adds, "It's a lot more a thinking man's trail so [as] not to get lost."
Last May, Von Schlemp took his first step along the 800-mile-long trail. It was a day after a two-week-long searing hot temperatures; a rain storm had cooled the desert and the timing was perfect. He was loaded down with a pack as heavy as 40 pounds at some points—and it was his second long-distance trek in four years.
"I came to a point in my life when I needed to do these now instead of 20 years later when I retire," he says, explaining why, in his mid-30s, he took up long distance trekking. In addition to hiking the PCT and ODT, Von Schlemp recently returned to Oregon from a trek in New Zealand and, in April, is scheduled to hike the Continental Divide.
When he first struck out on the PCT in 2010, he had been working in the software industry as an analyst and marketer. Von Schlemp saved up enough vacation time for the six-week adventure and, although he expresses a great deal of respect for Cheryl Strayed, he says that it is actually Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild that he credits with sparking his curiosity in these treks.
"I started to reflect on myself," he explains. "'Man, I haven't had any real adventure like that,'" he says he thought, and then hastens to add, "I didn't want to go out and die, but I did want a sense of adventure."
The first complete thru-hike of the ODT was made during the summer of 2013 by Sage Clegg. It largely traverses over BLM land and patches together remote federal tracts. Unlike the PCT with its well-marked pathways, ODT is what is hikers call a "conceptual hiking route." The trailhead is east of Bend, and yarns southeast for some 200 miles before doglegging just above the California border. In the Owyhee Canyonlands in the state's southeast corner, the route even leaves a dirt trail completely and requires "hikers" to swim along a river. From the desert floor to Steens Mountain, temperatures can fluctuate 100 degrees in a 24-hour span.
Von Schlemp admits that it required a great deal more planning than his walk on the PCT—like heading out days before in a 4x4 Toyota pickup and stashing five-gallon containers of water. But those challenges also intensified rewards.
"I had the whole thing to myself," he says enthusiastically. In addition to hiking the PCT, Von Schlemp also has hiked extensively through the Columbia Gorge, but the barrenness and beauty of Central and Eastern Oregon surprised him. "I feel really naïve that I didn't know this didn't existed," he admits. "You have these great opportunities if you enjoy solitude."
"It is a gem," he exclaims. "You're taking a trip in a time machine to go there."
All told, it took him 34 days, including 24 days without any other human contact.
High Desert Lecture Series: Shane Von Schlemp
7 pm, Wednesday, March 11
Oregon Natural Desert Association, 50 SW Bond St., Ste 4
Free, but pre-register at OregonDesertTrail.eventbrite.com