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We Find Jessi Combs Last Track | Unfinished Business #3

The night wasn't quite as cold as the previous had been, but it was still well below freezing when I looked out the tent door to see an amazing glow on the horizon. Whether I liked it or not, I knew I was going to spend at least a few minutes out there as the light started to spread across the Alvord Playa - before hoping I wouldn't be in too much trouble for climbing back into bed to warm up again.

The cold had gotten to everyone overnight, which meant that they were either driven out of their tent early - like Nate @nateshrum - or remained bundled up as long as possible - ahem, Ben @m3bassman and Will @willhaman21. Regardless, by a little after 8:00am, everyone was up and moving about - the first look of the playa in the daylight, with Steens Mountain rising up behind it, understandably exciting for the newcomers.

Ben at some point decided to drive his truck around a bit - not all that fast though, so I'm not sure what he was really up to. Nor was Venice - his travel partner for the trip - as she took off after him rather than being left behind.

Though the Playa will heal itself over winter, this little display didn't go un-admonished . Though, I guess the front brakes are working just fine.

Breakfast was the next order of business and while @mrs.turbodb and I had cereal and granola bars, Nate fired up his stove and put together what looked like a seriously tasty breakfast burrito for the rest of the crew. The three of them would end up cooking most meals together, which is something the groups I'm out with don't generally do, but seemed to work well - at least for the one day they were there! (And is not all that different than how we often do a group breakfast or two, now that I think about it.)

This was also the point where Nate pulled out his drone. This of course caused much ogling - since drones still seem reasonably rare - and if I'm honest, a bit of concern from my point of view. It's not that I don't like drones  - I think they are pretty cool and you can do amazing things with them - but I didn't want a day full of stops to launch the drone, staging of the trucks for the perfect trailing shot, etc. - because we had plenty to keep us busy, and we'd be stopping enough for photos as it was. As it turned out, this wouldn't end up being an issue at all however, because the drone's SD card was MIA.

And with that, we set about the important - and frankly required - task of speeding across the dry lake bed. For anyone who hasn't been, it's hard to describe the surreal experience that racing across the playa provides. You're literally pushing your truck as fast as it'll go - and you can see the ground immediately around you racing by at 80+ mph - but all of the landmarks in the distance appear completely stationary. It is truly a bit disconcerting. And it's also a blast.

We spent a good hour - or more - making our way around and over various parts of the playa; our GPS track looked as though a toddler had been scribbling frantically with a large crayon - no rhyme or reason evident in our movement. But, we were on a mission - one that was ultimately a success. Just a couple months before - August 27th on this very playa - Jessi Combs [wikipedia] [] had arrived to make an attempt at the women's land speed record. The previous record had been set here in 1976 - some 43 years earlier - by Kitty O'Neil. Driving the North American Eagle, Jessi Combs hoped to break that across the same ground. Unfortunately - in a tragic accident, she was unable to stop the jet car as it reached speeds over 550 mph on the playa, and she was killed in the aftermath.

All of our searching was to pay our respects. Eventually, in the south west corner of the playa, we found what we were looking for. Three distinct impressions of Jessi's final runs.

Making one more pass across the playa, we followed the tracks to their end in the north east corner. She'd used as much of the playa as she was able, on each of several runs. We milled around for a bit here at the end - taking in the views and wondering aloud about what had transpired - before eventually continuing on our way.

Now nearing noon, our next destination was surely easier to find. One of the most prominent land features of the playa, Big Sand Gap was formed when - during the Ice Age - this desert’s basin filled with a 30-mile-long lake. When the water finally spilled out, it did so here - at Big Sand Gap - launching a colossal flood that roared down the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the sea. With three additional trucks in tow this time, @mrs.turbodb and I also hoped it also led to redemption from our last trip.

The gap itself was as easy to reach this time as it'd been the last, and with the sun already halfway through it's daily arc, we decided this would be a great place to eat lunch - after all, the view couldn't have been much better. So we pulled out our chairs, made some sandwiches, and relaxed with a view back the way we'd come - Alvord and Steens ever-present in these parts.

Refueled, now was the time to finally air down and then get to it. Playa driving is best with full tires, but we knew from experience that the road east would benefit from a little extra cushion. So, that's what we did.

Well, the initial going was reasonably easy. We expected as much, really - the road through Big Sand Gap looked well enough traveled and in good shape as it exited at the Playa. The interesting bit - we assumed - would be several miles up the road, where we'd previously gotten stuck.

We could tell we were getting close even without looking at the map to see the GPS waypoint we'd dropped. While dry now, much of the plateau had clearly been under a few inches of water for quite some time, saturating the ground and making it a muddy mess during the winter and spring months - and as the mud dried, the ruts from previous attempts at passage were obvious.

But dry, they were nothing to fear.

With Nate and I though, Will was next up on an especially flexy section, where just the right wheel placement got him in tricycle-mode for a moment.

Not to be out-done, Ben decided he'd do the same, perhaps with a little extra flare as he performed his signature wheel turn while his front passenger was in the air. Yep, that's the Ben we all know!

From there it wasn't long before we passed the now-innocuous looking site of our previous excitement; a quick photo not really suggesting that anything dramatic had taken place just six months earlier - water and time quickly filling in any holes we'd left behind.

Beyond that point we knew it would be smooth sailing - I mean even in spring when there was water all around, we'd had no trouble with the rest of the road. So we picked up our speed and had a great time with the few small puddles that were left on the road.

First to hit the puddle get the clean water.

Water is a little dirtier for the second truck.

Brown water, but still good height with a little extra speed!

And with that, we were through the Big Sand Gap road. It wasn't the most eventful or the most beautiful road we'd traveled, but it was a nice one to finally check off, for sure! Plus, it was only the first leg of a 90-mile loop we were making for the day - so we had plenty more ground to cover as we stepped on the gas.

In planning the trip, I'd envisioned us working our way counter-clockwise around the Alvord Desert - east of the playa and west of US-95. However, we quickly discovered - in a throwback to our excursion the previous day - locked gates! Two of them, on roads that traversed less than a quarter mile (if that) of private land surrounded by BLM caused us to re-route nearly 30 miles north on the highway before diving back west onto dirt and towards our next destination - Mickey Basin and Hot Springs.

It was about this time that both Will and Nate were on-and-off the radio about how much fuel they had left. Their last fill-up had been on their trip over from Boise, and they were now running on fumes - their fuel lights illuminated for the last good chunk of miles. So, just as Will noticed his truck starting to sputter, each of them decided it was a good time to show their fuel tanks a little love by emptying a 5-gallon Jerry can into the filler.

Fuel taken care of (or so we thought) - we continued on. The land we were passing through now was primarily sage desert, but that didn't mean we weren't having a good time. We passed perhaps the most beautiful bovine watering hole we'd ever seen, and the wide open lands and reasonable roads meant that we could keep the speeds high - as long as we lengthened the distance between trucks to account for the dust!

Having to make up additional ground due to our re-route, it was just a little after 5:00pm when we arrived at Mickey Hot Springs. The sun not far off the horizon, we'd stopped only a couple of times along the way to take in the sights, and we'd skipped a few places along the way that I suggested as great spots to explore on a future trip.

But there was no way we were skipping Mickey Hot Springs. Only discovered in 1992 when one of the bubbling pools became a 6- to 8-foot geyser, Mickey quickly received national attention as the only natural geyser in Oregon. Each time we've been, the geothermal activity here has been different - sometimes extremely active and other times calm and nearly dried up - all dependent on the season and recent rainfall. This time - in the middle of fall - it was somewhere in between. A few pools bubbled with bursts of water shooting 1-2 feet in the air, but much of the color we've observed in previous visits to the pools was missing this time. Still, the water here averages 180°F, and even the ground we were walking on was warm - so there was no question about whether we were going to test out any of the pools.

We'd spent all but the last few minutes of daylight at Mickey Hot Springs, and it's always nice to be on the Playa for sunset - so with 20 minutes of driving or so to complete our loop, we headed out. I'd say we were about five minutes from our destination when Ben came over the CB to let us know that, "Guys, I've just run out of fuel."

He was driving tailgunner and bringing up the rear, so the rest of us pulled over on the side of the road while he transferred 5 gallons of fuel into his tank - something he should have done earlier when we were already stopped for refueling (ahem, ).

So it was that as we pulled onto the Playa, the sun was already down over the western horizon; the moon just showing itself over Big Sand Gap to the east.

As we drove out to find the perfect spot to camp, the light dusting of clouds in the sky behind us lit up with the last of the evening light. We were soon all out of the trucks, our cameras clicking as the light danced across the sky and our trucks continued to roll along - a 4Lo race into the sunset.

Eventually the clouds ended their cooperation and we wrapped the photoshoot, deciding that the several-hundred feet our trucks had covered "undriven" had put us in the perfect spot to call it an evening.

As dinners got made, so did a campfire - the first I've had on the playa - and it was wonderful! Easily cutting through the brisk night air, we'd all brought plenty of wood and the fire burned strong and bright through the still night for several hours - all of us happy for its warmth and each others company as we discussed the events of the day, and our departure plans for the next.

- - - - -

October 13, 2019.

With clear skies for the first several days of the trip, sunrises had been nice, but limited to that orange-and-pink glow along the horizon. The same could not be said for our final morning, and that was A-OK with me. As I looked out the tent at 6:15am, it was clear that this was going to be a special morning over the playa - one that meant I was going to be a little chilly for a while.

Eventually of course, the sun rose as it always did - the amazing colors fading under its bright light. Even so, the view across the cracked lake bed towards Steens Mountain was no less dramatic - something I marvel at each time we visit.

Our discussion the night before revealed that @mrs.turbodb and I would be departing first - our 10-hour drive meaning we needed an earlier start than the rest of the crew - but that didn't mean we weren't all up to chat for a while and play with Venice before saying our goodbyes.

We also took a few minutes to look over the trucks to make sure they were ready for the highway. @mrs.turbodb filled the tires, I added some fuel to the tank, and Ben removed his front wheel to investigate an alignment issue.

That turned out to be a good thing too, because the rear cam on his lower control arm was completely loose - something that could have been less-than-ideal at highway speeds!

Eventually the trucks were all squared away and we could delay no longer. As we'd done in the beginning, we shared hugs, handshakes, and warm wishes before heading our separate directions. And as the dust kicked up behind us, Steens Mountain looming in our mirrors, I looked over at @mrs.turbodb and said, "I can't wait to come back next time."



The Whole Story

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  1. Jeannie
    Jeannie November 22, 2019

    How many times can I say WOW!?
    All 3 of these days are amazing - tree in rock, expanse of desert, icing sprinklers, horses, tunnels, stay OUT of the mines says your mother (thank you, @mrs.tubodb), sunrises (OMG), sunsets, moon, views from on high, stamina, stamina, stamina!!!

  2. Jim
    Jim November 23, 2019

    I'm not a robot and I loved you account! UJ

  3. Lars Pedersen
    Lars Pedersen February 24, 2024

    If you happen to get back to the Alvord, check out the hot spring on the west side. You have to pay to use it- the spring is on private property- but it's worth the 6 bucks or so, and the owner has erected a memorial to Jessi that features the main wheels from the jet car. I visited last November for a quick trip- flew in, one of my adventure vehicles has wings- and was surprised to see the memorial. The wheels are massive, I didn't even recognize them for what they were until I got up close. They are mounted and can turn freely on bearings that can only be described as exquisite. The rest of the memorial includes plaques commemorating Jessi's effort and of course, Jessi.

    • turbodb
      turbodb February 24, 2024

      Thanks Lars. Been to the Alvord many more times - love it there (though, it's getting a bit crowded these days).

      We've been to the hot springs (and several others in the area, only some of which are soakable), but the Jessi Combs memorial was not there when we visited in 2022 (or at least, we didn't notice it). We'll definitely have to check it out the next time we're there.

      • Lars Pedersen
        Lars Pedersen February 24, 2024

        Eeeuuwwww... never like seeing airplane wrecks. I actually think I stumbled on your photos of the crashed 182 while planning my last airborne trip. I've landed there several times, it's always a surreal experience. Drove a friend's 2nd gen Taco flat out across the lake from west to east about 10 years ago- it was faster in 5th than 6th- during my first visit. Having criss-crossed southern Oregon numerous times by ground vehicle over the years and being awed by its vastness and remoteness, being airborne a few thousand feet above the surface has driven the point home even moreso. Please, engine, keep running, I know how grim my options are if you don't.. lol.. And yeah, it's a lot more crowded now than the first time I visited. Like pretty much everywhere I travel these days, it seems. Which generally involve hot springs, at least if I want my lovely right-seater to accompany me.

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