Chasing Homesteads 

Exploring deserted homesteads in the Owyhee desert

Roots run deep in the Gem State, where generations of families have worked the same ground for generations. There is a desire to know what it was like for early settlers, to see what they saw, to go where they went. Hunting for homesteads in the Owyhee Desert is a rich way to experience some of what those pioneers did. The desert is home to hundreds of old cabins, homesites and ruins. Many are named, while many are just bare remnants of buildings out in the middle of sage. It's incredible to find them, stand inside, look out and wonder what kind of individual was driven to call that spot home. It's like a small treasure hunt, poring over a map, looking for a name and spot marked on paper, then finding it.

We were miles into the Owyhee Desert. The gravel road stretched into the distance as we alternately stared out the windshield and at the GPS. We were looking for a side road that would hopefully lead us into the past. We slowed as the points on the GPS screen merged and a faint track appeared. The track looked rough, rock strewn, untraveled. We bounced down the road, slowly, scanning for signs. We stopped at a particularly rough spot--too rough for a vehicle--and continued on foot. The creek bottom came into view, and we took a sharp collective breath as we saw what we had only hoped might be here.

Rock walls were made by stacking hundreds and thousands of small flat rocks interspersed with mud as a mortar. Window frames, door frames and ridge beams were still intact. Old doors and roof trusses were spread around the inside of the buildings, and we walked around snapping pictures as the wind howled through the sage.

Back in the truck, we bounced over a muddy track until, in the distance, we saw more ruins. When we stopped to walk, a nearby creek was running full, and it took a few minutes to find a spot to jump over. When we got close enough, we could see rocks stacked into walls, doorways and windows of a few structures. The roofs were gone and trees had grown inside the old walls.

Inside one structure was a bed. The headboard and footboard were both intact and attached to a metal frame that was buried halfway into the earth. The design was quaint, with a few thin, round rods arcing out and meeting in the middle.

Back outside the structure, I pulled on a piece of iron jutting from the sage and discovered it was the rim of a wagon wheel. I stood in wonder thinking what it must have been like to live out in the desert a century or more ago.

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