Wheels, Humans, and the Oregon High Desert: Descend on Bend Spotlight

The annual late-August surge of overland vehicles and vans around town is way more than a coincidence; it is in fact the largest van-specific festival in the world.

Wesley McGovern, Staff Writer

Ryan Sellmeyer may look like he fits the part, but he definitely isn’t your average van-lifer. 

Coffee in-hand, draped in a woven poncho, smile obscured by his large beard, Sellmeyer observes the ever-growing dusty haze following vehicles across the dry valley of the Oregon Outback as they eagerly approach the long-awaited pinnacle of vanlife, nomading and good times: Descend On Bend. 

 “Descend on Bend is a place for people to be human,” Sellemeyer said. Event goers describe descend as a ‘chaotic camp out,’ but echo excitement, acceptance and a place for nomads to be nomads. The cancellation of Burning Man this year brought on widespread creative arts and a laser show so spectacular that it required FAA clearance. 

Six years ago, a group of 18 self-described ‘pixelated pen-pals,’ decided to finally meet up. Brought together by the world of hashtags, hash browns, vanlife and Oregon. Sellmeyer and his wife were fresh to the mainland and trying to tap into the vanagon scene of the PNW after moving from Hawaii. Subsequently, the Sellemeyer’s found their insta-niche. After some time, the inaugural Descenders had enough of DMing so they rounded up those who were similarly wanderers. 

The original Descenders decided to discard everything society had taught them about stranger danger in pursuit of wheeled shenanigans: they met strangers, in vans…in the woods, without cell reception. The Descenders camped around the rim of Hole in the Ground, a mile-wide maar—volcano formed crater, think Crater Lake without the water—located about twenty minutes east of La Pine. They exchanged ideas surrounding the nomadic lifestyle and celebrated co-existence—values that are at the forefront of the event to this day. 

Following the camp out, cell reception was returned and photos were subsequently shared online. This was met with excitement within the van-insta-niche, #descendonbend was born, and the rest is history.

 Sellmeyer notes that due to a lack of direct marketing and widespread coordination, the event is largely organic, and that component is what makes Descend so special. Thanks to word of mouth and the acceleration of inadvertent digital marketing, the event grew from 18 vans, to 50, 100, to thousands in no time. Despite its large size, Sellmeyer remarked that the passion is as strong as ever, and ironically, “In the rig capital of the planet [bend]… surprisingly, nobody knows about Descend”. Surprisingly, Descend is the biggest van/nomading festival worldwide, and it takes place in our backyard. 

Between the breathtaking beauty of the Central Oregon desert, and a Labor Day weekend full of shenanigans, barbecues, ideas, a communal descent into the hole, jumping vans, crashed Subarus and laser shows. It’s no surprise that the largest overland and human festival happens right here in central Oregon.