Exploring the streets of Baker City, Oregon and finding out about the tough and dangerous journey the original settlers made to find a new life out West
Relative to the cities we have seen in the last few days, Baker is a metropolis – with a population of just under 10,000. It was named after Edward D Baker, the only sitting senator to be killed in a military engagement. He died in 1861 while leading a charge of 1,700 Union Army soldiers up a ridge at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, during the American Civil War. Ball’s Bluff – there’s a name to conjure with!
The streets of downtown Baker are wide and stately, and it must be a fantastic place for parades. It has some very attractive buildings, which is sadly not the case for many cities in the Western US. Our destination for the night, the Geiser Grand Hotel, is one of the most elegant buildings in town. It opened in 1889 only to close in 1968. After a major restoration, it re-opened in 1993. The inside of the Geiser Grand reflects the elegant exterior with a welcoming lobby, friendly staff and a very stately dining room. The dining room is overlooked by the second-floor balcony and a beautiful stained-glass ceiling. We don’t often eat in hotels but the ambience of the dining room and the interesting menu tempted us into making a booking. Our room was huge and matched the setting of the hotel – we were very impressed. So, wanting to explore the town a bit before dinner we headed off out. Being early evening on a Sunday there was not much going on in Baker, but that didn’t stop us from finding a store serving ice cream, a wine tasting room and a chocolatier where we had a frozen chocolate drink. Not surprisingly we were not hungry when we got back to the hotel, so we moved our booking back a couple of hours to wait until we felt less full. The wait was worth it and we had a delicious meal with great service. It was a wonderful day.
Oh, my goodness! That was a good bed – especially after what we had endured at the Fish Inn. It was sad to have only spent one night at the Geiser Grand, but we did take our breakfast there and Karen had the most amazing crème brûlée with oatmeal. We had another roasting day in prospect so we set off early to visit the Oregon Trail Interpretation Center just outside Baker. From the mid-1830s the tortuous 2,170-mile Oregon Trail was followed by settlers in search of a new life; from the banks of the Missouri River to the valleys of Oregon. By 1870 the journey was made much easier with the opening of the West by the railroads, but by this time 400,000 people had travelled to settle in Oregon, Utah and California by foot and wagon along this trail.
The Interpretation Center is up on a hill and overlooks the valley down to Baker City and the Interstate I-84 freeway which heads north, along the original path of the Oregon Trail. From here you can still see the ruts that the wagons carved – but it was too hot (101 F) to spend a long time outside so we headed into the air-conditioned building. There was a movie explaining the history of the Oregon Trail which was dated and to be honest, dull – it missed the chance to present the real drama of the settlers’ journey. Beyond the movies, there was a series of displays and shorter films which were much better and rescued the experience for us.
Onward and eastward we travel through rolling hills, parched by the summer sun. Our next stop is the sleepy town (or what is technically a city – with 288 residents – good grief) of Halfway. The question is
halfway between what?
halfway to or from?
Apparently, the town took its name from the location of its post office, on the Alexander Stalker ranch, halfway between Pine and Cornucopia. According to the Mapquest, it is 1.6 miles to Pine and 5.8 miles to Cornucopia (which is a now a ghost town but was at one time a mining community). Somebody was not so great at mathematics! Or more likely the post office moved. Coincidentally, Halfway is within four miles of the 45th parallel which makes it halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Back in the dot-com era Halfway earned a moment of fame when, in 1999, it received and accepted the offer to rename itself Half.com, after an e-Commerce company (now a subsidiary of eBay) of the same name, for a period of one year. In exchange Halfway was given $110,000 and 20 computers for its schools. It became the first city (possibly the only one) to rename itself as a dot com. The Halfway trivia is not that interesting – but it is more exciting than the place itself.
What drew us, or at least Karen, to Halfway was a craft store called Halfway Whimsical which was listed in a magazine Karen had picked up about places to visit in Eastern Oregon. In reality, the store was whimsical in name but not in nature – in fact, is very ordinary and should consider relocating itself to the city of Boring, Oregon! We politely spent a few minutes looking around, as we were probably the first visitors for 25 years and bid farewell, asking the somnambulant proprietor (who we had stirred, like Rip Van Winkle from a very, very long sleep) if there was anywhere we could grab a coffee. She said if we wanted a “fancy” coffee we could try the quilting shop. Normally we wouldn’t think of going to a quilt shop for coffee – in my case, I wouldn’t think of going to quilt shop for ANYTHING unless I was being chased by a hoard of flesh-eating zombies and it was the only place of sanctuary in a 10-mile radius.
Quilt Plus turned out to be an interesting experience. It was huge. From the outside, the place looks small and nondescript but inside it is like walking into Dr Who’s Tardis – there is a huge collection of fabrics (even I could appreciate the quantity if not the aesthetic qualities). Karen was immediately distracted and went off to explore so I took off in search of coffee, which was hidden in a nook in the far corner of the store. The coffee was actually very good and I got the chance to observe a new breed of person – the bear hunting, quilting red-neck soccer mom. I listened in to the conversation of the four women, two working in the store and the others, obviously local. I was amazed at how the conversation of the four women switched seamlessly (excuse the pun) from quilting patterns into a discussion about packing a gun, shooting bears and eating them. Real bad-ass! This completely turned around my Halfway experience and I was half-sad to be leaving town to continue on our way.