Eastern Oregon Road Trip; August 2016
Road trip itinerary:
- Bend to Dayville – John Day National Monument (120 Miles)
- Dayville to Baker City (117 Miles)
- Baker City to Lake Wallowa (132 Miles)
- Lake Wallowa to Pendleton (120 Miles)
- Pendleton to Portland (209 Miles)
Day 1: Friday 12th August 2016 – John Day Fossil Beds (120 Miles)
We started out late in the day on Friday on our journey out to Eastern Oregon. Our first leg was a relatively comfortable 120 miles from Bend to Dayville, through the Ochoco Mountains and National Forest. We had planned ahead but it was still quite a squeeze to get everything into the VW Passat – luckily we decided to leave the kitchen sink behind. This was not traveling light! As part of this trip we wanted to take advantage of the great outdoors so we packed our mountain bikes on the back and the kayaks on the roof.
The first part of the journey east took us out through Prineville – a place we had visited a few times which at best can be described as non-descript. Yet on this beautiful day even Prineville managed to rise above the mundane … although a quick stop at McDonalds and contact with some locals brought us back to reality.
Beyond Prineville things change rapidly as you rise in elevation and the burnt, arid dust bowls of the desert are replaced with alpine meadows and a dense coniferous forest. We have made one or two trips out this way and it was definitely a pleasant change to what had gone before. Alas we were soon back into the desert landscapes – which to be fair can be glorious (as we were to discover later) – but for now was as interesting as sitting through a three hour banjo solo.
The reason for our stop in Dayville was to check out the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The name derives from the John Day River, which passes through on its way to the Columbia River in the north. There is also a town called John Day in the area (I am not suggesting a lack of imagination here but honestly what happened to creativity. More on this later!) Apparently John Day was from Virginia and was a member of an expedition led by Jacob Astor in 1811. The nice thing about US history is that there is not much of it and what there is, is pleasantly ordinary.
There is no better example of this ordinariness than the abundance of roadside pull-ins with a historical marker, commemorating events that have shaped the American nation, such as “Abraham Lincoln passed by here and took a dump in this spot during which time he composed the Emancipation Proclamation”. Things are even more desperate in the Western United States where there is even less history – they have invented “geographical markers”. Here you can stop and read about such geological wonders as petrified, prehistoric mud casts formed by worms who were forced out of the ground by a flood of urine from a passing herd of diplodocus.
Anyway, I digress.
Coming back to John Day National Monument, which turns out to be very interesting … if you are a geologist or just like a nice rock formation. It is located in three areas which they call “units”. They are fairly spread out but luckily for us two are along the very highway we are travelling. The Painted Hill units is close to the town (blink and you will miss it) of Mitchell.
We loved this place. The hills are smooth, worn and patterned with lines of red, white, black and a hint of green. It was close to sunset when we arrived so the red of the hills really ‘popped’ in the soft evening light. It was still stinking hot so we took only a few steps from the car to snap the wonders of the Painted Hills. It was soon time to move on and go to our destination for the night, the Fish House Inn at Dayville. The Fish House Inn has a country feel to it and it was lovely to see several generations of the owner’s family socializing together when we arrived – it made us somewhat jealous. We were shown to our small room in one of the cabins, which was cute but dated with not very good air conditioning … and yes it was toasty … so our first night’s sleep was somewhat fitful.
Day 2: Saturday 13th August 2016 – John Day National Monument
We began day two of our Eastern Oregon tour with breakfast at the Dayville Café. As you might expect in a town of 150 the options for places to eat are fairly limited and the next town is some 30 miles away. Luckily the Dayville Café turned out to be a delight and the food was excellent. As usual we couldn’t easily choose what we wanted so Karen and I split two breakfasts between us. Once we finished and were preparing to pay we got into a discussion with the only other patrons who had decided to sit inside on this sunny, warm morning in August. Initially I thought the chap was a passing geriatric Hells Angel as he sported a long grey beard. This was after all a popular watering hole for travelling bikers! He turned out to be a pastor from Nevada traveling through Oregon with his wife … just goes to show how first impressions can be off the mark.
Our plan for the day was to do some hiking out in the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day National Monument. So, before setting out we crossed the street to the Dayville Mercantile to stock up on provisions for our trek. I just love the word “mercantile” reminds me of Little House on Prairie with the Olson family and the awful and disagreeable Nelly Olson with those ugly, tightly curled ponytails. This store was amazing – it had everything from hunting knives to Barbie dolls. The current owners have only been in charge for a couple of years having decided to swap the relatively high pace of Portland for the snail-like Dayville. At the weekends they follow the Western theme of the town and dress up in 19th Century western clothing – very quaint!
Today promised to be a hot one so we stocked up with water and headed off to an area of the Sheep Rock Unit called the Blue Basin. We had scouted this the night before and decided to take the longer hike, which was supposedly about 3 ½ miles long with an 800 foot elevation climb somewhere in the mix. Out in this part of Oregon it is really arid and in the summers it gets hot and there is little shade.
The trail was initially quite flat but then started to climb up a gulch. We caught up with a party of three women who didn’t look so well prepared for the conditions – but they were game. At the end of the gulch there were a number of switch backs that took us up several hundred feet to the top of a ridge which provided spectacular views across the valleys below. It was a tough, hot climb and we were both exhausted by the time we got to the top.
We came across a sign that was a crossroads between sticking to the main trail or taking a spur to a viewpoint. Being tired it was tempting to say let’s skip the detour – boy were we glad we didn’t. The hidden viewpoint was only a few yards down this spur and the views were amazing – we were suddenly looking down on a deep valley with steep green cliffs climbing to a mesa. Breathtaking! It was actually a great place to catch our breath. Luckily the rest of the trail was largely downhill with many twists and turns along the way. Before reaching the parking lot there was another spur which took us down a trail along the valley with the green cliffs that we had looked upon earlier.
Along this trail we were introduced to what the John Day area had become famous for – fossils. We were now flagging and feeling like a fossil ourselves. By the time we got back to our car we were totally dehydrated and needing some air conditioning – luckily down the road was a lovely cool building housing the National Park Service’s Thomas Condon Paleontology Center.
Thomas Condon, an early Oregon minister and self-trained scientist, was the first person to identify this region as a world class paleontological site. Condon first learned of the areas abundant fossils from some soldiers in 1862 when he was minister at a church he had established in the Dalles, Oregon. In 1865, he visited the basin for the first time and started excavating fossils. It turned out that the fossils at John Day provide a complete record of the evolution of mammals from the dawn of time.
On reaching the Center we watched a movie on the Park – which was a mistake, as sitting in a dark room with a less than exciting video was very soporific (we have to apologize to anyone who was there about our snoring!) The Center itself was interesting (if you like fossils), more from the history of the area than necessarily the fossils themselves.
All that was needed now was some ice cream and beer. And that’s what we did – fortunately there was a small shop in Dayville that served ice cream and filled beer growlers. By now we were exhausted and even the thought of eating was too much so we decided to head back to the mercantile for cheese and bourbon – a lethal combination.
Day 3: Sunday 14th August 2016 – Dayville to Baker City (via Sumpter) – 117 Miles
We decided to skip breakfast at the Dayville Café and check out what the city of John Day had to offer the hungry traveler. And the answer is ‘not a lot’. John Day is the largest city in Grant County with a total of 1700 residents. In fact the whole county has only around 7000 residents which is about as many people who might turn up to a Def Leppard concert – but they would at least be having some fun! We did manage to find a café that was open, consumed our coffee and a not so fresh lemon cake and quickly moved on.
Leaving John Day in our review mirror, without much regret, we continued to travel east along the John Day Highway. I don’t know about you but whoever was in charge of naming places back then lacked some imagination – the City of John Day, John Day River, John Day Highway – really! In England the early founders really showed a lot more creativity and aplomb with great names for their towns and villages, such as Lower Slaughter, Loose Bottom, Hellions Bumpstead and Kirkby Overblown. These names conjure a sense of civic pride and point of jocularity for their current residents. Also, what’s with calling these places with a miniscule population a ‘city’. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers the definition of a city as:
“an inhabited place of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village”
These tin-pot places that raise themselves to the status of a city are simply pumping up their own self-importance. So, here is a pin-prick to their over-glorification … you guys are a town … best case … and possibly a village … not a city. GET REAL!
We pass through more barren landscape before reaching a turnoff for Highway 7, which appears to cut-off two sides of a triangle to get our destination for the day, Baker City. What a great choice we made as we soon found ourselves climbing into the higher reaches of the Malheur National Forest, a beautiful wooded and under-developed area. The towns and cities in this area are spread-out, and in seeking an escape from the natural wonders of Oregon we are tempted by the signs for Sumpter, a short detour off the highway. Tucked away in the trees and nestled in Oregon’s Elkhorn Mountain Range, located at 4.424 feet lies the historic gold mining town of Sumpter, with a year-round population of approximately 191. A far cry from its heyday when gold was being mined and the population was near 3500. Today, as you might expect with such a small population there is not much to the town and we quickly drive one way up the main street and back down in what felt like a matter of a few seconds. Luckily, we were drawn by the signs to the State Park and turned down to take a quick look. We noticed a lady next to what looked like a railway station (or more appropriately a hut) taking pictures of a steam engine puffing away, seemingly ready to head-off down the track. Anyone who knows us knows we are addicted to steam trains and have spent many years inflicting this passion on our children, dragging them to every Thomas the Tank Engine we could find back in England. I literally threw Karen out of the car with instructions to lie on the track in front of the train to stop it from heading out whilst I parked the car.
The volunteers running the Sumpter Valley railway took pity on Karen, so she didn’t have to put her body on the line and we were able to grab the last two seats in the carriage. The conductor actually yelled, “Hold the train!”
The journey itself is only six miles down to McEwan – but just being on the train with the smell from the burning wood and the hissing sound of escaping steam bought big smiles to our faces. The train line was developed to support the gold mining operations and as you travel out from Sumpter you can see the devastating impact that the industry has had on the landscape. Mining here was not hundreds of men sitting in the river panning for gold or burying deep mines into the sides of mountains – here the mining was done through dredging. More on this later!
Despite the barren landscape along the way we enjoyed the trip and, as is often the case, Karen got talking to an elderly gentleman who was a regular volunteer on the railway. He gave us some of the background as to what had gone in the Sumpter valley through the gold mining era. Although the journey to McEwan is only six miles the train rattles along slowly and it takes 30 minutes to arrive. It is difficult to describe McEwan as a destination as there is nothing there – literally nothing – apart from a small hut for the railway, a toilet block and some shelters. It was an extremely hot day and there was little to shade us from the sun. After a very long 30 minutes it was time to turnaround and head back to Sumpter. This time we chose to sit in the “luxury” carriage, complete with a lovely wood stove, which was nice to look at but totally unnecessary on this baking day! All too soon we were back in Sumpter and at the end of our unexpected but wonderful trip.
Within the Sumpter State Park there is another exhibit – the gold dredge. The dredge itself is huge, mind-blowingly huge! These beasts were responsible for the ravaging of many square miles in the Sumpter valley. Water played a major role in these dredging operations, with the dredge itself floating in a pond of its own creation. A gold dredge works by having a belt of many large buckets that pull the gold-bearing earth up into its machinery to be processed, keeping the gold and spewing the waste (known as “tailings”) out the back by way of a stacker. Built on a shallow hull, these dredges did not need a lot of water to operate, as they moved their pond of water with them.
The internal mechanics were not very sophisticated. In essence, the dirt that was dug by the large electrically powered buckets was sifted and sorted, and the remainder was washed over a series of riffles allowing the gold to settle and be trapped. The primary advantages that made the dredge more efficient than other methods were the volume of earth it could process and having its own water supply. The dredge that was built in Sumpter Valley could dig over 20 buckets per minute, consuming more than seven yards of earth each minute.
Three dredges worked the valley from 1913 to 1954. Sumpter No. 3, the dredge on display, was built substantially from parts of the first dredge, which had been idle for 10 years. Between them, the dredges traveled more than 8 miles extracting $10 to $12 million worth of gold. Still, it cost more to run than the gold could pay for. The last dredge closed in 1954, more than $100,000 in debt. In just over 40 years these dredges had destroyed the landscape by digging up the top soil and burying it below several feet of rock. Only now is the environment starting to recover – and it will take a long time for the evidence of this mining to completely disappear. Whilst the history is interesting it is always sad to see how the greed of man can destroy nature’s beauty in such a devastating manner.
We love it when we have a detour and stumble upon something unexpected and wonderful.
Happy and fulfilled we continue on remainder of our journey to Baker City.
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 (don’t get me going again on this!) 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 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 finding a store serving ice cream, awine tasting room and 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.
Day 4: Monday 15th August 2016 – Baker City to Lake Wallowa – 132 Miles
Oh, my goodness! That was a good bed – especially after what we had suffered 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 traveled 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 oF) 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 is 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, half way 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. Coincidently, 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 non-descript 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 esthetic 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 into the conversation of the four women, two working in the store and the others, obviously local. I was amazed 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.
Further east we traveled toward the border with Idaho. This boundary is set by the Snake River which starts its journey in Wyoming at Jackson Lake and ends when it joins the mighty Columbia River in Washington State. At the point we meet the Snake River is the start of Hells Canyon. This is the deepest river gorge in North America, at a mile deep and it also10 miles wide. It is deeper than the Grand Canyon. Before reaching the Snake River we turn north on a seasonal road (it is cut-off with snow during the winters and is not plowed). Up we go into the mountains through thick coniferous forests. 20 miles along this road is a turn-off to a view point of Hells Canyon. The view is spectacular with panoramic views across the canyon, but truth-be-told it is not the Grand Canyon and disappointingly you cannot stare a mile down into the gorge and see the Snake River rumbling and tumbling below. So, time to move on and get to our campsite at Wallowa before night sets in.
Day 5: Tuesday 16th August 2016 – Lake Wallowa
Although neither of us had the greatest night sleep it was lovely to wake up in such a beautiful place. Our site is perfect – it is large and on the outer edge of the park, so we back onto a lovely wooded area complete with a bubbling brook. After breakfast we decided to break out the kayaks and take a turn out on the lake. This was a mid-week morning and still early so we had the lake more or less to ourselves. We paddled up and gazed with curiousity at the homes that line the banks of Wallowa Lake. As we turned back towards home we got to see the stunning backdrop to the lake, the Wallowa Mountains. At this time of the year the snow has receded but they nonetheless looked spectacular, making this a very special place.
We had not finished our exertions for the day since we had decided to head into Joseph, some 6 miles away, on our mountain bikes. The City of Joseph is not huge but it is very quaint, especially the main street which has a Western theme. The town has fostered a community of artists who work in bronze and there are several examples of their work lining the streets of Joseph.
There are a few small stores selling knick-knacks of various kinds catering to the tourists. Fueled by a chocolate ice cream float from the chocolatier we spend a merry hour or so perusing the shelves of these stores.
As we often do in a town we fall in love we stop to look in the windows of real estate agents to dream of a life in the community. Most times this is just a casual passing look but two properties caught our eye, one was an RV park and the second was a former railway station. Well, we have documented our love of all things to do with steam trains – so this was too good to miss. Even more attractive was the fact the property came with a converted rail car caboose which could be rented out. It was all too tempting so we had to go and at least look. The realtor, who was a real sweety, agreed to take us out. The building itself is the original rail depot (station house) from Enterprise, Oregon which is six miles down the road. It was moved wholesale to its current location back in the 1970s and was used as a gift store for several years. We got very excited when we first entered the main room on the ground floor – it still had the original waiting room benches and ticket counters! This got us dreaming even more. We toured the rest of the building and it needed a lot of work to restore it to its former glory. Outside there were several out-buildings which were not in great shape. Then there was the caboose which was small but perfectly formed. Personally I was sold – but Karen who is usually more level headed in these situations bought me back to reality! It was a couple of days before I really let the dream go and moved on.
On our cycle back to the State Park we decided to stop at the memorial to Chief Joseph the Elder, whose son the city is named after. Originally named Silver Lake and Lake City, the city formally renamed itself 136 years ago in 1880 after Chief Joseph’s son, also called Joseph, of the Nez Perce people.
The younger Chief Joseph was a real hero of his people. He led his band during the most tumultuous period in their contemporary history when they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in the Wallowa Valley by the United States federal government and forced to move northeast, onto the significantly reduced reservation in Lapwai, Idaho Territory. A series of events that culminated in episodes of violence led those Nez Perce who resisted removal, including Joseph’s band and an allied band of the Palouse tribe, to take flight to attempt to reach political asylum, ultimately with the Lakota led by Sitting Bull, who had sought refuge in Canada.
In 1877 they were pursued eastward by the U.S. Army in what became known as the Nez Perce war. For 1,170-miles, in a fighting retreat, the Nez Perce skillfully fought and the manner in which they conducted themselves in the face of incredible adversity led to widespread admiration among their military adversaries and the American public.
Day 6: Wednesday 17th August 2016 – Lake Wallowa
Today followed a very similar routine to the previous one – which is often the case when you relax. Things slow down and time starts to stretch and blur. A bit like being on a rocket heading into a spinning black hole without the spaghettification (for more reference read some books on Einstein and special relativity).
We take the kayaks out on the lake again, once again following the shore line but this time going a little further. This gave us time to think about how to spend the rest of our last full day at Wallowa Lake. One option was to take the gondola ride up to the top of Mount Howard. In general I don’t mind a gondola ride but this is one steep ascent; 4000 feet to the summit of Mount Howard at 8,200 feet. Although I am sure the views would have been spectacular, looking at cabs going up on, what is the steepest ride of its type in the US gave me the tummy wobbles. So, I declined the trip – and although I offered Karen the opportunity to go up alone, she decided to support my chicken-heartedness and stayed down at base camp with me. I have not got close to many chickens in my life – they have been more acquaintances than friends, but in general I have found them to be of great moral fibre and for the most part brave. So, it does seem to be unfair and stereotyping to equate the bravery of a complete genus to a retreating Italian tank division. Chickens’ have pluck!
After lunch Karen decided to return to the water, this time on a stand-up paddle board. She had tried this once before and enjoyed it, so she decided to give it another bash. And she loved it.
To round out the day we drove to Enterprise, Oregon. We went boldly where no man has gone before (well sort of). The only potentially redeeming feature of Enterprise was its brewery – Terminal Gravity. Great name, not so great beer! Brew stout young man!
Day 7: Thursday 18th August 2016 – Lake Wallowa to Pendleton (120 Miles)
We were very sad to be leaving the Wallowa Valley – but we had one more excursion planned before departing and heading out to our next stop, Pendleton. During our research of the Joseph area we had read about the Joseph Branch Railriders, who have creatively found an opportunity in the disused railway line that runs north through Enterprise out to Elgin. They have built two-person pedal powered carts that ride on the rails. There are two options; a two hour 12 miles round trip and a six hour, 26 mile trip. As we have plans later in the day we opted for the shorter trip.
It was going to be a hot day, but by setting out at 9.00am the temperature was very comfortable. There were another two carts in front of us but we still had relative seclusion on our journey. Outbound the track is largely downhill so it didn’t require much effort to pedal and we were able to enjoy the farmland as we passed by fields, farm buildings and the occasional cow. There were a few road crossings we had to negotiate but by and large it was a carefree passage out to Enterprise.
After waiting for 45 minutes we were turned around and began our return trip to Joseph. As you know, what goes up must come down; this was true for this leg of the trip. The way back was a gentle incline and we had to peddle all the way – but it wasn’t too bad. That said the views were wonderful, for this time we were traveling towards the mountains and the views were spectacular. All too soon we were back in Joseph and it was time to say goodbye to Wallowa.
Next up is a 120 mile journey to Pendleton. En route we made a detour into La Grande, which is the home to Eastern Oregon University and the biggest city in these parts. Needless to say it was a disappointing experience but we did manage to find a good ice cream store.
Pendleton is famous for three things; the Roundup (or a giant piss-up with a rodeo to justify it), wool blankets and whisky. Not a bad mixture. The reason we rushed to Pendleton was to make the last outing of the Pendleton underground tour. We like to try to discover the history and culture of the places we visit and this journey into the seedy underbelly of Pendleton’s culture fitted our purpose perfectly. The tour takes us down into the rooms and passages that hide below the streets of Pendleton in what used to be a bustling area of town and also doubled as the red light district. We visited several rooms that acted as bars during the prohibition years. These were staged with furniture, props and manikins to capture the spirit of the period. Beyond these underground drinking establishments there were rooms where the Chinese laborers lived. These were very cramped and unpleasant. The expansion of the railroads into the Western states bought the Chinese to town and when that work was done they remained to undertake other construction tasks. The final part of the tour was above ground and we got to visit a former bordello, one of the many that were active in the area. The local cowboys worked hard and played harder! Regular businesses, such as candy stores and butchers shared this secret underground world with the secret bars and bordellos. It is interesting to see how daily life and the nefarious coexist in what was a small, tight- knit community.
After the tour we went the Pendleton wool mills, where they make the famous blankets. Sadly it was during the summer shutdown, so no tours! We had to satisfy ourselves with the outlet shop.
Day 8: Friday 19th August 2016 – Pendleton to Portland – 209 Miles
Ahead we have our longest travel day yet on this trip but we still plan to squeeze a lot in so we leave early. It is yet another fine day and we decided to pull off I-84 to check out Hermiston, which is famous for its watermelons. The drive through was quick as there was not much to make us want to stay longer – this is our first and most likely last visit to Hermiston.
What had piqued our interest was the museum of art at Maryhill, which was around the halfway point on our journey to Portland. The museum was founded by Sam Hill (1857 to 1931) who was by all accounts an interesting character. He was originally a child of the mid-West but fell in love with the Northwest and moved himself here and it became his life-long passion to develop the communities of Washington and Oregon. His fortune was made in building railroads, working in his father-in-law’s businesses. When he relocated to Seattle his wife, Mary, could not settle and returned, with her children, to Minneapolis after six months. The Northwest was still very wild and a tough environment for refined folks to accept. Anyway, Sam threw himself into building a legacy and his real passion was roads. He created the Washington State Good Roads Association in September 1899, which persuaded the Washington State Legislature to create a state highway department in 1905. Hill persuaded the University of Washington to establish the United States’ first chair in Highway engineering in 1907. After failing to convince Washington State to build a highway on the north bank of the Columbia River, he convinced Oregon officials to build the scenic Columbia River Highway, which linked coastal Astoria, Oregon and The Dalles, Oregon.
Sam wanted to build an inland empire in the Northwest and purchased land in Klickitat County, Washington along the Columbia River and named the parcel Maryhill after his wife and daughter. His original plan was to build a farming community but unfortunately this is a place where it does not rain a lot so this adventure dried-up! Today they do successfully harvest grapes and the area is now a producer of some very good wines – which has been helped with the introduction of modern irrigation systems that were not available during Sam’s time. In an attempt to tempt his wife back to Washington State, Hill built the building which now houses the museum – sadly the plan failed and the building lay empty for many years.
Monuments were another Sam Hill’s passions. He was responsible for the Peace Arch which sits on the I-5 border crossing with Canada at Blane. With our recent travels to and from Vancouver, BC to catch flights we have had a close-up experience with this arch. A more interesting and somewhat quirky monument is the Stonehenge that Hill built next to his Maryhill estate. Of course we had to visit this and see how it compared to the original and much more ancient edifice from our homeland. This Stonehenge was not built for druids dressed in bedsheets to shuffle around on summer solstice and instead is a monument to the local young men who fell during World War I. The structure itself is not as rustic as the original henge on Salisbury Plain, but nonetheless it is impressive. As always it was sad to see a record of those who had died at such a young age.
The location has spectacular views down on to the Columbia River. This is a wonderful setting!
We move on to the Maryhill Museum of Art which is four or five miles down the road. This location is remote and our expectation for an art museum out here is not high. The building, as you might guess from an egocentric individual such as Sam Hill, is impressive. During a visit in 1917 Hill decided to turn this into a museum and his dream was realized when it was dedicated in 1926 by Queen Marie of Romania. As part of this process Queen Marie donated more than 100 objects. Hill’s personal contribution to the new museum included almost 90 American Indian baskets, more than 70 Rodin sculptures and watercolors, and many personal items. Over the years the collection has been expanded by donations from Hill’s acquaintances and the work of subsequent museum directors and other patrons. This has resulted in an eclectic and interesting collection.
The first room you enter is entirely dedicated to the donations of Queen Marie. These are artefacts from a major European Royal family and consequently they are lavish and ornate and not what we were expecting to find in rural Washington. Marie was born into the British Royal Family and was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. Included in the exhibit were some personal possessions of Marie, including letters from Queen Victoria, her stunning wedding dress and some gorgeous Fabergé eggs.
Another unexpected find was an interesting exhibit of the works of the Auguste Rodin, who many consider to be the father of modern sculpture. As well as having examples of his sculptures in various materials there were samples of his sketches and workings. We didn’t know too much about Rodin and his history – which was very rich, including a troublesome childhood, eyesight issues and the various women who influenced his life and works – until we visited the museum.
One of our favorite exhibits was a collection of chess sets. The history of this collection goes back to the passion of a former director of the museum. Over the years it has expanded and there is now a super and diverse array of sets of different design styles from many countries. It was amazing to see the variety and creativity that had gone into what many people might consider a mainly logical and cerebral pastime.
The sets which caught our eye were the more quirky and comical designs.
The exhibit of Native American arts was amazing! Each of the major regions was covered including the Alaskan tribes. The intricacies of the designs were stunning. We have seen several collections of this art but this was one of the better ones we had come across in our travels across the United States.
We still had quite a distance to travel to our final stop for the night in Portland. After a quick stop for lunch at Hood River – which we were very impressed with (and planned to return to) and a very quick stop at Cascades Lock to take a picture of the Bridge of the Gods (this bridge featured in Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild”, a memoir of her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail) we hopped off the I-84 to take the historic Columbia River Highway. This is the road that Sam Hill persuaded the Oregon Legislature to build. Along this road there are several waterfalls. At this time of the year they are not at their greatest water flows, but are the nonetheless spectacular.
We checked out several falls including Horsetail Falls, Bridal Falls, Latourell Falls and Multnomah Falls. The latter of which is the highest set of falls in Oregon. These falls drop in two major steps, split into an upper falls of 542 feet (165 m) and a lower falls of 69 feet (21 m). They are also the most visited falls along this scenic highway and today is no exception. There is a hoard of tourists, which is made all the worst by the ease of access … park your car and walk a few steps and there you are!
As I get older I get more impatient and frustrated with the antics of tourists so it was a much more pleasant experience to take the path less visited to Bridal and Latourell Falls. At the Latourell we were able to go right down to the base of the falls – I decided to wimp out and not get soaked as we still had some distance to go – but Karen was willing to go in for a swim (which she didn’t … all talk, no action!)
From the falls area we carried on along the historic highway which was splendidly twisted as it wound its way out of the Columbia River Gorge. There are occasional glimpses of the sparkling waters of the Columbia far below. At the summit of the climb we reach Vista Point, which has a quaint observatory, which was closed due the excessive heat! But the views down to the gorge below were truly spectacular.