Eastern Oregon trip report, with photos

We’re just back from a week in Eastern Oregon. This is a trip that Kate’s been wanting to take for years, and I must confess that I was unenthusiastic about the idea until my trip to “Mars” showed me how beautiful the desert can be.

Sun 6/12: Portland-Kennewick

We started off with two days at the home of Kate’s parents in Kennewick, Washingon. On the way we stopped to eat our sandwiches at the Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint (AKA Chanticleer Point) and to admire the scenery from the historic Crown Point lookout. As we drove we passed quickly from the wet green side of the mountains to the dry brown side.

We crossed the Columbia for a stop at the Maryhill Museum, which was built as the home of Quaker enterpreneur Sam Hill (yes, he’s the origin of the phrase “What the Sam Hill?”). When the utopian farming community he’d planned failed to materialize, he repurposed the building as an art museum. It contains a fine collection of chess sets, a bunch of Rodin sculptures, many artifacts of Hill’s friend Queen Marie of Roumania (yes, she of the “glorious cycle of song”), and the 27″ fashion dolls the French fashion industry created to show off their creative powers immediately after World War II, when there weren’t enough resources for a full fashion show. These dolls were thought by the French to have been destroyed, but they’ve been at Maryhill ever since. Recently they were rediscovered by the French and were spruced up and taken on tour, along with new replicas of the sets on which they were originally displayed… including a bizarre one by director Pierre Cocteau. As we usually wind up doing, we went through all the exhibits backwards (it’s not on purpose, I swear) so we saw the weird one first.

Mon 6/13: Kennewick

A pleasant day of thrift-storing and suchlike with Kate’s parents.

Tue 6/14: Kennewick-Pendleton

On the way out of town we made a slight detour to buy tortillas at a tortilleria in Pasco. We had some difficulty finding it, but it was worth it — we wound up with a backstage tour and a package of chapatis. It’s weird to realize that the Columbia doubles back and flows West-to-East here, so to get from Oregon to Pasco we had to cross the Columbia twice. Then we managed to enter Oregon from Pasco without crossing the river again. Never drove around a river before…

After driving through pretty rolling hills and lots of wheat (?) fields, we reached Pendleton (“Where the Sidewalk Ends and the Real West Begins!”) and had dinner at Hamley’s (a Pendleton tradition since 1863). We split a steak that was one of the better ones I’ve ever had.

Wed 6/15: Pendleton

After a lovely B&B breakfast we visited the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, an excellent museum of Native American culture and history, though the story it told is kind of depressing.

In the afternoon we took the Pendleton Underground Tour. This tour is less sensational and overblown than the Seattle equivalent, more matter-of-fact, and felt more like true history (much of the story you’ll hear on the Seattle tour is pure hogwash). The tunnels themselves were built by the city as a “backstage” delivery route, kind of like Disney World, more prosaic than Seattle’s. Many of the underground rooms we visited were decorated as shops, using artifacts found in the tunnels, though the rooms themselves were used at the time as storerooms and workrooms for the shops above. Other rooms were shown in the same state they were used in, such as the living quarters for Chinese laborers (below). We also visited an above-ground former brothel, shut down in 1953 and apparently left exactly as it was, untouched, for decades.

After the tour we visited the Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame, where the famous bronco War Paint now bucks forever. Pendleton is best known for the annual Round-Up, a major rodeo and civic festival. It sounds like a lot of fun, but because of the expense and crowds we will probably never visit Pendleton during the Round-Up. Happy Canyon is the Native American side of the Round-Up, a cheesy melodrama that’s been presented in exactly the same way every year since 1916 (kind of a Western version of Oberammergau’s passion play).

Thu 6/16: Pendleton-John Day-Dayville

After another fine breakfast, we packed up, checked out, and hit the famous Pendleton Woolen Mill for a tour of the mill and a turn through the factory store. I never did get an answer to my question about the blue label on all Pendleton products that says “Warranted to be a Pendleton” — if you believe the product is not actually a Pendleton, where do you take it for your warranty claim? If you bring it here, they’ll either say “no, you’re wrong, it’s one of ours” in which case there’s nothing for them to do, or “yep, you’re right, it’s not one of ours” in which case they have no responsibility for it. Either way you’re stuck with it. This is, I suppose, a purely philosophical question as I got nothing but strange looks from every Pendleton employee I asked.

From there we drove through the Umatilla and Malheur National Forests — beautiful country, green and mountainous and covered with trees, which then changed to rolling hills and scrub — to the Kam Wah Chung Co. in the town of John Day, a unique bit of Chinese-in-America history. This building is the only surviving remnant of John Day’s Chinatown, claimed to have been the 3rd-largest Chinatown on the West Coast during the 1861 gold rush. Two Chinese men lived here and ran a number of prosperous businesses for both Chinese and Western customers (grocery, apothecary, Chinese traditional medicine, hotel, translation service, even an Oldsmobile dealership) up until the 1970s, when the building was abandoned and locked up after their deaths. It stood pretty much untouched for decades and is now displayed with all its original artifacts.

From there we drove to Dayville (“Our Fossils are Friendly!”). I’d thought Pendleton was small, but downtown Dayville consists of a tiny one-room city hall, a post office, a park, a mini-mart, a mercantile store of the “if you can’t find it here, you can probably get along without it” variety, and a cafe (which wasn’t open). A nanny goat followed us all the way back to the hotel, until Zander the owner’s golden retriever chased it bounding away.

Fri 6/17: Dayville

Fortunately we’d been forewarned about the lack of restaurants, so we’d filled our cooler in Pendleton. After a breakfast in our room of yogurt, banana, and cold canned coffee, we drove through very pretty Picture Gorge to the Sheep Rock unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. This national monument consists of three widely-separated units. The first thing we hit was the visitor center and fossil museum, opened 2004, which was packed with interesting fossils (all mammals and plants, these formations postdate the dinosaurs), very well labeled and laid out, with good use of color coding and a lot of information about climate change to emphasize its relevance to today’s world.

From there we drove a short way to the Blue Basin trailhead for a guided trail walk with chatty, earnest Ranger Danny. There we saw beautiful, strikingly blue-green mineral formations and got an interesting talk about how this area has changed in the past 33 million years or so and how many different disciplines come together to understand the fossils that have been found here. The broad fossil leaves with “drip tips” characteristic of very wet climates contrast sharply with the tiny, water-conserving leaves of the plants found in the basin today.

Next we drove to the Cant Ranch, across from the fossil museum (it WAS the fossil museum until 2004) for some more recent history, an interesting contrast (e.g. Q: “How do we know when this happened?” A: “We asked Mrs. Cant last week, she’s 98”, vs. “radiocarbon dating and guesswork”). It’s still a working ranch, we saw cattle being loaded onto trucks. Ranger Danny was our tour guide again; fortunately, we liked him. We talked with him about sheep shearing in Oregon vs. Australia, and found a pair of unlucky rabbit’s feet still attached to the gnawed leg bones (Seanan, we thought of you).

Sat 6/18: Dayville-Mitchell-Fossil

Awoke to gray and drizzle, alas. After another breakfast of yogurt etc. in our room, we packed up, checked out, and drove through the tiny town of Mitchell (“More espresso stands per capita than Seattle!”) to the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We walked a couple of the trails, which were very colorful and pretty in a different way from anything else we’ve seen, some of it reminiscent of the “Mars” base in Utah.

Then we drove back to Mitchell for lunch and explored Mitchell’s main street. We bought a few things, but despite the many characteristic old buildings it’s kind of a depressing, broken-down little town.

Next we drove through a variety of terrain, almost a recap of all the geology we’ve learned about this week, on some very pretty but kind of scary twisty mountain roads, until we arrived in the town of Fossil, where we walked right into our B&B room (no host at the moment and no locks at all). After a nap we walked around the town, which is bigger than Dayville but still pretty damn small. I kept thinking about Cicely, Alaska (the town in Northern Exposure).

Fossil’s main attraction is a hill behind the high school where you can dig your own fossils ($5 per person, please don’t mess up the site or take too much and please put the tools back). We fossicked for a little less than an hour and I found some recognizable leaf fossils, so I’m happy.

Sun 6/19: Fossil-Clarno-Antelope-Shaniko-Maupin-Portland

Breakfast at our B&B was family-style, the food merely okay but there was plenty of it. We packed up, checked out, and tried to get gas, but the one gas station in town was not yet open for the day. Then we drove to the Clarno Unit of the John Day National Monument. We’d considered passing this unit by, but the first two units had been so different from each other that I wanted to see what the Clarno unit offered. I’m glad we did. The main attraction here was a huge spectacular mineral formation called the Palisades, a petrified 44-million-year-old “lahar” (mudflow), the most amazing landform of the whole trip. We walked three short trails, including one 150 feet up to the base of the formation (didn’t quite make it all the way up that one).

We’d planned to drive home via Condon and I-84, but our host at the B&B had recommended the route via Antelope as being more scenic, and as the weather wasn’t bad we decided to go that way. The town of Clarno was so small it didn’t even get a speed-limit sign. We hit Antelope (former Rajneeshpuram) at 11:30, it had a cafe, it was open, so we stopped for lunch. The cafe had a gas pump but no gas. I was starting to get a little worried about running out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

Next stop, Shaniko. We’d thought Shaniko was a ghost town, but when we got there we found a hip happenin’ place… turns out it was Pioneer Days, with food, a blacksmith demo, free wagon rides, and other activities. Too bad we didn’t know about this in advance. We thought we’d pass on the wagon ride, but the guy from the Oregon State Wagon Train was very persuasive, he even bought us a couple of sarsaparillas to get us on board. It was all pretty cool, but though Shaniko had two gas stations neither one had any gas.

The next town, Maupin, was a fairly large town by our revised standards. It seems to run almost entirely on river rafting, and — hallelujah — featured an open gas station. We were followed into the station by a convoy of four VW vans we’d seen in Shaniko. From there it was a straight shot across dry flat desert scrub with Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson(?), and the Three Sisters(?) visible ahead, a picture-postcard Eastern Oregon view.

I blinked and suddenly we were surrounded by steep hills densely carpeted with huge trees, more green than we’d seen in a week. We made a rest stop in Government Camp, where we found chill air, and even a heap of black not-yet-melted snow at the end of the parking lot. The Portland-area small town of Sandy seemed so cosmopolitan by comparison with the last few days. Finally, we arrived at home — damp, cool, noisy Portland, hurray. And what’s this in the mail? Oh boy, a jury summons.

Ah, civilization.

Though it was all very pretty, I’m happy to be back on the soggy, populous west side of the Cascades. But it’s cool to hear the names of these places on the radio news and know a bit about what they’re really like.

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