Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rocking in Oregon

July 14-15

We are snaking our way through Oregon on the Oregon Scenic Byway. Clearly, this is not the road of choice for 90% or more of the people traveling, and living, in Oregon today. Which, of course, makes it an excellent choice for us.

Here is our very back roads adventure.

We buy sandwiches to go at the Belly Buster in Ontario, Oregon, where we have the undivided attention of the woman making the sandwiches behind the counter, since we are her only customers. We eat those sandwiches in the Brogan (pop.100) city park, which is about a quarter acre in size, with an American flag proudly flying on a flagpole, a stone VFW marker, one picnic table, and the most rustic outhouse we have seen since our return from the jungles of Ecuador.

Most of our day is spent passing through rolling fields of grain, sugar beets, onions, and potatoes, some hay fields with neat bales waiting to be picked up, and grassy expanses dotted with grazing cattle. Occasionally, very occasionally, we pass through a town. We take a picture of the town hall in Dayville (pop. 122), because we think it is a contender for the world's smallest city hall.

Toward late afternoon, the landscape starts getting hillier, and rockier. We stop at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in the town of John Day (pop. 1,605). As far as we can determine John Day's only claim to fame was that he was attacked by Indians and robbed of everything, including his clothes, on the site of the town named for him.

The fossil beds are another story. In a vast expanse of Oregon, there are extraordinary fossil beds where archaeologists have uncovered an impressive array of intact fossilized mammals and plants from the Cenozoic era, which came after the dinosaurs. The National Monument is headquartered in John Day, but divided into three units, many miles away from each other. We and one other family have the headquarters and the three rangers working there to ourselves. After we see the very well done and educational fossil film, both we and the other family have the same important question to ask the rangers—"Where can we find a place to stay tonight?"

Fortunately, they get this question a lot, and they pull out a notebook with the names and phone numbers of the handful of hotels within a hundred mile radius. Since we don't want to backtrack, and are hoping to eat dinner tonight, that narrows our choices down to two small hotels in Mitchell (pop. 158), about 32 miles away.

We end up at the Historic Oregon Hotel, which is really a bed and breakfast house with nine rooms for rent, on Main Street in Mitchell. Since Main Street has been washed away by a waterspout and two floods since the 1800s, the last one in the mid-50s, the house is really not all that historic. But it is clean and homey, with a nice big front porch overlooking the cage of the town bear across the street, and the only restaurant in town open on Tuesday, The Lone Pine Café, is right next door.

At the Lone Pine, which smells strongly of grease, we are the first, and it turns out the only, customers. A woman shaped like a fireplug and her daughter scramble like roaches when the light is turned on as we walk in. We have their full attention. I wish there was something that appealed to me on the menu, and settle for a grilled cheese sandwich, which I blot with many napkins after it arrives.

The Painted Hills unit of the Fossil National Monument is near Mitchell, so we head there after dinner to enjoy the scenery and get some sunset photographs. We cannot understand why these hills have not melted away by now. They just seem to be big mounds of clay, colored in an artist's palette of pink, yellow, blue, lavender, green, rusty red, and black.

Back at the Historic Oregon Hotel, I try to figure out how to wash my hair in the claw foot bath tub which has no shower.

The next morning, on the way out of town we stop by "Get Your Kick on Route 26 Espresso," the sole establishment that gives Mitchell one of their claims to fame—"more espresso stands per capita than Seattle." The owner is prepping my latte, and she tells Dick she has had the stand for seven years. We can't figure out how she makes a living in a town of 158 on a highway we traveled for long stretches of time without seeing another car. She says she is just stubborn, makes an okay living, and won't give up.

Our next stop is Fossil (pop. 435), where the rangers at John Day told us we could dig for 33 million year old plant fossils behind the high school. It is close to 90 degrees when we arrive, and without the enthusiasm of children, we do not last long scraping about in the unshaded pile of rocks, but we do manage to leave with a handful of rocks with the faint imprints of 33 million year old leaves and mini-pine boughs in them.

One of the moms digging in the fossil pit is from Vancouver, where we plan to visit this trip, we think. We ask her if she has any recommendations for places we should see there or things we should do. She thinks hard, and comes up empty. "Notice, I'm on vacation, and I'm here. It's just not like here," she says. Okay, Vancouver just can't measure up to Fossil. Strike Vancouver off the list.

On the way out of town, we stop at Fossil Fuel for gas. As Dick is beginning to fill the tank, a man yells at him, "Hey, you could get a fine for doing that!" As Dick, in his confusion, begins to apologize for he knows not what, the guy rushes out and grabs the nozzle from him. He explains that the law in Oregon is that no one but a trained gas station employee can pump gas. He continues on a non-stop tirade for the full time it takes him to pump our gas and clean our windshield (he wipes the squeegee on his pants leg after each swipe across the glass). Here is what he tells us:

"You pump your own gas here, you get a $500 fine if the Weights and Measures people see you. I get a $500 fine, too. I had a gas station twelve years, they made me go to Portland and take a class on pumping gas, missed a day of work and had to pay for the class, too. They keep coming up with new laws. Just made one that you can't top off the tank. When the pump cuts off, that's it. If you top it off, that's another fine. They keep coming up with new rules and new classes—I have to miss two days of work and pay them $250 to sleep through their classes. I like to go to Washington—you can just put your card in the pump, pump your gas, and be on your way. Not here." (At this point he drags Dick into the station to pay for the gas—no pay at the pump here—and shows him a very long list of regulations from Oregon Weights and Measures prominently posted on the wall.)

We finally escape from the gas station as another customer arrives, diverting the attention of the owner, and head to our final fossil activity, a loop hike in the Clarno unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. The air smells of juniper and sage baking in the 95 degree sun. As we hike a trail that runs at the foot of spectacular burnt umber palisades, towers of stone rising high above us to a cloudless blue sky, we see fossils like the ones we dug up behind the high school embedded in the rocks around us. We stand in the shade of an ancient juniper and breathe deeply, trying, unsuccessfully, to wrap our minds around 45 million years of time sculpted in the land around us.

Back in the car, cooling off with the air conditioning blasting, we can see Mount Hood over 50 miles away, as we pass through a series of near ghost towns. There is nothing left open in downtown Antelope (pop. 59), but as we get to Shaniko (pop. 26), eight miles down the road, End of the Road Ice Cream looks freshly painted, has flowers out front, and beckons us to stop. (It is the only place in town that is open for business, as far as we can tell.)

As we walk in, the owner and her employee friend are settled in chatting at a table by the window. We are the only customers. I can't believe it—they have licorice ice cream! I love licorice ice cream, and haven't seen it anywhere in years. And, here it is, in a town of 26 people. There must be someone else in town who loves licorice, too.

The elderly, but almost spritely, owner gets up to serve us, and, although she isn't too chatty, we learn that she has lived here for 27 years, and had her store for nine. This year might be her last. We ask about the historic hotel down the street, which was in our book as a good place to stay and to eat, but now has a "For Sale" sign in the window and is all closed up. She says, "I've seen 'em come, and seen 'em go. They stay a few years, and Shaniko isn't what they expected, so they move on."

Her friend is working on a quilt at the table, and shows me her work when I tell her I am a quilter, too. She is the only quilter in Shaniko, she says, and it's kind of lonely. But, it is nice in the winter, because the two women in Antelope who quilt bring their machines up to her house once a week, and they all quilt together.

Leaving Shaniko, we run across the biggest shoe tree we have ever seen. There must be at least 1,000 pairs of shoes thrown up into its branches. Of course, we stop to gawk and take pictures.

It is now 2:30, and we have traveled almost 100 miles today. The roads are narrow, curvy and hilly, and we are easily distracted.

Our final attraction is a reproduction of Stonehenge built high on a bluff overlooking the Colombia River Gorge. It was designed to look like the English Stonehenge in its original state. Completed in 1929, it is a memorial to local soldiers who died during World War I. This is our fourth Stonehenge variation on this trip. To review: our prior sightings include Georgia's Stonehenge in Elberton; Woodhenge in Cahokia Mounds, Missouri; and Carhenge in Nebraska. Is this our last, or will there be another?

We drive down from the bluff past a beautiful orchard, and find a fruit stand selling fresh picked cherries. We buy a pound, mixing deep maroon Bings and blushing white Raniers. Since the woman there assures us they are already washed, we begin eating them in the car immediately. These are the best cherries we have ever eaten. This could be habit-forming.

1 comment:

  1. Ditching Vancouver: I'm not much for visiting cities and so I can understand bypassing it. However, I have to admit each time I have been in Vancouver I have had a wonderful time. And what did we do? We walked all around, ate interesting food (not inexpensive) and wandered into galleries and museums that caught our eye.

    That said, if I were on a driving tour, I would repeat my road trip from years ago (1983) that wandered up route 99 past Squamish, where I spotted my first American Dipper and a singing Willow Flycatcher. Along the way I picked up my first Sooty Tern and Band-tailed Pigeon.

    More recently Jan rented a car for the day and drove up route 99 a ways, before we had to turn back to catch our cruise. It was still a beautiful trip. The year earlier we took a train trip with Bill Luerssen and Susan Small and one of our favorite sections from from Vancouver to Seattle, running right down the coast. I suspect it is lovely by car as well.

    Jim Jackson