Eastern Oregon is not like the rest of the state. Admittedly, there are many different looks to Oregon . . . the gorge, the coastline, the old growth forests, the mountains, rivers and lakes; still, eastern Oregon stands apart. It is drier, browner and hotter. It is referred to as the high desert. It is definitely not the epitome of the Northwest. Yet it is still part of the state, and that was the part we were headed towards. We were leaving the mountains behind.
We pulled out in the cool of the morning. We retraced our route over Santiam Pass and through the town of Sisters. Our plan was to stop for breakfast while we still had a view of what we were leaving behind. Finding a place alongside the highway, the Three Sisters were in sight from the Airstream windows.
Before making the long drive home, we needed to stock up on provisions. The town of Bend was conveniently on our route. After making the usual Wal-Mart and grocery store stops, filling up the tank and checking things out, we decided to stay over the night and get an early start in the morning. Bend had caught our interest, and this would be our last chance to see more of its sights.
Bend is only one of four U.S. cities to have a volcano within its city limits. You can probably figure out what another one is, but the other two might be pretty difficult (the answer will be at the end of this blog–so give it some thought). Pilot Butte is a cinder cone butte that rises about 500 feet above the town. It is a popular place to hike, as we discovered when we went up to take in the view. From there, we could see the entire town spread out below, as well as several Cascade peaks. It gives you a good idea of Bend’s proximity to the high country.
We hit the road the next morning, taking a slightly longer route that would include a diversity of landscapes. We started out in a desert landscape . . .
After many miles of rough and barren country, the road began to rise in elevation, bringing green forests back into view. But it wouldn’t last.
After going over Ochoco Divide, we headed back down into what the locals call the badlands. And the temperatures began to rise.
Soon our route met up with a national scenic byway, appropriately called the Journey through Time. We were passing through the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument that preserves an area rich in fossilized plants and animals. Sheep Mountain looms over the Visitors Center, where we didn’t find a shady place for our lunch stop.
For awhile, the John Day River, North American’s second longest undamned river, paralleled our drive. With the water on one side, tall rimrocks flanked the other.
Eventually, the landscape changed again, as our elevation once again increased. Now we were following the Elkhorn Scenic Byway, named for the mountain range ahead.
We passed by some scenic places and wished we had time to stop. The mountains rose up all around us and, thanks to irrigation systems, the valleys were a verdant green and quite a contrast to the drier elevations.
Once again, though, the mountains receded behind us. The farther east we went, the more desolate the area became. Once hooking up with I-84, the main artery that had brought us into Oregon, the landscape was only undulating hills of brown. It seemed never-ending, in all directions. Welcome to eastern Oregon!
We ended our Oregon tour in a way similar to how it had begun. We had followed the Oregon Trail when coming in and tonight we would camp in an area well-known to those pioneers. Although we sometimes got sidetracked from the trails they took on their way to the Promised Land, there were constant reminders of their stories and travails as we traveled from place to place. Farewell Bend was the name these settlers gave to the spot where they would leave the Snake River behind. After following its winding course for more than 300 miles, it would swing to the north as they made their way across eastern Oregon. Here was the place they rested above the river’s bend. Now a state park that preserves this spot, the campground is situated on that same elevated ground.
After a light supper, we took one last evening stroll. The sun was dropping below the hills to the east, casting warm light on the barren land above the river’s bend. The landscape in far eastern Oregon is bleak . . . dry, rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Even today, there is very little evidence of habitation. One can’t help but pause and give thought to what history recorded here.
The sun was just coming up when we pulled out of that oasis of green.
The highway leading out of Oregon was remarkable . . . the land rising and falling, then rising again. Mile after mile of . . . nothingness. Dry, monochromatic hills, with the road intertwining through them.
We did include a couple of interesting stops in our first two days on the road. Soon after entering western Wyoming, Fort Bridger was only a few miles off our route. It was here that intrepid mountain man, Jim Bridger, established a small fort. Actually more like a supply store and blacksmith shop, it was a place where Indians traded and Oregon Trail emigrants stocked up on their supplies, made repairs and traded their worn-out oxen for fresh ones. It grew into a military outpost in 1858 when troops were stationed to protect the travelers from hostile Indians. For many decades it expanded, becoming one of the main hubs of westward expansion. It was utilized not only by the emigrants and the U.S. Army, but also by the Pony Express, the Overland Stage, and the Union Pacific Railroad. It was finally abandoned in the late 1800s.
It has become a State Historic Site and attempts have been made to reconstruct and restore the compound, or what’s left of it. There were even some costumed interpreters to explain the roles their characters played in the fort’s operation. It provided a nice interlude from the interminable miles spent sitting in our truck.
The following day we also found an interesting site to take in. We knew about the Wyoming Frontier Prison when we camped here in the town of Rawlins on our way west. Chris had wanted to take it in then, but time was the limiting factor. Now, as we were reluctantly headed in the other direction, taking the time seemed the fun thing to do, so we signed up for the tour!
Opened in 1901, the Old Pen (as it’s come to be known) originally had 104 5’X7′ cells holding two inmates each. There was no electricity or running water, and very in adequate heating. Times were tough back then. In 1904, 32 additional cells were added, and due to constant conflicts, there would be only one inmate per cell. Overcrowding was a major problem. In 1950, a heating system was finally installed, as well as a second cell block being added, which temporarily relieved the overcrowding.
The new cell block had hot running water, something the original cell block wouldn’t have for another 28 years. No prisoner rights back in those days, I guess. The prison was equipped with several different means of disciplining inmates throughout its operation, including a dungeon, several variations of solitary confinement and a “punishment pole” to which men were handcuffed and whipped with rubber hoses. Finally closed in 1981, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It stands as a remnant of the grizzly history of the Old West.
Back on the road, we had some serious traveling ahead of us. Half the trip was behind us, but still 1,200 miles were to come. From now on, the only sights taken in would be through the truck’s windshield. Wyoming kept up our interest . . .
but after that, it was predominantly a lot of cornfields. We were back in the Midwest.
We hope you’ve found our travels interesting, and maybe somewhat informative. Oregon is an amazing place, and seems to offer something for everyone to like. We were never bored with the scenery, and even when the weather didn’t cooperate as we had hoped, the places still held our fascination. We live in a big big country, and there’s so much more waiting to be seen. We’ll wash the dust and grime of this trip off our truck and trailer, and then get down to planning where comes next.
Returning home from Oregon,
Chris and Melinda