During the COVID pandemic, we stayed in Washington State and took only four short camping trips. Comfortable in our little world just outside Langley, enjoying our neighbors and friends, swimming daily with my excellent group of ladies, talking with acquaintances, visiting island touchstones such as Ebey’s Landing, Deer Lagoon, Goss Lake, and the Port of South Whidbey Harbor in Langley, my husband Bill and I got the travelin’ bone and are on a month-long camping journey. We will travel in our vintage trailer Marion — a 1979 Canadian-made Trillium, which is pulled by Bertie, our 2002 Ford Explorer with 200,000+ miles on her. Our neighbors Bert Guenther, Sydney Wolcott, and friend Mary Brennan agreed to care for our cat Ollie and our fish while we were gone. Bert texted to say Ollie had dined on a rabbit on our bedroom rug. Oh the things our neighbors put up with!
During this pilgrimage I will write about what it feels and looks like outside our world. Here is a tale of five days on the road so far in Oregon. Note: photos are by Kate Poss, unless otherwise noted.
First stop: Columbia Gorge—Cascade Locks KOA, Cascade Locks, Oregon
We camped next door to our son Raymo, his partner Gino and their dog Rogelio, who stayed in a cozy camping cabin. First night I went for a swim in the Columbia River. It was only 54 degrees in the calm beautiful beach at Cascade Locks Marine Park. Wearing a wetsuit kept me warm and I admired the nearby Canadian geese and their flock of twenty golden goslings.
It rained steady the following day, but that did not deter a visit to Pine Street Bakery in Hood River, where the boys enjoyed fresh excellent bakery that sells out quickly. Bellies full, we drove to Tamanous Trail #27, a 1.3 mile hike near the town of Bonneville. The Pacific Crest Trail is part of this forested trail as well. While promising to take us to an overlook of Lake Gillette, the trail led us through new spring maple leaves, preventing us from having a clear view of the lake. But the shades of spring green, the purple blooming trillium and the raspberry-hued flowering currants held our attention while the forest canopy shielded us from steady rain. That night in our trailer we sat around the dining table eating a great steak barbecued by our son. Rogelio laid comfortably on the floor and we appreciated the shelter of our 13-foot trailer and the bonhomie we shared while rain tapped steadily on the roof.
Central Oregon—Mitchell, Oregon, John Day Fossil Beds Country
The following morning we said good-bye to our son and his family and left early, heading east along Hwy. 84, our destination the tiny city of Mitchell. We wanted to ensure getting one of three plug-in campsites the city rented out. It was raining and cold out as we drove.
Exiting onto Highway 206 at the town of Biggs, we noticed mono crop fields of foot-high green hay, with rows of wind turbines popping up like aliens along the horizon. We wondered why there were so few birds perched on the fenceposts. Passing through the town of Wasco, we saw the town was nearly deserted, except for a couple of old-timers sitting outside a warehouse, who looked at us as we drove by. Stopping by a little city park, I noticed a guy on a roofless Jeep driving around and around the block. Meanwhile, a thin youngster clad in turquoise danced or jumped around at the end of a driveway. The scene reminded me of Madeline L’Engel’s Wrinkle in Time, where the Murry children enter a parallel universe and everyone does the same thing at the same time.
Heading farther along Highway 206 toward the city of Condon, we saw signs of birdlife: magpies perched on fenceposts and meadowlarks singing their spring song. The landscape was no longer a monoculture, but gave way to sage, lupine, arrowleaf balsam root, Indian paintbrush, and phlox.
Pulling up in front of the Country Flowers Old Fashioned Soda Fountain, we saw a grandpa with two boys eating ice creams out on the sidewalk. “Nice trailer,” one of the boys said. We asked if there was good food inside and were told there was. Inside is a soda fountain, ice cream case, a deli and an owner in training, Jeremy Kirby. A thirtyish/fortyish man with calm brown eyes, he said he had come home after living and working in Portland, Seattle and New York. Living now in his grandparents’ home with his fiancee, Jeremy told us of people his age who are returning to towns like Condon, which need a new infusion of energy and innovation. He told us about new friends, a couple, former fire dancers and Cirque du Soleil dancers, who are reviving the Hotel Condon, and how another friend has resurrected the local paper, The Times Journal. Jeremy said the divide between red and blue thinkers was actually not as great as we read in the national news, and that overall, people get along.
As we headed toward Mitchell, we admired the mesas and juniper-covered high desert hills as we approached John Day River country. We learned John Day was part of an Oregon Trail expedition bound for Astoria to the new Pacific Fur Company. Heading east from Virginia in 1812, John Day and Ramsay Crooks were confronted by the local tribe where the Mah-hah River met the Columbia River. The men were stripped of their possessions and clothing. Later they were re-outfitted and continued on. While John Day became well-known at the trading post, the legend of his encounter grew among other west-bound settlers. So the Mah-hah River became known as the John Day River.
When pioneer missionary Thomas Condon arrived in 1852, he named the area the John Day Fossil Beds because of the river’s role as sculptor, which exposed fossil-bearing rock layers that dated back more than 40 million years ago. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in Kimberly Oregon is now a world-class research center which studies fossils and hosts informative and well-crafted educational displays about the history of the area, which once was home to Dawn redwoods, a tropical climate and now-extinct predecessors of our modern horse, lion, rhinoceros, and elephant.
While controversial among some Christian beliefs today, Thomas Condon, embraced the notion that the Earth has evolved over tens of millions of years. “Evolution was God’s method of working, and therefore not atheistic or infidel,” he was quoted as saying at a display at the National Park Service-run center. Condon said that religion and modern science could co-exist. “The Church has nothing to fear from the uncovering of the truth.”
Along with the fossils providing proof of life far different than the arid landscape today, volcanoes spread floods of molten rock called the Picture Gorge Basalts 16 million years ago. Then seven million years ago, the area was engulfed by what is called the Rattlesnake Ash Flow Tuff. The eerily beautiful, Martian-like landscape of Painted Hills reflects the impact of past extreme climate changes.
Nowadays, scientists look for clues in geologic formations to understand when, how, and why the climate changed and how plants and animals responded.
Meanwhile, we found a campsite in Mitchell, across from a barn and an old truck with a lot of character that lives in the bushes. At the Wheeler County Trading Company, I talked with the new store owner, who said she and her family moved to Mitchell three years ago to revitalize her grandparents’ store. Revive they have, and pet food, hardware, camping goods, food, and even ‘shoe grease’ can be found here. Down the road a bit is the Tiger Town Brewing Company, which serves craft beer, pub food and great camaraderie. It was the only place in town open after 5 p.m. on a Sunday. The town, though a bit rough on the outside, has plenty of character and artists. Locals look you square in the eye here. Down the road we were curious about a man who lives in a handmade 6×6-approximate sized structure with a window and his face looking out with a wood stove chimney above. Would love to have learned his story.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Crystal Crane Hot Springs
Leaving Mitchell early April 26 we drove through the city of John Day (where we saw a banner which read ‘Trump won the 2020 election.’ Note: we have similar flags nearby in our neighborhood as well!), which experienced a devastating, though no loss of life, fire five years ago. Navigating a snowstorm through the Strawberry Mountains and burned Ponderosa Pine hillsides, we stopped in at the Broadway Deli in the town of Burns, where we met the strong-willed, straight talking ranch owner Fran Davis, whose first announcement was that she raised 42 foster kids in 14 years. She kept her payroll up during COVID, she told us, and expanded the deli, which serves great food and pastries, to include a wine shop and a ladies’ boutique next door.
At Crystal Crane Hot Springs we parked on a dry site — meaning no water or electricity —and headed to the soaking pond. Socially distanced we enjoyed how the water made our skin feel silky. We admired the yellow-headed blackbirds and their boisterous songs to attract a mate. They puff up their yellow chest and spread their tail feathers while clinging to tule reeds or fence post and sing full-throated with their beak to the sky. We visited with a couple of local gals who come from Burns for physical therapy exercise in the warm water. Caught in a swift rainstorm afterwards, we ran to our trailer where we were grateful for our propane furnace and an earlier prepared meal of Swedish meatballs, which we heated up on our propane stove.
The following morning we planned to spend the day at the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve, about 45 minutes’ away from the hot springs resort. First we turned down Venator Road, which took us to Valentine Field, Home of the Mustangs, where elementary school kids were running track. Signs fronting the gate celebrate the champion girls’ and boys’ track team in 2011–a simple celebration of what matters.
Stopping in at the Crane Store & Cafe in Burns for breakfast, the waitress was openly hostile, showing us to a table in a darkened room, saying it was the only place we could sit. There were other tables up front, but she told us we couldn’t sit there or outside. We wondered if our liberal roots were showing. She was the only person we met so far, who wasn’t friendly or at least civil. I imagined a story of her dreaming about a better life outside this open and unforgiving landscape. The smell coming from the kitchen was more chemical than food-like so we left the menus on the table and said we changed our mind about eating there.
At Malheur, we met up with a couple who live in Langley! They too had seen the Whidbey Audubon presentation earlier this year of this famed bird refuge, the place which sends a population of white pelicans to gather at Deer Lagoon each spring and summer.
We wondered why the pelicans flew all the way to Whidbey Island and since our visit to Malheur’s shrinking lake, we reasoned they need to find food due to the shrinking water source.
Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff at Malheur manage water flow as much as possible, warmer temperatures, combined with wind caused evaporation of lake water, resulting in decreased water levels on the lake. Poor water quality as a result of invasive common carp, introduced in the 1920s, adds to the poor water quality as well. Staff does fill important ponds and wetlands, not available to visitors, so it may appear that there are fewer birds using the refuge.
Back at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, I swam in the warm pond, admired the handsome yellow-headed blackbirds singing their love songs. Staff keep the showers, bathrooms, and grounds immaculate. They have built a pond that is attracting wild birds. Joining us at the campsite are killdeer, coot, occasional red-tailed hawk, the sweet song of the meadow lark. And an easy camaraderie among campers makes staying here a fun experience.
Bill drove over to Anderson Valley Propane to fill up our 5 gallon bottle. Mary Jo, one of the strong and true ladies of this wild open sage and cattle country, greeted him warmly. She pointed out hand-tooled leather gifts that truckers like to buy and take home to their ladies.
It was time to leave this open, lonely, magnificent country. We headed out early April 28, following a swim in the heavenly hot springs. If you like hearty fare, stop by for breakfast at the Juniper Cook House Baked Goods, in Burns Oregon. Great story on their webpage. Old timers in cowboy hats and truckers caps park here in big trucks and sit and jaw at the picnic table. Great smoked tri-tip, pork and chicken for the road! Great hashbrowns, bacon and eggs, too! Love the friendly staff who know how to cook.
Now we’re in Likely, California, and that begins another chapter you’ll read later on.