Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mother's Day in Hell(s Canyon)

An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.  -Spanish Proverb

We awoke and our suspicions from the night before had confirmed. We had managed to drive all the way from Portland to the Idaho border, completely on secondary roads. Our home for the night had been the Copperfield Campground on the banks of the Snake River. Yes, we were officially in Hell’s Canyon.

The entire family, dog included, at Hell's Canyon.

While enjoying the view of the river and some nice hot coffee (hot chocolate for the kiddos) we met a nice couple in the next campsite, the Coons from Weiser, Idaho. (I am not sure, it may be my juvenile sense of humor, but I found their last name, along with where they were from, completely hilarious. I managed not to convey this to them.) They spend a lot of time in the canyon, and were able to provide us with tons of tips on the area. Unfortunately, a lot of the high country was still buried in snow, so all of our sightseeing had to be done from the road that runs from the campground to Hell’s River Dam.

This is a windy road with lots of hills, and you have to watch out for falling rocks. There were a lot of rocks in the road. Not necessarily a road I would recommend in a monster motorhome, but we were getting a very early start and as it was off-season for the area, we passed very few cars.

Everyone knows my love for the Columbia River Gorge. That is no secret. As I have said before, I spend so much time there, I consider it my second home. In fact, there is a little house in Bridal Veil, should I ever win the lottery, that will become my real home. However, my first impression as we drove into the canyon was, the Columbia River Gorge has nothing on this place.

The light was bad for picture taking but beautiful none the less.

Maybe it was the rainstorm the night before, coupled with how early in the year we are visiting, but this was not the dry, desolate place I have always thought it to be. Clouds were moving through, waterfalls dotting the walls here and there, green and lush, much like my beloved basalt cliffs at home. This was much more dramatic. The canyon walls much steeper, the river more narrow and moving faster than the lazy Columbia. In fact, I envisioned this is what the Gorge must have looked a lot like before they dammed and tamed it.

Hell's Canyon Dam

After we got to the point we could go no further down the road in our behemoth, the man lamented he had not seen one mountain goat. (He had been looking for them the entire time.) This must have been the summoning words, because sure enough, it was at that point we looked up and saw one. Sage thought they looked more like polar bears with horns.

Can you see the mountain goat?

At this point, we realized that at some point we were going to have to start heading towards home. We had better start heading that way, because we had a long way to go. So onto the road and back towards Baker City we went.

We did take time to stop at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City. This is a great stop if you are interested in learning the history of the Oregon Trail, or if you want to see in real life what inspired that old computer game you played so much in elementary school. (Please don’t tell me I was the only one?)

My main reason for wanting to stop here is to see the section of wagon wheel ruts that have been preserved here. Unfortunately, it was an almost two hour round trip hike down to see them. We just didn’t have the time to do this since we wanted to get home before midnight, so I was so disappointed when we made the decision to skip it. However, upon exiting the museum, I learned that they could actually be accessed from the road, and only a short walk would be required.

So, as silly as it sounds, I have always wanted to see the actual wheel ruts ever since I played that silly game in elementary school, shooting deer with the space bar, and I finally got my chance. Overall, to look at they were fairly unimpressive. In fact, they didn’t look much different from the many truck tracks we saw encircling ranches on our journey, just more overgrown with sagebrush. However, standing there, imagining the thousands of wagons that passed by, filled with the hopes and dreams of so many settlers, it was hard not to be effected.

Oregon Trail Wagon Wheel Ruts

From there, we headed straight for the interstate. Like the pioneers, we just wanted to get home and settle in, beginning to get weary from our journey. Traveling along I-84 home, as we passed exit after exit, I marveled at how much we had seen back there off the freeway and wondered how many other people zoomed right on by not even knowing how much they were missing.

The view from Cabbage Hill, just outside Pendleton

As we entered the Columbia River Gorge, just after sunset, I made a silent apology for my newfound love of Hell’s Canyon and even trying to compare the two places. Now, as we were driving past my beloved hiking grounds,  I was hit with the relief, that even after such a wonderful trip, with so many things new to my eyes, that my little family and I were finally home.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Scenic Byways

"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything." - Charles Kuralt

There is something to be said for traveling the back roads and seeing all the things the interstate passes by. The best part is all the wildlife, which is quite abundant on the quiet stretches of highway in Eastern Oregon. You can drive for miles without even passing another car. Fast food restaurants are a foreign entity. This is, in all aspects, truly getting away from it all.

As we were preparing to leave the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, a huge dilemma needed to be solved. Where do we go now? Do we head towards home, traveling a route we have never been before? Do we keep heading east, and just see where the road takes us? Much like trying to decide what to have for dinner, my husband and I were both a bit wishy washy and couldn’t come to an agreement. We just kept looking at each other saying “What do you want to do?” neither one wanting to be completely responsible for the decision.

Lucky for us, there was an information desk, staffed with a friendly-looking volunteer. We both walked up, studying the glass encased map on the desk, and asked the volunteer what we should see next.

“Have you been to the Painted Hills Unit?”

“Yup, first thing this morning.”

Sage and I returning from out hike at The Painted Hills
“Have you driven The Loop?”

“Yup, just got finished. That is how we got here.”

Along the John Day River
“Have you been over to the Cant Ranch?”

“Yes, that’s where we had lunch.”

Cant Ranch with Sheep Rock in the background.
At this point, looking a little flustered, she called over the Park Ranger on Duty. He walked over smiling and eager to help. We tried to explain our problem. We had an RV with an almost-full tank of gas. Eventually, we would need to head back to the Portland area, but as we both have an all-encompassing photography habit, we were looking for other things to see while on this side of the mountains.

Jon and his camera

“Is there anything to see between here and John Day?” we asked.

“No, just a bunch of ranches. Not really very scenic.”

At this point, he gave us a suggested route north to I-84 and said there was a great wind farm along the way. In fact, he sounded very enthusiastic about the windmills. Oh, and you could see several Cascades peaks along the way, on a clear day. We thanked him for his help, and went back out to the RV, still unsure of what we would do. Windmills didn’t seem entirely exciting to either of us. It was fairly overcast and we weren’t sure it would be clear enough to actually see all the mountains. Besides, neither one of us were completely ready to start heading west again. At least that we could agree to.

By chance, I had picked up an Oregon Scenic Byways brochure in the lobby of the museum, thinking it might be helpful in planning a future trip. I started thumbing through the magazine, mostly out of frustration because we were burning daylight, and when you are a photographer, there is no more precious commodity. Then the answer was staring me right in the face, a map of the “Journey Through Time” scenic byway, of which, between this trip and our previous visit to the area, we had driven almost half of already. Could we finish it today? It went all the way through John Day and up to Baker City. Could we finish it before dark today? Let’s give it a try. Neither one of us had any better ideas, and this seemed to be doable.

We drove through more ranch country (and yes, a half million more cows were present) to John Day, the Strawberry Mountains appearing in the background. Even though the ranger had warned us this area wasn’t very scenic, we all thought it was beautiful, mostly because it was so different from what we see every day at home. I guess when you see nothing but old barns and cattle every day, it does get a little old and you lose appreciation of what you are viewing. Much like Portlanders when the sun is out for weeks at a time and you see Mt. Hood every day, you forget what a wonder it is. (Yes, sunny days on end do happen in Portland. I vaguely remember it from last summer. Or was it the year before?)

Strawberry Mountain

Odessa posing next to a wagon wheel.
From John Day, we started the climb up into the Blue Mountains, which are still covered in a good amount of snow. After we descended into the valley below, we made a stop in the town of Sumpter, where we found the pot of gold, minus the rainbow. 

Where is the rainbow??
We made it to Baker City (and the official end of the scenic byway), and were faced once again with the familiar “Now What?” scenario. It was time to fill the gas tank and decide what to do next, the logical choice probably being to find a RV park to camp for the night and head home in the morning. However, no one has ever accused us of being logical people.

“We are only about 68 miles from Hell’s Canyon. The GPS says it only takes an hour and a half to get there. Wanna go for it?” the husband says after returning from paying for gas. Surely someone planted this thought in his head.

“Sure, let’s go for it. You think there is somewhere to camp up there for the night? There is still a lot of snow up in the mountains.” I replied.

“Oh, I am sure there is. Let’s do it!”

“Okay, let’s go.”

Jon drove like a man on a mission. We are going to make it to Hell’s Canyon, well, come hell or high water. There would be minimal stops. We had to make our destination. Though, we did stop to get a few pictures of the sun setting behind the mountains. Other than that, it was Hell’s Canyon or Bust.

Sunset on the mountains

One thing to remember: GPS lies. I don’t know what kind of algorithm they use to calculate driving time, but by my account, it took us a lot more than an hour and a half to finally drive to the “recreation area”, where mercifully, there was a campground. By this point, the whining from the children (yes, just the children) had begun from the seats of the dinette, coloring books no longer entertaining them, and starvation setting in, much like the pioneers before us.

It was pitch dark. I knew there was a river nearby just because I could hear it. Well, that, and I saw a sign pointing to a boat launch. To be honest, other than that, I had little to no idea where exactly we were except that Idaho might be across that river I heard, and we had to be at least close to Hell’s Canyon. In fact, I hadn’t even realized that we had passed into the Mountain Time zone until we turned on the TV and Saturday Night Live was on, at 9:30. It’s official, we were in the Twilight Zone. Or, we were still on Pacific Time, the TV station was from Idaho and on Mountain Time, where everything comes on an hour earlier in their world.

We turned the TV off, not really wanting to watch anything, having had turned it on just because we were curious if we could get any kind of signal there, and turned in for the night. With the way today had turned out, and having to eventually head for home tomorrow, we were all looking forward to the next phase of our adventure.
Note: The Scenic Byways Driving Guide is an excellent resource. I am already planning a couple of other adventures based on this FREE resource. You can request your own copy from ODOT or view it on the ODOT website and save a tree.

Our route on Saturday. That's a lot of miles!
Map courtesy of ODOT

Driving the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway:

Below are some great websites for planning your own adventure on the scenic byway:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Wild Horses CAN Stop Us

“There was no end to the strange ways on the two-leggeds.”
– Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron (Disney Movie)

After visiting the Painted Hills, we headed out to drive “The Loop” which circles the John Day Fossil Beds, and ultimately ends up at the Sheep Rock Unit and home of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. See the map of “The Loop” below.

"The Loop"
Map courtesy of ODOT
We had traveled part of this route before, on our earlier visit to the area (the section of highway 207 between Mitchell and Service Creek) but were looking forward to what we might see on highway 19, as this was new territory for us. Most of the time I think of Eastern Oregon as brown, dry and dusty, but with balsam root in full bloom, the green of the fields where cattle grazing, it was a completely different landscape from our previous visit. 

One thing you do see a lot of in this region, cows. In every color and size, littering pastures everywhere you look. Yes, this is where the famous Painted Hills beef comes from, and I am pretty sure I saw my next Burgerville cheeseburger out there in one of those fields.

We did happen upon some animal life that is not destined for my dinner plate. My favorite was a small herd of antelope, grazing next to the road. I wish I had a better picture to share with you, but, unfortunately, RVs do not stop on a dime, and by the time we were able to back up to get a look at them, they had run off into the pine trees and sagebrush.

A little further up the road, a wild horse brought us to a complete stop and was even nice enough to pose beautifully for us. Now, I know seeing a horse, under normal circumstances, is not a remarkable event, especially when fully ensconced in ranch country as we were. But this mustang was a beautiful, majestic creature. He was free from any fences, standing there as if he were king of the world, and with absolutely no fear until finally he tired of us and returned to the forest.

We continued on our route, following the John Day River, stopping to snap pictures whenever something caught our eye. One particularly beautiful rock formation, along the river and near the paleontology center was Cathedral Rock. Just because we were outside the “official” Painted Hills unit, it did not mean the color surrounding us had disappeared.

Cathedral Rock

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is a must-see for anyone interested in fossils. If you are looking for dinosaur bones you will be disappointed, but there are many examples of the ancestors to rhinos, elephants, camels and sabertooth tigers that are no less fascinating. The most amazing part is that admission is absolutely free. It is definitely worth your time to explore the exhibits and there were some great hands-on exhibits for the kids. The part that caught my attention the most was the window into the lab, where you can see many fossils in the process of being removed from rock. How these scientists are able to recognize bone from rock, and then remove it so delicately never fails to astound me. I could probably stand in front of a complete mammoth fossil, horns and all, in the ground and still have no idea what I am looking at. My only disappointment was that there was no one in the lab working, but, hey, even scientists deserve a lunch break every once in a while.

Fossilized Skulls

At this point, we had literally reached a fork in the road. We had no idea where we would go after this. Time to decide – do we push on to more sights unseen, or go back the way we came?

Visiting the John Day Fossil Beds:

Below are some great websites for planning your own visit to the John Day Fossil Beds:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Quest for Biscuits and Gravy

“'When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,' said Piglet at last, 'what's the first thing you say to yourself?' 'What's for breakfast?' said Pooh. 'What do you say, Piglet?' 'I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?' said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. 'It's the same thing,' he said.”

- A. A. Milne ‘The House at Pooh Corner’

We got a late start leaving the west side of the mountains, due to a variety of circumstances. My husband kept reminding me that at least we weren’t at work, but all I could think about was all the moments of daylight we were burning. In my opinion, every nanosecond of vacation time is precious, and should not be squandered. I did, however, make it through the afternoon with a limited amount of huffing, puffing and whining.

Over the mountain, through the woods and sagebrush, to our first destination we went. We had already determined a few days earlier that our first stop would be in Mitchell, the gateway to the Painted Hills, where we would stop for the night. What’s in Mitchell you ask? Not much really. It is one of those tiny blink-and-you-miss-it type of places. We had been here once a couple of years ago, on a prior visit to the area to see the aforementioned Painted Hills on our way home from Fossil where we dug for, you guessed it, fossils.

Day 1: Sandy to Mitchell 168 Miles
Map courtesy of ODOT

Those that know me well, or, heck, are even just a casual acquaintance, know I love food. I love to cook it. I love to eat it. I love to read about it. I love to watch it being prepared on TV. All the better if it involves any type of pork product. Little did I know, this is a genetic trait that can be passed down to your children.

Sage, my 10-year-old daughter: “So where are we going?”

Me: “Mitchell”.

Sage, screaming: “Biscuits and gravy!!! Yes!!”

Yes, Mitchell may not have much to offer other than a general store, a gas station, and a couple of small and simple hotels. Henry the Bear, the main tourist attraction in town, has since moved to retirement on a ranch somewhere outside of town. There is one thing about Mitchell, that hasn’t changed, they have the BEST BISCUITS AND GRAVY ANYWHERE and my tween daughter will be the first one to tell you that!

The entire way to Mitchell all Sage could talk about was biscuits and gravy. Would they have them for dinner? Would the restaurant still be open when we got there? If they are open and serve them for dinner, could we have them again in the morning for breakfast? When we stopped for provisions in Prineville, she kept rushing me through the grocery store, because we had to hurry up and get there before they closed. The tune playing in her head was stuck on repeat.

Finally, we arrived in Mitchell, and the Sidewalk Café and More (though I haven’t figured out completely what the "more" is) was closed up tight for night. We proceeded to the town RV park (or rather, the gravel parking lot next to the city park) to endure a box of macaroni and cheese for our dinner and turn in for the night.

At dawn, I was awoken by my daughter’s smiling face. She had awoken early and dressed already, ready to conquer the day and take in the beauty of the Painted Hills. Well, not really.

“Good morning” I said.

“Biscuits and Gravy!”

“Okay, let me make some coffee and we will get dressed and go.”

“Then, biscuits and gravy?”, hope shining in her eyes.

“Well, I guess I can skip the coffee and we can just get some when we go to get biscuits and gravy.” I said, and a look of relief spread across her face, eyes still shining for the one thing she had to have.

We got down the street and to the café before it opened. She waited the 20 minutes as patiently as she could, but if you know many 10-year-olds, she really couldn’t hide her enthusiasm well. Finally, the open sign switched on and we entered the restaurant.

This is a small family run place. The owner/waitress/cook greeted us. Sage looked at her and repeated the same three words she had been repeating non-stop since we left Sandy: “Biscuits and Gravy”.

I calmly (well, as calmly as I could, truth be told I was just as excited for them as Sage was) explained that we had eaten here a couple of years ago and were quite convinced that this owner/waitress/cook standing in front of us made the best darned biscuits and gravy in the land. I told her that we raved about them to anyone that would listen and wouldn’t be needing menus because that is all we would be having. Her response: “I sure hope you still like them. There was a guy in here the other day complaining because he didn’t think I put enough sage in it. They always come out a little different every time.” We assured her that we would think they were spectacular.

After what seemed like a forever wait, our nirvana was served to us on mismatched plates. Every bite was like a treat to our tongues.

I had to eat some before I could even stop to take a picture.
I tried to get her secret out of her. She insisted it was just sausage, milk, and flour. I asked what she seasoned it with. She said just sausage. I asked her what kind of sausage she used.

“Oh, I make my own. I get fresh ground pork in Prineville and add my own seasoning.”

Aha. Now it was all starting to make sense.

“So what do you season the sausage with?”

“Oh, that. Well, I am not going to tell you that. It turns out a little different every time. Don’t think I ever make it exactly the same way twice. I just dump stuff in there. Been doing it this way for 45 years.”

All cooks should keep their special recipes secret. I told her I wouldn’t try to get it out of her, but, once again, they were just as wonderful as we remembered. Though, I mentally noted she slipped earlier when she mentioned the sage she put in it.

We finished our breakfast, chatting with “Gravy Lady” and a local guy sitting at the counter drinking coffee. They offered us some great advice on what else to see in the area, most notably a drive they called “the loop” through Service Creek and Spray.

After leaving a huge tip (after all, she was the cook and the waitress and I don’t think anyone else could have taken better care of us) we headed out with full, happy bellies to go explore the Painted Hills and whatever else the day may hold for us……

Monday, May 9, 2011

On the road again.....

Goin’ places that I’ve never been. Seein’ things that I may never see again. And I can’t wait to get on the road again. – Willie Nelson

On the road near Pendleton, Oregon
Whenever I go on a road trip, that old song by Willie Nelson always pops in my head. I love nothing more than hitting the open road, with no particular destination in mind. The chances to do such trips seem to be rarer and rarer, with all the demands of work and family. It had been almost a month since I had touched my camera, and to be honest, to say I was going stir crazy would be a huge understatement.

With the both my husband and I having a rare Friday off together, we grabbed the kids, the dog and jumped in a rental RV to spend three days exploring the “wilds” of Eastern Oregon. We visited a few places we had been before, and others that were new to all of our eyes.
Our ride for the weekend.
It was an incredible three days! Nearly 900 miles logged and the adventure spanned two states and time zones. Deserts, mountains, lush green valleys dotted with ranches and livestock, wildlife ranging from wild horses to antelope to mountain goats, and relics of Oregon’s pioneer and geologic history.

Our route highlighted in blue above.
Map courtesy of ODOT
In fact, it is all far too much for one single blog post. Over the next week or so there will be a series of posts detailing the highlights of our journey, including some pictures of the sights along the way. There may even be a guest post from my 10 year old daughter, Sage.

The best part for you, no seat belt is required for this trip!!