We set out on a mission: to see Eastern Oregon and make it to Dave Matthews Band at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington. We needed a vacation badly. Both of us work too hard and never take time to relax. So, six months ago and only three months into our relationship, we started planning an epic Oregon roadtrip. Originally, we planned to go down the coast and trace the perimeter of the state along the south to the Alvard Desert and then north to the Painted Hills and Wallowa Mountains. Due to Ethan’s work not allowing him more time off, we shortened the trip to just North Eastern Oregon and it was still very worth it.
At 4pm on Monday, we quickly loaded up the car and hit the road. Besides the heavy rush hour traffic clogging the road, we began to feel free. We cruised through the Columbia River Gorge on our way out of Portland. The sun kissed us goodbye as it lowered at our backs, and we took in the last bit of glow on the rugged mountains lining the gorge. We took turns playing our CDs, collected in the 90s/2000s, and enjoyed the nostalgia of our pasts. The darkness creeped in around us, making the bumpy arms of the gorge into looming shadows. By 9pm, we reached our resting place at a campground in the Deschutes River Recreation Area. We set up our tent by flashlight.
Wind whipped through our mesh windows and the sun danced on our eyelids. We awoke to see where we had settled in the dark. The Deschutes river flowed behind us and fisherman were already casting their lines in the water. The sky was gray. Campers clanged pots as they prepared breakfast. I could hear strong country accents in the distance. The campground was nothing more than a big grassy field with picnic tables and brass fire pits. Our neighbors were a retired couple with a sweet blue Winnebago. We chatted with them while cooking oatmeal. We hit the road as soon as our car was repacked.
For the next few hours we zipped along the winding road heading south to John Day Fossil Beds called “The Journey Through Time Scenic Byway”. The landscape rolled out before us, the color of sawdust, and sage brush became the only green for miles. We could see ahead of us for miles. Fleetwood Mac streamed out of the stereo and we crooned along with the lyrics. I even revealed to Ethan my hidden skill at air drumming. We were having a blast. My cheeks hurt from smiling. We passed through small towns of no more than 25-100 people. Their main streets consisted of a church, cafe, and food mart. They had names like Grass Valley. Most of them looked like ghost towns, with not a soul in sight. We stopped in one town to explore an abandoned church that looked like it experienced a fire.
We pulled into the historical town of Shaniko to make some lunch. They really played up the old ghost town theme. They restored the historical buildings and had a few museums. The Shaniko Hotel, apparently bought and renovated by a Portland Millionaire, was closed after 6 years of being open, because it wasn’t lucrative. A lot of shop owners were out of towners who tried to cash in on the tourist attractions, but had decided to finally sell their property. We talked to a Native American woman outside of an antique shop, who said that only 25 people live in the town now compared to the original settlement of 400 people during the western settlement. There was a General Store, the old Jail, an antique car and wagon museum, and a history museum. It looked like something from a movie set. We wandered around for an hour then made tuna sandwiches and hit the road.
When you live in the city, you forget about all the people living in the rural areas of the state. I’ve always lived in cities, minus the Australian outback, and find it hard to imagine what life would be like in these rural towns. They seem so desolate and isolated, but this lifestyle may be the most ideal for some people. The people appear to be happy and friendly. They welcome visitors, but don’t want you to stay very long. At one point, these were the bustling towns of the west. People settled here along the Oregon Trail and formed a community. Over many generations, people have abandoned this isolation for greater things in the city, but others have remained. Unfortunately, these communities seem pretty dead and have a hard time retaining people. The farmers keep the community going, but the newer generations choose to leave for college and not return to the farming business started by their families. On a Tuesday afternoon most of the shops were closed in the towns we passed through, most likely because there just isn’t enough business passing through the town. We enjoyed seeing the history of Oregon painted on the brick facades of the old store fronts.
On the way to John Day, we stopped to view the monolithic rocks that towered over us like the spires of a cathedral. The rock spires formed when nearby volcanoes exploded leaving towers of molten lava rock. Originally, the environment of this area was a semi-tropical forest with lots of lush green trees and water. Animals such as gators and other tropical species lived on the land until rainfall decreased over time and the volcanoes blanketed the land in lava and ash. These John Day Fossil Beds hold the history of this land in their soil and rocks. Fossils of leaves and trees from the past are embedded in the formations. We could see the imprint of a tree trunk in the tower of stone. We climbed the 1/4 mile hike to the base of the spires and looked at the arches and sand-like castles formed by the volcano. We both found the history of this land fascinating and were in disbelief that it used to be a tropical forest.
Back on the road again, we zipped around sharp curves and watched the landscape grow and fall around us. The mountainside began to take on a colorful hue of seafoam and robin eggs blue. Then we turned down the road to the Painted Hills and witnessed the maroon dirt of the hills increase in intensity. We arrived at this natural wonder to find the sky threatening us with black heavy clouds. Before we could exit the car, the sky crackled and boomed and threw sideways rain at our windshield. The storm lasted no more than a minute or two and then the dark clouds retreated to reveal a bright blue sky.
We wandered around the different vistas at the Painted Hills, staring in wonder at the sharp contrasts in colors. We read that the reddish-brown soil was indication of a year with lots of rainfall. The history of Oregon’s landscape is painted in these hills. You can tell the time period and the level of rainfall and ecosystem by the colored hues of the clay-like soil. Erosion and the small amount of rainfall this area now receives has revealed these layers of different colors. One feels this sensation of being on a different planet when looking down on the craters and hills painted maroon, black, gold, and purple. The purple is a product of the slow moving lava that erupted from nearby volcanoes, which deposited iron in the soil. Each hue represents a different time period. The red hills are from 40 million years ago, when the land was rich and plentiful like a tropical forest. The purple hills are from 33 million years ago and the gold are from 16 million years ago. All tell the story of Oregon’s land at that time.
We plodded through the pathways on this Mars-like landscape, observing the history etched into the hills. The soil of these hills made for a caustic environment for plants and trees, so they oftentimes appeared barren minus a few sage bushes. We drove to the different view points to see the red hill and the golden leaf hill. The leaf hill was named as such due to the fossils discovered here of a certain leaf from trees that once grew in the area. The hill itself is golden yellow. By the last stop, we felt drained. Air out there is dry and the sun baked our skin. So, we decided to head through the small town of Mitchell and find some camping for the night.
Ethan insisted we stop at the small coffee hut, to purchase two maple bars from the old lady that makes them from scratch. He reminisced about passing through here ten years ago and loving the maple bar, an Oregon specialty. The sweet lady, the same one from ten years ago, sold us two maple bars with the maple still hot and dripping off the donut. I devoured mine, feeling famished from a long day on the road. Mitchell was another small town on the outskirts of the Painted Hills. There was a local watering hole, where local residents sat on the wooden porch and sipped afternoon beers and coffee. The main street consisted of a small food mart, cafe, and a farm supply shop.
We decided against camping in this abandoned campground in the middle of the Malhuer National Forest, because it felt like the scene of a horror movie staring Jason, and we continued an hour on to John Day. The campground there was polished with fresh green grass watered each day and mowed and a sleepy crowd of retirees in large RVs. We set up camp on the groomed lawn and made dinner. In the morning, we packed up and made our way through slightly larger towns on our way to Hells Canyon. The towns increased in size and capacity as we got closer to Baker City. When we arrived in Baker City, we found the town to have a nice main street with local antique shops, a theater, and several cafe/bars. The brick buildings wore their original signs faded across the front. You could see the history in the architecture.
We stopped to enjoy a drink and people watch at one of the local watering holes, then we took our food to a local park for a picnic. From Baker City, the road to Hell’s Canyon overlook transformed from sawdust golden hills to dense green forest. Ponderosa pine and doug fir shadow the road in their enormity. It amazed me the stark contrast between these forested areas and the dry desert between them. The road wound uphill, as we climbed through the forest towards Hell’s Canyon. As we pulled into the parking lot at the overlook, Hell’s Canyon rolled out before us. We could see for miles in either direction and look down into the nooks and crannies of the cratered earth. Mountains stacked up behind one another and glowed with blueish hues. Trees spotted the canyon, where the ground wasn’t too steep. We modeled for pictures in front of the majestic landscape before us. Several Forest Service employees visited the view alongside us, taking a break from fighting fires in the forests north of here.
Instead of staying in the wilderness for the night, we ambitiously headed towards Joseph to camp at Wallowa Lake. We lucked out and reached the glacial lake by 5pm and secured a camping spot for the next two nights. Our neighbors were a sweet couple who drove over from Portland. The touristic town in the Wallowas resembled a small Swiss village. They played up the nickname of the Wallowas as the “Swiss Alps of Oregon,” with Bavarian-style architecture. Mini-golf and bumper cars propagated the main street. Green mountains dwarfed the town beneath it. We paid the extremely inflated price of $31/each to ride up in the tramway. It’s rickety cart cranked up the hill on the old wires. We could see the fog hanging over everything. Wallowa lake glistened blue below us. Species of trees that don’t exist anywhere else in Oregon rooted themselves in the mountainside. It took 20 minutes to reach the top.
Families bustled around the vista. Over-fed chipmunks scurried around the cafe. The air smelled of pine and doug fir. The highest peak of the Wallowas is Sacajawea Peak at 9,838 feet above sea level. We could feel the elevation tugging at our lungs as we huffed and puffed up the trails to different viewpoints. In either direction, we could view the mountains sharp angles and snow caps. Wildflowers painted the alpine landscape with beautiful vibrant purples and yellows. A flower called fleabane, which resembled a purple daisy clustered around the mountain side and attracted orange butterflies with black dots. They fluttered from patch to patch sucking their sweet nectar. Silvery lupine, also a deep shade of purple, bowed in the harsh alpine winds. Yellow Wallowa Indian Paintbrush bordered the paths. Each lookout presented a different view. We could see the patchwork of shades of green and yellow along the farmland below. The jagged mountains cut across the skyline and towered over the glacial lake.
One moment we were sweating from the blaring sun and the next we were bundling up from the frigid alpine winds. Most of the snow on the tips had melted by this time of late summer, but some bowls formed between mountains still glistened in white. We plodded along this unique ecosystem at 8,500 feet above sea level. We descended on the tramway gondola after exploring every corner of the top of Mount Howard. At the bottom, we packed a picnic and dragged our chairs down to the lake. Unfortunately, the weather was colder than usual for late August and we couldn’t work up the courage to even dip a toe in the lake. Dogs didn’t hesitate though to bound through the waters to catch the stick thrown by their owners. A little boy splashed around along the water’s edge then exclaimed to his grandma that he wanted to go take a shower because he was cold. I sat with a sarong around my shoulders and a towel on my lap while I watched the kayakers paddle by. We ate triskets with cheese and salami and cream cheese and tinned oysters for a late lunch.
That evening, after a hot shower, we visited the town of the Joseph. The town is named for Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe that once called the Wallowas their home. We reached the town too late to visit any of the shops. They appeared to all close at 4pm. The main street was full of art galleries with Native American paintings and brass sculptures of animals. Antique shops and “cowboy”-themed stores lined the street. We were warned by a shop owner not to eat at the touristic Outlaws restaurant, so we picked a seat outside at Embers Brewhouse. Brass statues stood at each street corner representing historical symbols and people of the past. Kids ran up and down the street. A large buck with huge horns decided to visit the patrons at Embers and ask for a drink. He meandered around the fence looking at everyone, before heading on his way. Later, as we drove off with our scoops of ice cream in waffle cones, we witnessed a mother deer and her doe crossing the road at the crosswalk like they intended to follow the rules. This family of deer must be well acquainted with the town of Joseph.
That night we experienced some heavy rains and rumbling thunder. This weather isn’t to be expected often in Eastern Oregon. I fell asleep to the sound of the pitter patter on our tarp. We packed up in the morning and headed towards Washington. The road out of Joseph led us through more small farming towns and more brown earth. Crossing into Washington presented the same landscape, until we reached the Columbia Gorge. Missoula floods, caused by the melting of the glaciers from the ice age, caused the river that cuts through Oregon and Washington. The floods were so powerful they moved boulders and cut through mountains. This is why we have the raging Columbia river today that flows between the jagged cliffs on either side.
We reached our final destination at the Gorge Amphitheater and waited in a line of cars to enter the camping. We spent two days here for the Dave Matthews concert. Our neighbors were rowdy, drinking games and creative sports filled the campground all day long, and music blared through the rocky crags of the gorge all night. We danced to classic and new songs and watched as the sun set over the river. This was my first time experiencing a concert here and I would recommend it to anyone. The venue should definitely be on the list of those like Red Rocks and Alpine Valley, for its exquisite scenery nestled in the Columbia River Gorge and its sound is on point. The general admission fills a steep lawn, where concert goers throw glowsticks overhead and beer drinkers clog the pathways waiting at carts for a drink. It is fun and requires lots of energy. I barely slept as fellow campers blasted dubstep and set off fireworks next to us. I would do it again though, because it’s unique and fun.
It was wonderful to see Dave Matthews again after 10 years of not following him. It turned out to be his 25th anniversary at the Gorge and also his last year touring for a while. He played classics like Jimi Thing, Crush, Dancing Nancies, Satelite, etc. I also heard a lot of songs I didn’t recognize, because I haven’t bought an album in 10 years. The fans ranged in age from 18 to 65, which shows how people are still following him after all these years and new fans are joining the community each year. Ethan and I enjoyed our last hours of our vacation, driving away from the Gorge and along the river towards home. This was a very much needed vacation and even though it was very active it allowed me to let go of my work stress and just enjoy life for a week.