Traveling Eastern Oregon

John Gottberg Anderson / For the Bulletin Published Oct 23, 2011 at 05:00AM

LAKEVIEW — The radio was tuned to a country music station — frankly, that was all I could get in the ranchlands of Eastern Oregon — when the Bellamy Brothers burst through the airwaves.

“I love you for all the wrong reasons,” they sang. “But you love me in all the right ways.”

Oddly, that's how I feel about U.S. Highway 395, which cuts a north-south route through the state, about halfway between the Cascades and the Idaho border.

Extending 1,305 miles from Canada to greater Los Angeles — from Laurier, Wash., to Hesperia, Calif. — the highway enters Oregon on the Columbia River at Umatilla. It concludes a 386-mile run to the California border at New Pine Creek, 15 miles south of Lakeview on the shores of Goose Lake.

Before making the drive earlier this month, I was curious but decidedly underwhelmed. I had driven small sections of the road and crossed it at key junctions on east-west highways, but always pictured it as bleak and boring.

Those were, indeed, wrong reasons, and very wrong impressions.

My drive took me from the salmon ladders of McNary Dam to the treeless alkali plains south of Wagontire, through the ponderosa woodlands of the Umatilla and Malheur national forests and the lush livestock ranches around John Day and Burns.

En route, I met a melon farmer in Hermiston, a cowboy in a 10-gallon hat in Pendleton, two elk hunters in Ukiah, a schoolteacher in Canyon City, a cattle auctioneer in Hines, several birders at Lake Abert and a sunstone prospector in Lakeview.

Highway 395 through Eastern Oregon brings to life the surprising diversity of a sparsely populated section of this state. It's a long way from Interstate 5 — and I find it a lot richer.

Umatilla and Hermiston

After a four-hour drive from Bend — north to Rufus, then east to Umatilla, supported by a Columbia River tailwind — I began my Highway 395 adventure at the Umatilla Pioneer Museum. The small museum had an antique carriage at its heart, an old jail cell in an adjacent room, and an exhibit of native arrowheads and pounding rocks in a small display case.

“Umatilla was originally a railroad town,” explained the elderly woman who was in charge of the museum. “Of course, that didn't last long.

“But we have a whole room on the McNary Dam. My late husband was a guard who stood next to Eisenhower, you know.” That would be Dwight Eisenhower, who was the U.S. president through most of the 1950s.

Constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1947 and 1954, the McNary Lock and Dam joined the downriver Bonneville Dam (completed in 1938) as a principal provider of hydroelectric power to Oregon and Washington. Today the facility operates so smoothly, it places special emphasis on its additional wildlife-management programs.

The dam's visitor center, in fact, is called the Pacific Salmon Visitor Information Center. While three other visitors animatedly discussed a display on the salmon life cycle, I studied an interactive computer program. Then I took a closer look through the windows of the Oregon Fish View Room, watching as large chinook migrated upriver via fish ladders.

Six miles south of the dam is Hermiston, a city of 16,000 with a reputation as Oregon's melon-growing capital. Strategic weapons stored at the U.S. Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot, five miles west, probably have nothing to do with the success area farms have had in growing watermelons, cantaloupes and many varieties of squash.

When I dropped by Bellinger Farms, three miles southeast of downtown Hermiston, the first fall freeze had already occurred and melons had surrendered to pumpkins. Future jack-o'-lanterns of all sizes — most of them deep orange but some a creamy white — were stacked outside the country store, inviting visitors inside.

To one side of the store, owners Donna and Jack Bellinger built a hay-bale amphitheater, populating it with large pumpkins and miniature scarecrows. Beside the display, a tractor waited to take young visitors on hayrides through a broad U-pick pumpkin patch. I decided once again that Halloween is one of my favorite times of year.

Standing on the front porch of the 1881 Koontz House in the quaint village of Echo, a mile south of I-84 on the road to Pendleton, a trio of come-hither mannequins were already in fancy dress. Two large but friendly Pyrenean mountain dogs guarded the house, which displayed this sign on its front gate: “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women.” The house is not open for visitors but is a popular and interesting look-see for passers-by.

Echo is one of the oldest communities in Oregon, established at an Oregon Trail crossing of the Umatilla River. That location is commemorated by a replica of the original 1855 blockhouse in a small park near the center of town.

Cowboy country

Pendleton is Cowboy Central. Thanks in large part to the 101-year-old Pendleton Round-Up, one of the most important rodeos in North America, held annually in mid-September, and to the Pendleton Woolen Mills, renowned for its quality blankets and clothing, this city of 17,000 lures everyone with anything to do with traditional Western culture.

Pendleton has calf ropers and bronco riders, ranchers and saddle makers, fence builders and ribeye-steak chefs galore. It also has a diverse heritage that includes a blend of native Umatilla Indians, pioneer settlers, Chinese miners and rail workers, and a red-light district with stories that would make Aunt Polly blush.

Some of those stories are related on the Pendleton Underground Tours, which begin in the speakeasies, gambling halls and opium dens of Prohibition-era tunnels, and progress to tiny second-story apartments overlooking Main Street and Emigrant Avenue.

Here women like Stella Darby and her covey of working girls catered to lonely men with a little extra money as recently as 1967 — 14 years after prostitution was officially declared illegal in Pendleton. I'm sure they would have approved of the retail shop that now fills a ground-floor space beneath their former cribs: Correction Connection, which markets Prison Blues denim clothing made by inmates of the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.

Stella was nowhere to be seen when I planted my road-weary rump on a barstool at the Hamley Steak House, a restaurant with a separate retail space. Ensconced in the same building for 106 years, Hamley&Co. is a legend in this part of the state — as much for its Western wear as for its premium meat. So after dinner and a local beer, I did a little shopping.

Pat Beard, the nattily dressed store manager whose boots and hats made him appear even taller than he already was, greeted me warmly and described the layout of the spacious mart. Clothing was in the front section, with boots against the back wall. Saddles, hats, ropes and other rodeo essentials were in an adjacent room beside a working saddle shop; back in the 19th century, after all, the founding Hamley brothers had been leather craftsmen and saddle makers. A handsome bronze sculpture was a teaser for an outstanding gallery of fine Western art on a mezzanine loft.

I escaped without spending a fortune, purchasing only a T-shirt. But I wore it proudly the next morning, when I checked out of my room at the Red Lion and headed south down Highway 395 into parts previously unknown.

Small towns and hunters

McKay Creek, Pilot Rock, Jack Canyon, Battle Mountain, Ukiah and Long Creek: These were some of the places I discovered on the morning of my first full day on 395.

McKay Creek is a National Wildlife Refuge a few miles south of Pendleton. Normally, I guess, it welcomes visitors to drive a gravel road to a parking area with trailheads that access a verdant marsh beside a reservoir. I found the gate closed, however, with a sign posted asking visitors to respect the winter breeding grounds of migratory waterfowl.

The economy of the small town of Pilot Rock is obviously built around a bustling lumber mill, its logs hauled down East Birch Creek and Yellow Jacket roads from the Blue Mountains. But the surrounding landscape was rife with wheat fields, cattle ranches and a plethora of red-tailed hawks.

A few aging, abandoned ranch homes suggested that arid Jack Canyon may have once received more rainfall than it does today. But that didn't seem to be a problem 15 miles south in the Battle Mountain Scenic Corridor, where an evergreen forest at 4,200 feet elevation harbored a tranquil state park that welcomes picnickers.

Located 50 miles south of Pendleton, the tiny town of Ukiah — population about 260 — is best known as a hub for hunting and fishing in the Blue Mountains. One mile east of Highway 395 on state Highway 244 to La Grande, it sees a steady stream of outdoorsmen, particularly in fall. At the Thicket Cafe and Bar, where I stopped for a cup of coffee, I chatted with two friends from The Dalles who had taken a three-point buck that very morning.

The highway south from Ukiah crosses a section of Umatilla National Forest, following streams lined with colorful autumn foliage, before descending to the broad canyon of the Middle Fork of the John Day River. A side road leads 11 miles downstream to a small hot springs at the community of Ritter, but I didn't detour from 395.

Officially, the population of Long Creek (220) is less than that of Ukiah, but the town felt considerably larger. There's a motel here, the Long Creek Lodge, and a proper restaurant for meals, The Stampede. There's even a modern school.

That's more than the settlement of Fox, eight miles south, which has a community church that is apparently active even though most of the other buildings in the village appear to be vacant.

John Day and Burns

At Mount Vernon, 120 miles from Pendleton, Highway 395 joins U.S. Highway 26, and the countryside begins to look a lot more familiar to someone from Bend.

With about 600 people, Mount Vernon seemed like a virtual metropolis. But John Day, with 2,000 residents, is only eight miles farther east; highways 26 and 395 share this stretch of pavement. Located at the foot of Strawberry Mountain, John Day has numerous lodging and dining options — and it has the unique Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site.

“Kam Wah Chung” is Chinese for “Golden Flower of Prosperity.” That's what young Dr. Ing Hay thought he had discovered in 1888 on the banks of the John Day River. For 60 years, until he retired at the age of 86, the herbalist treated patients of all races and ages with a remarkable degree of success. Today the Oregon State Parks system operates an interpretive center across the street from the heritage site and offers hourly tours of the historic building — where Ing Hay lived and worked — from May to October.

I turned south again on 395 and grabbed a roast-beef sandwich for lunch from Russell's Custom Meats&Deli in Canyon City. I ate it in the little city park at the heart of this 19th-century mining town, flanked by Larry Kangas murals painted on the back walls of buildings well over a century old.

The 70-mile drive over Devine Ridge to Burns was an uneventful one. At the head of the Bear Valley, the village of Seneca — another community of just over 200 people — offered shelter for horseback riders and motorcyclists.

A little farther, the 135,000-acre Silvies Valley Ranch spreads through a lush valley surrounding a meandering mountain stream. Founded in 1898, the famed cattle ranch is now making a foray into ecotourism with a 36-hole golf resort scheduled for a 2014 opening.

Beyond the Joaquin Miller Horse Camp — named for a colorfully adventuresome American poet who lived in Canyon City in the 1860s — the Devine Canyon Scenic Corridor rises over a 5,340-foot saddle, the highest point on Highway 395 in Oregon. Then it drops into the town of Burns, 3,000 citizens strong, on U.S. Highway 20, 130 miles east of Bend.

I spent my second night on the road in an inexpensive highway motel and invested a couple of extra dollars over a steak dinner at The Pine Room, where my companion in conversation was a cattle auctioneer on a business trip from California. He proudly told me that he had recently thrown a big party for Boise-area ranchers, with music provided by the Bellamy Brothers.

South to the border

By this time, I knew I was on 395 for all the right reasons. I awoke early to see the sun rise over Steens Mountain, then headed west 25 miles to the Highway 20 junction at Riley.

For 40 miles, I saw almost nothing but rolling, sage-covered hills, nary a juniper tree. A side road points west toward the Northern Great Basin Experimental Range, a facility operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study high-desert cattle-grazing environments, but the gravel route disappeared over a distant hill. As I continued south, the sage got smaller and the earth sandier. Finally I arrived at the next settlement indicated on my map: Wagontire.

But when I got there — as Gertrude Stein said of her hometown of Oakland, Calif. — there was no “there” there. On the west side of the highway, a motel, cafe and RV park were closed, and clearly had been closed for an extended period. On the east side of the road, beside a track overgrown with wild rye and rice grass, a weathered sign announced “Wagontire International Airport, Elevation 4725.”

Past the junction of a paved road to Christmas Lake, the mountains got a little more rugged, the climate even more arid. A series of white alkali lake beds nuzzle the highway; the only sign of life is an Oregon Department of Transportation station.

Near Hogback Summit, about an hour's drive south of Riley, ODOT's Highway Well Rest Area is a welcome sight. Its displays on geology and natural history enlighten visitors to what might easily be mistaken for a wasteland.

Lake Abert, however, is splendid in its desolation. A treasure for bird watchers, this beautiful lake — 15 miles long, up to seven miles wide, but no more than 10 feet deep — is shadowed on its east side by the abrupt scarp of the Abert (pronounced AY-bert) Rim, rising a half-mile directly above the lakeshore.

Because fish cannot live in water so alkaline, tiny brine shrimp thrive. This ensures an abundant avian population. Grebes, phalaropes, avocets, killdeer, terns, stilts and even snowy plovers are frequent visitors. And ornithologists have counted more than 20,000 ducks of several species at the lake at one time.

State Highway 31 from La Pine and Silver Lake joins 395 at tiny Valley Falls. The next 30 miles to Lakeview show a return to ranching country, as a sign depicting a giant cowboy, waving “Welcome to Lakeview,” might suggest. About 2,700 people live in this town, which is a popular destination for hang gliding and paragliding from the adjacent Warner Mountains.

Ironically, there's no lake view from Lakeview. You'll have to continue a few miles further on 395 before Goose Lake comes into view. This is another broad, shallow lake — 26 miles long, 26 feet deep — but its alkaline level is not so high that it cannot support a fishery. Like Lake Abert, it attracts thousands of migratory birds.

Highway 395 crosses into California at the village of New Pine Creek. And there I concluded my journey. I had taken the road less traveled, as Robert Frost once wrote. And that made all the difference.