LONEROCK — Time is a concept that we don't understand so much as experience. When my thoughts drift to the not-so-distant past — the last 150 years, back to the Civil War era — I find it easier to grasp historical change by considering the lives of my predecessors than through any particular knowledge of my own.

No one here today walked this earth in 1863. Precious few were here a century ago. But grandparents of grandparents were alive recently enough to have shared their experiences with descendants not far removed from the lifetimes of the still-wild West.

I met one such person late last month while on a two-day road trip through the so-called “ghost towns” of north Central Oregon. Blanche Burres, 82, was walking her aging horse on her front lawn in isolated Lonerock, on a backcountry road 30 minutes' drive southeast of Condon.

As a rope halter steered Snapper away from the Prince Williams that grow in her carefully tended flower garden, Burres motioned toward an adjacent, abandoned two-story house, white paint peeling from its outer walls. “I was born and raised in that hotel,” she told me.

She remains an active citizen of her tiny community, serving as secretary of the Lonerock Methodist Church — built in 1898 when the population soared to nearly 70 people. “If you're here on Sunday, won't you please come to our potluck?” she beseeched me.

I asked how many people live in Lonerock today. She deferred to Mayor Paul O'Dell, 75, who had stopped by the house. O'Dell is a newcomer to town, having retired to Lonerock from the Portland area in the late 1990s.

“Last census gave us 21,” O'Dell said.

“Oh, but I think it's 20 now,” Burres replied. “One woman passed on a couple of years ago. Yes, we lost one.”

Then she turned and asked me: “Have you seen the church yet? And have you seen The Rock?”

Defining a ghost town

“The Rock” is a solitary, squarish 35-foot boulder on the south side of town, beside Lone Creek, a tributary of the John Day River. Beside it stands the renovated Methodist Church, built in 1898. I would have loved to have seen the inside of the church, but sadly, I missed the potluck.

Other buildings also piqued my interest, though. A two-story schoolhouse, built in 1903, rises above the east side of town. Its last high-school class graduated in 1932; the school closed for good in 1961. A tiny, wooden jail, built in 1891 as a place for rowdy sheepherders to sleep off nights of revelry, still looks as though it could withstand a prairie tornado.

Founded in 1881 to serve surrounding ranches, Lonerock hasn't had a post office since 1963. Townspeople get their mail in Condon. But even without postal service, a school or a general store, the community has persisted. Its false-fronted community hall, built around the turn of the last century, has been renovated, and its isolation has actually attracted a few residents like O'Dell.

Few of Oregon's “ghost towns” are devoid of residents. Nearly every hamlet I visited on my road trip had a few hangers-on. Shaniko, well known to Central Oregonians, listed 36 people at the last census — and that was before a family of 12 moved to town this spring.

I think of a ghost town as a community whose soul is in another era. It probably no longer has a school or a general store, and often no church nor surviving post office. Half or more of its structures may be in ruin.

Author Philip Varney, whose “Ghost Towns of the Pacific Northwest,” newly revised and published by Voyageur Press, was a key source and inspiration for this story, has different criteria than me. Varney lists several major towns in his book, including Sherman County seat Moro and southern Oregon tourism hub Jacksonville. I don't regard either as a ghost town. But Varney excluded such sites as Malheur City, Cornucopia, Horse Heaven and Heck & Gone. Each of these is a real ghost town, although they can be reached only by four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Why do people visit ghost towns? Some are history buffs. Others are keen photographers. A few may be searching cemeteries for traces of ancestors. The majority, I'm certain, are merely curious, wondering what's beneath the sagging roofs or behind the collapsing walls.

One must also wonder what sort of people continue to live in these towns.

In Mayville, population 6, I enjoyed a conversation with 66-year-old Bud Laney, who told me his family moved there 50 years ago. He's been away — for school, for work, for military service — but he always returns. He and his wife, Laurel, have a farm just to the west.

“It's real nice and quiet out here,” Laney told me. “And we like it that way.”

Shades of Shaniko

Shaniko, located 38 miles northeast of Madras on U.S. Highway 97, is the nearest real ghost town to Bend. It was named (and mispronounced) for early settler August Scherneckau, who owned a stage stop in the earlier community of Cross Hollows.

For just over a decade, beginning in 1900, Shaniko was the largest wool-shipping depot in the world. As the southern terminus of the Columbia Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific, it was the hub of a 20,000-square-mile territory that extended through most of Eastern Oregon. Ranchers and farmers brought their sheep, cattle and wheat to be shipped north to Biggs Junction, on the Columbia River.

In 1903, more than 1.1 million bushels of wheat were sold. Wool sales topped $3 million in 1903 and $5 million in 1904. But when the Oregon Trunk Railroad was completed to Bend in 1911, Shaniko was reduced to being the mere terminus of a dead-end railroad. When Australia and New Zealand began producing less expensive wool for the world market after World War I, Shaniko's importance faded further. The Columbia Southern was finally abandoned in the 1960s.

The Shaniko Hotel, originally the Columbia Southern Hotel, has been the town's anchor from the moment it was completed in 1900. Now owned by Portland financier Robert Pamplin Jr., the two-story brick hotel remains in fine repair — although it is presently closed, with no current plans for reopening.

But the entire downtown of Shaniko is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and plenty of other century-old buildings remain open. The largest of them is a wool shed — the largest in Oregon — on the east side of town. “SHANIKO” is spelled out on its tin roof in letters large enough to be read by any passing aircraft. The Columbia Southern train station, long since destroyed, stood immediately north of the shed.

A row of historic false-front structures — including the Shaniko post office — stands opposite the hotel on the south side of the street. Among them is the 1901 Gold Nugget Saloon, now an antiques store. Across from the hotel to the east is the 1901 city hall, where historical photos are displayed in an anteroom, open even when offices are locked. On the back side of the building is a three-cell jail, which visitors can explore, as well as the Shaniko firehouse. More old structures, including a small museum, are across a secondary lane behind city hall.

The town's most prominent building, after the hotel, is the Shaniko School, also built in 1901. Lime green, the three-room school features a unique octagonal bell tower. As one of its rooms serves as a wool fabric shop, it is frequently open to the public.

Shaniko's imposing 1901 water tower, 70 feet high, is just west. Built of sturdy wood, it held a pair of 10,000-gallon tanks that contained water pumped from a nearby spring.

Small-town snippets

My two-day excursion covered nearly 500 miles. I headed out U.S. Highway 26 through Prineville to Mitchell, then circled a series of Oregon state highways (207, 206, 19, 218, 216) — through Spray, Heppner, Condon, Fossil and Antelope — before heading up U.S. 97 and cutting across the White River Falls road to Dufur, home of an excellent historical museum. I returned to Bend via U.S. 197 and 97.

En route, I visited the ghost towns, or near-ghost towns, of Richmond, Hardman, Lonerock, Mayville, Kinzua, Shaniko, Kent and Friend.

I've already introduced you to Lonerock and Shaniko. Let me tell you about the others.

• Hardman (20 miles southwest of Heppner on state Highway 207) is exceptionally picturesque, boasting dozens of scattered wooden buildings surrounded by grasslands and wheat fields. Variously known as Dairyville, Raw Dog, Yaller Dog and Dogtown in its early history, it has been known by its current name since 1882, when a post office was moved here from the home of farmer David Hardman.

Once a milling center for wheat farms, it declined after it was bypassed by the railroad in favor of Heppner. The last shop closed in 1968, the same year the post office closed its doors. More than a dozen rural mailboxes stand beside the highway, in front of the ruins, a reminder that despite the lack of services, people still live here — perhaps about three dozen in the town itself and within a couple of miles around, by one resident's estimate.

The heart of town is the Hardman Community Center, built in 1870 as the Odd Fellows (IOOF) Hall. The de facto town hall, which at one point attracted preservation funds from the State of Oregon, is used for monthly dinners and other social events. Across the highway is the former grocery store and gas station, deserted for 45 years. Nearby is a garage, a jack still sitting beneath a rusted remnant of an antique vehicle.

• Richmond (1 mile east of state Highway 207, about 19 miles north of Mitchell) was founded in 1890 when a school, church and store were built. Named for the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., the town had a post office from 1899 to 1952, when the school also closed. But it had been dwindling in importance since the 1920s.

The one-room school, which had a stable for students who rode horses to class, had 40 students in its heyday. Its desks are now in the Fossil Museum, 28 miles northwest. Also in that museum are the pews from the former Methodist church, whose belfry still contains its original bell. Numerous other building ruins that remain standing include a long structure at the west end of the sparsely populated hamlet. It was a combination store, post office and residence.

• Mayville (7 miles north of Fossil, 12 miles south of Condon, on state Highway 19) was settled in the late 1870s. The post office opened in 1884. Its largest building is the 1895 Odd Fellows Hall, now owned by a California couple contemplating a commercial renovation. Across the highway is the old general store and service station, now a part-time residence; other deteriorating buildings stand to the south and north.

While most ghost towns boast intriguing graveyards, I especially like that of Mayville, established in 1886 about 1¼ miles northwest of the town center on Cemetery Road. Look for the headstone of one Henry Beck (1842-99); I must believe that with tongue firmly in cheek, he wrote his own epitaph before he passed away:

“Poorly Born / Poorly Lived / Poorly Died. / and no one cried.”

• There's really nothing left of Kinzua (11 miles east of Fossil on Kinzua Road, off state Highway 19). Built as a company timber town in the early 1930s, it was closed, and its buildings removed, in the late 1970s. Today there's a small local golf course, a tiny RV park, a lot of open-range cattle but no ruins.

• Kent (16 miles north of Shaniko on U.S. Highway 97) has had a post office since it was settled in 1887. It is still there. As the Columbia Southern railroad ran through here en route from Biggs Junction to Shaniko, Kent was an important grain-shipping center. Wheat was stored in two large grain elevators — one of concrete, the other of wood — which remain standing today.

But the most memorable abandoned building is an old cafe and service station, its “Orange Crush” sign rising above Phillips 66 tanks offering gas at 66 1/2 cents per gallon. Across the street is a curious beehive-shaped stone structure, built in the 1930s to house an electric generator. A 1937 school auditorium, now boarded up, stands a block east. A handful of other wooden buildings are about a quarter-mile east of Highway 97; they include an old general store and an Odd Fellows Hall.

• Friend (11 miles southwest of Dufur via Dufur Gap and Friend roads, off U.S. Highway 197) was named for early settler George Friend, who installed the first post office in his homestead in 1903. It was important as the terminus of the Great Southern Railroad, which extended through Dufur to The Dalles from 1913 to 1935. There remain few structures from that era. The former general store, which doubled as a Richfield service station, stands just north of Friend Road beside a private farmstead. The one-room 1909 Friend School, a half-mile west, is still used as a community center with a flagpole and prominent “Ladies” and “Gents” outhouses.

Not dead yet

And then there are the not-so-ghost towns, although Antelope (8 miles south of Shaniko on state Highway 218) seems to be heading in that direction.

Established in 1867 on a gold seekers' road from Canyon City to The Dalles, named for plentiful herds of pronghorn, it was awarded a post office in 1871 and incorporated in 1901. The community had a boom of sorts in the 1980s, when followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh took control of town government and renamed Antelope “Rajneesh.” That lasted only until 1985, when Rajneesh was deported on charges of immigration fraud. His commune disbanded and Antelope returned to its previous existence.

Antelope still has a post office — operating from a trailer behind the original building — and a handsome 1897 Methodist church (at Union and College streets). But the two-story school, at the north end of town, closed long ago, and its only cafe-store (known as “Zorba the Buddha” during Rajneesh days) has recently closed its doors. That closure may or may not be permanent.

A tiny wooden building in the heart of town, surrounded by a field and with a “No Trespassing” sign posted on its door, once housed the Antelope Herald newspaper. Nearby are several picturesque but abandoned buildings: an old Shell gas station, the Antelope Garage (with a Union 76 logo) and the two-story Ancient Order of United Workmen Hall, built in 1898.

The official population of Antelope, in the 2010 census, was 60.

Dufur, with 655, was much better off. It's close enough to The Dalles (about 15 miles south on U.S. Highway 197) to be a sort of bedroom community. And there's no better bedroom in this little town than the 1907 Balch Hotel, a handsome, three-story brick building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Thoroughly renovated, it does a thriving business.

Adjacent is the seasonal Dufur Historical Society Living History Museum, one of the best of its kind in Oregon. Highlights include the 1900 Schreiber House, a two-story log cabin built in Friend, and the 1894 Endersby School, formerly in a settlement northwest of Dufur. Both buildings were relocated to this museum for preservation.

Historical museums in Condon (the Gilliam County Historical Museum), Moro (the Sherman County Historical Museum) and Fossil (the Fossil Museum and Pine Creek Schoolhouse) also have done excellent work preserving remnants of Oregon ghost towns.

As for the towns themselves, what does the future hold? Only time will tell.