August 24, 2014
Having gotten so far ahead of schedule I didn’t hurry to get on the road. I was expecting to be able to grab a bagel for breakfast at the motel but my choices were toast, cereal, or waffles. Not even a banana. So I packed up the car and hit I-84 expecting to be able to find food and fuel at a single stop somewhere along the interstate before I needed to exit. I managed to get the fuel.
My first navigation point was the exit for US 26, again conjoined with US 20. There’s a wide variety of agriculture here – corn, beets, alfalfa, onions, and potatoes too, I expect. The road has a rhythm, cruise at 70, slow down for a town. Speed back up for a while, come to the next town.
I soon noticed that there were fewer road signs. The only speed limit signs were entering and exiting towns. And the highest speed was now 55 rather than the 65 on US highways the rest of the trip. There were also far fewer route markings. At one point found myself going due north for a while and I began to wonder if I’d made a wrong turn.
Farming transitioned to ranching as the valley narrowed. There were few trees, either along streambeds or on the tops of the hills. Traffic thinned out and towns were smaller and farther apart. The road transitioned, too. No longer straight, it began to climb and writhe like a snake.
We come to a crest and another transition. I would have called the crest a pass, but here they are marked by signs saying “summit”. It’s hardly a summit when you can see higher ground on both sides of you. The western side of this particular summit takes us back to terrain reminiscent of deserts of northern Arizona or southern California.
I was going my standard five over the limit when a big pickup caught up to me. He stayed behind me for quite a while. I kept thinking he’d go around, but he stayed behind me so long I figured he’d never pass. He took his time going by, which is not unusual on the interstate. Usually it’s because the passenger is taking a picture. Not this time – the gal in the passenger seat just politely waved as they went by.
After some miles of this desert we finally enter terrain that looked like the Oregon I’ve always imagined. The road snaked through fragrant pine covered hills. This is the Malheur National Forest, where we join the Journey Through Time Oregon Scenic Byway. This pleasant stretch lasted only thirty miles or so before exiting the trees and descending into the John Day valley opposite Strawberry Mtn. I decided the weather was pleasant enough to take off the top, so I took a short break at a scenic overlook and slathered on some SPF 3000.
The John Day valley is broad at the eastern end. The valley floor is free of trees that cover the hills on both sides.
As it was getting on noon by my stomach’s clock (an hour off the time my cell phone displayed) I stopped for lunch in the town of John Day. Entering town, the church parking lots were packed. One had somebody directing cars to parking spots. The business district was quiet. I spotted the Grubsteak Restaurant and parallel parked behind a motorcycle a couple doors from the place. I happened to park in front of a brew pub, but it was closed. Oh well. I had a tuna melt and iced tea. The radio gave us a fishing report and the cowboy show. I’ve heard the farm report many times in the past, but never the fishing report.
John Day was also my first refueling stop since entering Oregon. Having been here many times, I knew about the no self-service law. This station had handwritten signs: “Don’t touch the nozzle! By state law we have to pump it.” As usual, the car drew a crowd. One guy looked at the tow ring (which is yellow) and asked if it was my dipstick. That’s probably the best one yet.
The next navigation point is at the junction with state route 19 and into the John Day fossil beds. While the scenery has been pleasant through the valley, the road has been a bit on the dull side. Here the river drains through a narrow canyon. US 26 leaves the John Day river and continues west. We follow the river north.
After diversions to the visitor center and a short hike to Blue Basin, I continue north on SR 19. This is clearly a secondary road. The shoulders are narrow or non-existent. The road is not new, but is nearly unblemished. Best of all, it clings to the banks of the river, bobbing and weaving as the river bends to the west. This is a lovely Lotus road. Finally the car is in its natural element. I drive as fast as I want (which is not to be confused with as fast as I can).
At the junction with 207 we depart the John Jay river and once again head north. Although I’ve seen a number of cars going the other direction, I’ve only encountered one going my way, and that was just a few miles past Blue Basin. The road is generally a series of long curves, arcing this way and that. Occasionally there are short stretches that are quite twisty and nicely cambered. It doesn’t get much better than this.
At least, that’s what I was thinking. Then I made my left turn onto Oregon 218. Driving this road is like riding a bucking bronco. Up and up, switchbacks and sweepers. Over a summit and down into the next valley, writhing manically. I finally started running into more traffic. At least four cars over the next thirty miles, a regular traffic jam. But they were easily dispatched, disappear from the rear view mirror after only a turn or two.
At Antelope, I’m on the east side of a diamond I need to get to the west side of. Shall I head north or south? North has been working well, so that’s where I go. Again the road rollicks up and up, tight turns right and left and right again. Eventually the road drops onto a plain, the fun is over. Just before Shaniko the road drops through a ravine for one last spasm of fun.
Shaniko marks the return to the US highway system, US 97 this time. Back to straighter, more heavily trafficked road, this one with lots of trucks. But the treasures of the terrain continue as we enter the Deschutes River valley and see a series of mountains strung along the western horizon. Mt Jefferson and Mt Hood standing proudly above the rest, separated by squalls, rays of sun like stage flood lights.
A few miles later US 97 meets US 197 where we turn right for the final few miles to Maupin where the road drops fifteen hundred feet or more to a bridge over the Deschutes River. The Oasis, my destination for the day, is just before the bridge.
Today’s drive was far superior to yesterday’s. Lovely roads and incredible scenery. With food and fuel stops and a nice little hike in the middle, I covered 362 miles in 9 hours and 20 minutes, never felt pressed for time, and arrived in time for dinner and a beer.