John Day & The Marquis de Lafayette on a Roadtrip

Exploring eastern Oregon has not been higher on our list of adventures because
* There’s so much to do in Cascadia
* There isn’t a lot of information on it
* The high desert.
Really, we have several ecosystems in which to bike, hike, and kayak within 2 hours from home, why would we drive 6 hours often? We read a lot, and very little had surfaced about why to visit the eastern part of the state worth crossing the high desert – which is a hardship for me. I like gloomy portland, with its regular 5 months of cloud cover every year, and sun and I do not get along.

However, after this past winter running much longer than usual, even I was ready for the dry climate of the western steppes. So we started researching for the trip, and found…incredibly little. Oh, there were great backpacking trails, none of which tend to be snow free before July on a normal year, but little on the lower set. We figured that meant more modest trails, which we’d have to find out about locally, once we’d crossed the barren central state.

So Saturday morning we rolled backwards along the Oregon Trail, or its modern equivalent of I-84 towards Pendleton, then turning south onto the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway. It didn’t start scenic – dusty farms and grasslands, but eventually growing lodgepole pine as well as mountains in the Umatilla National Forest. We rose to 5400 feet, and turned down a gravel road for a 16 mile journey to Potomus Point, which I was certain was named after the local hippos. Scott disagreed.

Strolling through the meadow on the bald, we found balsem, lupin, ladyslippers and Indian paintbrush as well as grasses that tickled our knees. The hike was short, but did show us the distant layers of blue mountains in the distance.

Pretty, but I’m not sure we’d recommend the potholed forest road to anyone with a lesser vehicle. I like my van.

Back on the main highway, we descended to the tiny berg of Ukiah, which we knew from Wen Spenser’s novels about a PI who’d been found feral in the area, after being raised by wolves – and then the series got weird. Ukiah is only 250 people, which we noted as we stopped at the Gas Station That Time Forgot, meant the residents probably drove 50 miles into Pendleton for groceries. Bantering with the crop topped gal filling the tank, found that the motorcyclists enjoying the byways stopped at her gravel lot but not really anywhere else in town, and the proprietor won’t stock maps of the mountain trails, because he’d have to pay the national forest for them.

Continuing up into the hills while listening to Sarah Vowell reading “Lafayette and these not so United States”, we found ourselves in a forest of identically sized young trees, packed uncomfortably close together like troops in a bayonet charge. Or maybe that’s the audio influencing perception. But there had obviously been a burn here some 10-15 years ago, and the forest was now on the advance.

When we passed into older growth, we decided it was dinner time and stopped at Big Creek campground to create a rice, chicken and broccoli dish, then decided to read near the babbling creek & sleep in our dining spot rather than continue on. The local mosquitos, in need of their own dinner, welcomed us.

Come morning, and after our daily gruel, we drove just a little further and geared up to hike along the North Fork of the John Day River. This was mining country, and historically the creek was used to hydraulically wash the gold out of the gravel bars, and many little mining cabins dot the trail. Some of them were private property and in summer use, most were in ruins. The trail was pretty and noisy – the stream was boisterous from snowmelt, and made conversation difficult, but gave us some nice views on the otherwise forested stroll.

Having worn our shoe leather in the hills, we descended to the town of Sumpter, which was having a town wide fleamarket that was attracting strollers to its dirt streets and untidy yards. It seemed like it was a well known big deal for the town, but I noticed that few of the people returning to their cars on the crowded secondary street seemed to have any purchases in their arms beyond the occasional snocone. We regretted stopping (and of course not finding trail maps) and got back on the road.

Turning off the Byways we knew of on hwy 7, we discovered this was also a “Journey Through Time” scenic byway. No tardi were harmed in the making of this highway. The forest on either side was nice, but as we broke out of it, we could see last Tuesday – all the way to the foot of the Strawberry Mountains.

We crossed that valley, passing the ghost town of Whitney and oh so many dry ranches, and attained the town of John Day, where we tipped the guy refueling our van as he went above and beyond the call of duty to deal with our bug encrusted windshield. There was a National Forest Ranger Station – closed and without any external trail information. The town itself, while much larger than Ukiah or Sumpter, seemed tidily deserted – no one is out walking the streets in the heat of the afternoon. I posited that no one left anything out in the yard in this town, where as like Hood River, it would blow away from regular gusts through the long valley. This is a guess, as the air was actually still and oppressive.

Driving up into the Strawberry Mountains, we entered another former burn – probably not as hot, as many tall trees survived with scorched trunks, and the homes on the hillside didn’t look brand spanking new. Salvage logging was still going on though. We kept climbing but never did get out of the blackened trunks.

Parking the van off the beaten track, we carried gear out for a “test run” of a backpacking set up. If this didn’t work, we could easily get up in the middle of the night and go sleep in the van. As it was, we both lasted til morning, though Scott headed back early to make coffee and get a warmer shirt, and I packed up the tent.


Fortified with pancakes and bacon, we zipped back through the town of John Day and crossed the high desert while the sun was still low and swung into the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument. This trip should be titled the John Day trip, since it seems that everything is named after the trapper. We were amused at the various descriptions we saw of him, most referencing an incident at the mouth of the river that now bears his name but in wildly different tones, from “he was robbed and rescued” to “found stripped naked and tied up” depending on the character of the sign creator and desire to venerate historical figures. Anyway, from all accounts, he was never anywhere near here, but getting that river named after him caused all sorts of things along the river and its several forks to bare his shame.

We toured the paleontology museum and saw fossils from a multitude of layers, from the Clano Nut Beds (which would be a good name for a candy bar) to Haystack Assembly, running from leaf matter through a variety of mammals, including a giraffe necked horse and a tiny deer with fangs that used to roam the humid marshes that used to make up the climate of the region.

But before the day got too hot, we headed off to hike around a few formations. All of our hikes were less than 2 miles, because while winter lasted on and on, summer is wedging its way in with 90degree days in this dry desert, which is getting close to the melting point of Ritas. It being spring, there was a surprising amount of green on the slopes as well as in the irrigated valleys.

At one point, Scott dug out an umbrella we’d picked up in Yellowstone for me to use as a parasol while he took infrared photos at an overlook after a half mile stroll from the parking lot. I can laugh about this, but I have no sunburn from this trip, and didn’t quite desiccate my lips.

Turning north to brace the return traffic, we finished off the Vowell audiobook, and then stopped in a rare area of cell signal to download the latest episode of our favorite history podcast …which was wrapping up a French Revolution and continued the theme of Lafayette as a mover and shaker. I wonder if he ever met a naked trapper named John Day?


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