Monday, June 16, 2014

Three Days in Central Oregon - Day 3


I slept like a rock and awoke a little reluctantly. Unzipping the window of my tent I looked out over the reeds towards the far shore of the lake. It was cool, cloudy and still. Most of all it was quiet. No buzzing, no voices, nothing but the occasional cricket and the click clack of the reeds quietly tapping into one another. There were enough people around that I knew my idyl couldn’t last. I roused enough energy to peel off my sleeping bag and started messing about with stoves, boiling water and making tea. Once that was done it was time to pack up and head home.


Doubling back on my route in, I headed downhill and once again rode alongside Willow Creek towards Heppner, a small town with a tragic history. Just over a hundred years ago a cataclysm of near-biblical proportions almost destroyed the bustling little place. After a prolonged dry spell, heavy rains arrived on the afternoon of Sunday, June 14, 1903. The rains were at first welcomed. However, the area around Heppner is mostly barren high desert. Without much plant life to soak up the water, the surrounding hills were already soddened from rains earlier in the week. That Sunday huge thunderstorms rolled in breaking over the hills in a deluge of rain and hail.

Balm Fork and Hinton Creek, Willow Creek’s main tributaries, immediately filled to their banks. Minutes later flood waters surged out of the gullies and into Willow Creek where it converged and formed: “…a great pyramid of rolling dirty wool. Projecting from this at every conceivable angle, writhing, twisting, and tumbling but ever moving onward with the speed of an express train, were trees, houses, great rocks and tons of earth.” A wall of water as high as the tallest barn in the county had roiled up from the south and smashed through the center of town driving everything in its path northwards. In all 247 townspeople lost their lives. Downstream in the towns of Lexington and Ione a further 18 victims died from typhoid when raw sewage overflowed and poisoned their water supplies. Striking as it did on a Sunday afternoon, the town was about as full as it could be on the local's day of rest*.


Thankfully, at the time I passed through I was blissfully unaware of any of that, and I turned west across the high plains with their deep scars towards Condon. The wind out of the north blew steadily across my path. There was nothing but a wide expanse of waving golden grass for as far as I could see. Happily, the road would occasionally bend and curve as it made its way in and then out of ravines, but for the most part the landscape was flat and empty.

Condon was not named for Thomas Condon the geologist, but for his nephew and lawyer, Harvey. Harvey established the place in 1884. Not much has changed. Today it serves as the center for the county’s agricultural community and boasts an American Graffiti-style main street, complete with a retro-looking cinema, the Liberty Theater, and a couple of malt shops. After a quick bite, I rode south to Fossil, where, of all people, Bill Bowerman, America’s greatest-ever track coach and Nike co-founder, made his final resting place. Fossil has a frontier vibe softened only slightly by a couple of kitschy antique emporiums and espresso caf├ęs.


Heading south along the Shaniko – Fossil highway, and back into prehistory, it was only a few miles to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Palisades is a beautifully distinct outcropping formed from the volcanic mudflows that engulfed and ultimately preserved the remains of four-toed horses, meat-eating creodonts and remnants of the surrounding jungles. From there it was on to Antelope, the once and future home of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his cult members.

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the cult our local rag, The Oregonian, created a nice summary of all the Rajneeshi’s shenanigans a few years ago: Oregonian on Rajneesh. Suffice it to say that even those who believe they have a clear path towards enlightenment may still fall foul of personal ambition and power politics. It still impresses me that 2,000 people were so disillusioned with their lives that they pitched it all in and made their way to a dry patch of farmland in the middle of Oregon, presumably hoping the grass would be greener. It wasn’t. Some locals complain that the TV show ‘Portlandia’ is having a similar cult-like effect on a new generation. Attracting legions of disillusioned, wannabe hipsters to the city and filing off its sharper, more creative edges in the process.


Mount Hood, like so many of our National Forests, is criss-crossed by logging trails. With a decent compass it isn’t hard finding your way around the woods. Armed as I was with an iPhone, I figured that it would be fun to try and find a short cut home. However, the problem of using an iPhone as a direction finder is it relies on cellular signals and batteries, both of which are invariably in short supply deep in the woods. In the end I circumnavigated Timothy Lake and wound up back on Route 26, the main road over the mountain.

Then just outside Government Camp the heavens opened. This was my first experience of riding in really heavy rain on a motorcycle. I quickly understood why so many riders seek shelter under bridges. It’s not so much a traction issue, which itself can be a learning opportunity, it’s more a visibility problem. Your helmet fogs and other than your fingers your visor has no wipers, and clouds of spray coming off the road make you all but invisible to other drivers. Fortunately, the cloudburst didn’t last long, and by the time I arrived home 40 minutes later I had more or less dried out.


Three days and 300 million years of wild western history sit on my doorstep. The empty spaces of Oregon, less than an hour outside Portland, are a wonderful compensation for the city’s hustle and bustle. It is one of the things that makes this part of the world so wonderful to live in. Come, ride, enjoy!

*For the complete story of the Heppner flood, pick up a copy of Joann Green Byrd’s excellent account, Calamity: The Heppner Flood of 1903.

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