When we got back from cycling in Central America last year we had a pile of Adventure Cyclist Magazines to read. From all the articles I read in the next months, one in particular drew my attention. It was about cycling the Old West Scenic Bikeway near John Day, in Eastern Oregon. The first thing that caught my eye was the use of the word Bikeway. It means a route marked especially for cyclists, taking into account traffic, scenery, road conditions, interest, communities along the way and more. The other one was John Day. I actually know a person whose name is John Day, so I was excited to find that there is a whole town and river named after him!
Since Oregon is sort of in our backyard I knew I wanted to do that ride soon, but then summer came and we were pre-occupied with other trips and life in general. Then we passed close to that area when we were on our way back from Death Valley in January. The beauty of the area, in addition to the quiet roads and small towns made us decide that as soon as it was warm enough, we’d be out there riding, and so we did.
We delayed the trip by one day because of nasty weather in Eastern Oregon, and honestly we were not nearly close to being packed and ready to go after we got back from a potluck on Friday evening. So we left on Sunday morning with almost no border waits. Crossing the Cascades is always interesting weather wise, and this time we had heavy rain, which almost turned to snow. Like many of our trips down to the US the first stop was of course for Mexican food! Since we already know the area we stopped in Ellensburg for some of the most delicious and cheap Mexican food at Tacos Chalito and were almost blown away by the strong wind.
Then we drove on and on, the scenery became drier and more yellow and eventually we crossed the big bridge over the Columbia River and were in Oregon. After a few more hours of driving we decided to call it a day when we noticed a small and empty campground on the side of the quiet road with a tag price of $5 a night. Welcome to Oregon!
The next morning we headed to the town of John Day and had a late breakfast in the park with a group of inmates who were doing gardening work there. We set off in a relaxed fashion around 12:15pm. As soon as I sat on my bike it felt right and for the next few days I felt happier than I felt for a long time. On a bike tour, all of our problems look so minor, and it also gives us a lot of time to think about life and where we’re headed in general.
We were soon out of John Day – we stopped for a quick lunch in Prairie City and then started climbing over our first pass. The scenery was wild with no other communities for the next 110km and just snowy mountains in the background, raging rivers below us, cool rock formations, yellow flowers and a lot of cows. The first day was cold, so descending from the pass was freezing and we put on most of our clothes. By the end of the trip it got so hot we forgot we were ever cold.
We turned onto “highway” #20 where we stopped for the night at another basic campground. The road followed the middle fork of the John Day river, and for the whole 70km we were on that road, exactly one car passed us, a cyclist paradise. Then came another climb and a few rolling hills till we reached the tiny community of Long Creek.
After trying the homemade ice cream at the general store we inquired about camping possibilities in the area. The woman in the store immediately called Richard who arrvied five minutes later with three elderly Labradors in his pick up truck. His wife Silver and him bought an abandoned house at the edge of town and turned it into a community house that is open to everyone.
They named it “Allovars” and they operate according to the “gift economy” principles. They have yoga classes, internet and Skype classes, and an after school program. The local school contains 22 children and is on the verge of a being closed down. He was very happy to let us stay in the house which included beds, a computer and internet, a kitchen and a shower. A real unexpected treat. They really want to host more cyclists who pass in Long Creek, so if you’re headed that way, you should check it out, it’s inspiring.
By the third day it got really warm and once we were out of Long Creek we were on our own again on the road, with red, white and brown rocks and cliffs all around us. We passed through the abandoned village of Hamilton, where there were many broken houses and maybe one liveable one. The town of Monument had a really nice store where we stocked up on some more food and then collapsed in the city park in the shade. A police officer who walked by asked us how much are we going to pay for the piece of shade, at first I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not, it’s the US after all…
We then entered a long section with no campgrounds or towns for many kilometres as we entered the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument. So we stopped for the night at a trail head, which actually had the prefect spot for a tent, an outhouse close by, incredible scenery and no people. In the morning we visited the visitor centre where they have a huge collections of fossils and we met the one and only cycle tourer on this trip, who was on a three month journey from Washington state back to his home state of Colorado.
In the town of Dayville we met “Thunder”, the famous yellow musical plastic horse which seemed to be the attraction of this small town. The city hall was so tiny and a woman who worked there told us it used to be a jail at the start of the century. I guess they didn’t have a lot of criminals back then….
We rode back to John Day in the blasting 33C degrees, completing the 288km loop. The last part of the ride was the busiest, and after hardly seeing any cars or people for four days, John Day felt like a huge metropolitan. A friendly ranger suggested that we try the town’s pub and microbrewery,1188, but we were mostly interested in their “street tacos” and quesadilla. According to our friend Ignacio we were basically cycling in beer lover’s paradise – the area is flooded with microbreweries and we didn’t even have a single sip of beer.
The next day was suppose to be a rest day, but after checking the forecast and seeing it was going south after the weekend we decided to have a good night’s sleep, take a deep breath and carry on with our next three day trip of 225 km. We drove north to the town of La Grande where the Grande Tour starts. We parked at a street that apparently has a big student population as Eastern Oregon University is there. As we were preparing our bikes, two Jehovah’s Witnesses brought reading material and a bible to the doorstep of a young female student.
For the first part of the trip we just had to make our way out of La Grande and the nearby town of Island City. Then we rode on a busy road for a while which we didn’t like so much. We reached the town of Union in time for lunch and again had a nap in the shade, which became somewhat of a routine of our lunch breaks. From Union the road became much nicer and quieter and we passed through some windmills and more cattle on the side of the road.
When we reached North Powder we figured it was a good place to stop for the night. The only place we found open was a huge antique store piled with lots of junk, so we asked the lovely elderly lady who worked there where she thought we could camp for the night. She said we can either camp at the city park, or right behind her store, but that’s right where the train tracks were and she promised our tent would shake frequently during the night if we’d camp there.
So we headed to the city park where no one seemed to mind us when we cooked our dinner. Then a nice couple, Ron and Carol, invited us to get closer to their home and offered us their camper to sleep in. We figured it would be easier to just use our tent, but we appreciated the hospitality very much. In the morning we chatted with them for a bit and it turned out they have a few llamas near the train tracks. They even offered us one of their llama, but we politely declined…
Our traditional lunch break was held in the park in Baker City, the only big town we passed on this trip. Then the road became much more rural and quiet. We began climbing, and unfortunately the wind was against us. We stopped to feed a horse which was coloured like a cow, but he was quite shy and did not make friends easily. When we reached Pondosa around 5pm, we knew that that’s where we’d stop for the night.
The town of Pondosa is basically just a store, but the experience of is totally worth the stop over. As we entered the house it was like we travelled in a time machine back to the 50’s. Bob and Jean, a couple who are probably in their 80’s, run the store and it really felt like time stood still there. They sell candy, drinks and ice creams, and we bought two for 75 cents each, it’s almost like their prices froze in time too.
They also had about a million cats and one of them was a copy cat of the beloved Harrah who was my family’s cat in NY and died a few years ago. We camped by the blooming apple tree and in the morning said goodbye to Bob and Jean who were headed to the Sunday Service at their church in Baker City.
That weekend there was also a two day organized ride from La Grande, so throughout the first part of the day we kept on meeting road bikers, who of course were much faster than us with no gear and lighter bikes. Finally after slogging for a while we were on the top of the pass and from there we could enjoy about a 30 km fun descent back to Union with rivers, mountains and lakes all around us.
We took the back roads back to La Grande, but for the last 15km or so the wind really picked up and was basically against us all the way back to town. It also looked like it was going to pour any second and we did get a few drops. Just as we got back to the car it started raining for real, perfect timing!
We found a Mexican restaurant, one of the only few which was open on that dark rainy evening. By chance three of the riders from the organized ride were there too. We ended up having dinner with them and it turned our that one of them, Alex, actually works for Oregon Parks and she is the head behind those scenic bikeways. We gave her some feedback about the two routes we just cycled and had a really great conversation about cycling in general.
Our drive back home included of course more Mexican food back in Ellensburg and the mandatory stop at Trader Joe’s in Bellingham. During the rush hour near Seattle I counted all the cars I could see with more than one passenger in them – I counted less than 10 cars in the course of over an hour!
This was the first cycling trip that I listened to music during uphills or somewhat boring sections, thanks to my iPod Shuffle from Ignacio. One of the songs that kept on coming up was Revolution by the Beatles:
“You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We’d all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well you know
We’d all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright”
There is a real cycling revolution happening in Oregon and they keep on working to create more scenic bikeways and hiker/biker campsites with the understanding that there are real benefits to cycle tourism. We have a lot to learn from Oregon and from what is being done there. So let’s join, let’s be a part of this revolution. We all want to change the world, and we can all do it – one bike ride at a time.