The Oregon Trail
First published Sunday Independent July 7th 2019
I’m travelling in a loop from Portland to Eastern Oregon and with my father by my side. This is a family road trip as it was many of the 500,000 pioneers who set off on the Oregon Trail from 1843. However instead of starting our journey in Missouri, we flew direct from Dublin to Seattle. Two hours down Interstate 5 and we arrived at Portland in a Lincoln Jeep, more stylish than a covered wagon. It’s worth buckling up properly for a road trip anywhere in America as a small or intermediate car will have trouble on the more challenging less travelled roads.
Our first stop is at the End of the Oregon Trail Centre just outside Portland but as we pull up we discover our wagon has a puncture. Luckily for us we can call the hire company to come with a replacement vehicle, while we learn the tales of the early pioneers who didn’t have such comforts when their transport came into difficulty. They had to make the 1,924 miles of trackless journey in 150-180 days before the harsh winters fell and as many as 10% of all who started out never made it to Portland. “It is death to every soul of you….to travel a distance so great as that through a trackless desert,” In the words of William Sublette 1842, a fur trapper and one of the first to find a route to Portland from Missouri. This was a well recorded trail and many pioneers kept diaries documenting the journey.
I’m feeling humbled and less irate than I would normally as the car lease company arrives late and with a much smaller car than we originally paid for − that doesn’t have a GPS! We decide to sort it out tomorrow and snake our way through the Portland suburbs. We pass an interesting home with a funky sign hanging in the porch, “There is deep wisdom in not knowing the answers!” and consider it an omen, then check into the lovely River’s Edge Hotel on the Colombia River. We’ve the use of the hotel spa, another luxury not shared by pioneers who were lucky to find a pail of water as they arrived in rags after leaving most of their belongings and loved ones along the harsh route. We on the other hand enjoy views of the river fall foliage from our suite.
Next morning after a drive to Portland Airport, we change our small wagon at Avis Prestige into a comfortable Volvo Jeep. Ready in style to cruise through the giant pines around Mount Hood, it’s popular in the summer time with lovers of the great outdoors, camping, hiking and fishing, and swaddled in autumn with trees painted cadmium yellow, orange and burnt umber. We have come just in time to see the landscape take a breath before the first falls of snow. In this country side expect to find coyote, quail and jackrabbits, even cougars are known to appear sporadically.
Our drive finishes at the Long Hollow Ranch were Shirley and Dick Blumfelt, welcome us to their charming Sears Catalogue home built in 1904. Located in the high desert 900 meters above sea level it is surrounded by irrigated pastures and farmland. They are quick to include us in their family celebration − a chance to hear life stories and see communities operate in real-time.
Shirley has left me a jar of fresh yellow flowers from her garden by my bed which is already an abundance of rose patterned fabric. I settle down to a comfortable sleep with the howl of the coyote in the distance. Next morning I’m woken by cows bellowing under the window and the aroma of pancakes for breakfast. Time for a ride through the juniper trees in the surrounding gentle hills and my Dad has an instant connection with his horse, Dude. I’m quite fond of Smoky, an Indian pony and Tori who tends the horses for the Blumfelts, gently guides us out of the paddock. I can see I’ll have trouble pulling Dad away from the cocoon of ranch life and this beautiful place entangled in nature. https://www.lhranch.com/
Our first real taste of The High Desert is a sandy-beige plain with tufts of green bush spotted for miles, framed with the three lilac peaks of Faith, hope and Charity. They look down on the town of Sisters, a community comfortably enjoying inspirational living. Here they celebrate quilt-making in July, the June Rodeo has one of the largest purses in American and their Fall Harvest Fayre Festival is famous. https://visitcentraloregon.com/
The town of Bend, not too far away also has that feel of settlers who have captured the art of fine living and is en route to The High Desert Museum. Here we have an opportunity to understand the landscape that we can expect to encounter as we weave our way through the heart of Oregon. Donald M Kerr created this foundation to record the raptors, mammals and reptiles that thrall Central Oregon. We get up close and personal with a hawk and learn about the indigenous peoples and their heritage. https://www.highdesertmuseum.org/
Some days later we find ourselves at the Tamastslikt centre on the Umatilla Reservation, where curator Bobby Connor has in-depth knowledge about the effects of the Oregon Trail on the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes and how the trail diminished their rights and their lands. However many of the Irish and Scottish trappers who had made it to this part of the country before the Trail was established, settled and married into the local tribes creating a new generation of mixed-race − later frowned upon when the clergy arrived with their strict conformist traditions. It also explains why Bobby and so many indigenous people in this region have Irish Names. https://www.tamastslikt.org/ This world class facility is well worth stopping at and a chance to experience the rich culture and history of the tribes.
The Oregon Trail offered several routes to Portland and we wander off a little to explore The Painted Hills in The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The hills are formed in lumpy mounds coloured ochre, turquoise, terracotta and Green. Truly resembling an artist’s palette they are considered one of the seven wonders of Oregon along with Crater Lake, Mount Hood and The Columbia River Gorge outside Portland.
We stop off on the way at Tiger Town Brewery in the tiny town of Mitchell to dine on chicken wings and sample the local brew − there’s quite a choice. Shawn Hawkins from Portland first opened his doors four years ago and sees a brisk trade from visitors en route to the Painted hills. The Flood of 56 Stout carries with it the story of a flash flood which left the town devastated and took away a family of four − Dad being a Guinness man tastes and gives it the thumbs up. It’s a town of 125 people with two hotels, four restaurants and as the Trans American Bicycle Route passes through Mitchell it enjoys a brisk tourist trade.
Close by the town of Fossil shares the earthly delights of millions of years of change. Fossil is located halfway between The Equator and The North Pole on the 45th Parallel. It boasts a palaeontology centre and place to find fossils that you can take home. Pine spiked mountains surround The Wilson Ranches Retreat just outside Fossil and we stop off to taste some more Oregon hospitality and take a ride through the hills. Kara runs the ranch with her husband Brian Anglin and father Phil and there isn’t a beast in her stable that doesn’t know she is boss. We get another chance to ride and Kara decides to name her new purchase, a tall stallion, Big Jim after my dad − who needless to say is thrilled. Cattle drives are arranged at certain times of the year and there is always a warm family welcome https://wilsonranchesretreat.com/
We drive some of the most scenic winding roads through Indian country as we reach the town of Joseph. The Fall foliage laps the sidewalk and beautiful permanent exhibition of sculptures that include Austin Barton’s Attitude Adjustment and Chief Joseph by Georgia Bunn.
‘Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow.‘
– Chief Joseph (1840-1904) Nez Perce –
At the opposite end of the town is a burial memorial to Old Chief Joseph against the stunning backdrop of Wallowa Lake where visitors can take a cable car to the top of the surrounding mountains in summer. Our next pit stop, in the neighbouring town of Enterprise, is at Barking Mad Farm. It’s a small B&B with Kunekune pigs from New Zealand grazing at the back. The barking dog is called through and our host Emily greets us warmly. This part of Eastern Oregon is farm country around with beautiful purple and blue peaks and perfect spot to kick back and relax. We also enjoy our best breakfast here.
No visit to Eastern Oregon is complete without a stop off at Pendleton, home to the famous Pendleton Roundup held every September and also to the Pendleton Woollen Mills, famed for its blankets. We rest our boots at the Working Girls Hotel, once a working brothel, in the centre of town. Next door The Underground Tours takes Dad and I through the tunnels running under the buildings on Main Street. During prohibition they came alive with laundries, saloons and bars. www.pendletonundergroundtours.org. We meet with some locals at Hamley’s, also a store and the place to dine. A visit to the ladies restrooms, adorned with portraits of handsome men, is enough to set any girl’s heart fluttering. Judging from the smile on Dad’s face as he returns from the Gents, pretty members of the opposite sex hang on the walls there too. The Wild West is alive in Eastern Oregon making it a truly great American Road Trip and stark contrast to the hardships suffered by the original pioneers of The Oregon Trail.
Nine hours connects the emerald isle to the emerald city Seattle is a great city to see for a short stay or Gateway to the cruise ships that take visitors on the route around Alaska and perfect for an add-on holiday. Must get is a city pass offering entry into all the main sights downtown. On arrival the Hotel Interurban is in a great location close to the airport, comfortable and modern ideal for taking a trip to neighbouring states too. For more see http://www.seattle-washingtonstate.co.uk/
Take a trip in winter to Oregon and enjoy skiing at Mount Hood. Stay at the Timberline Lodge on the south slope which has been hosting visitors since 1937 and take time to enjoy the specialty hot chocolate. Visit in summer and enjoy the host of adventure lodges and camping set amongst lush giant pines. Steeped in history the lodge is a must stop to appreciate the variety of winter activities to be enjoyed in the snow. The historic Balch hotel at Dufur offers a treat not too far from the skiing and opportunity to taste the old west close to Portland. https://www.balchhotel.com/
A cool place to stay close the Oregon Trail Interpretive Centre is The Geiser Grand Hotel, in Baker City − once regarded as the Paris of the west. Opened in 1889 this hotel was about to be pulled down in the 1990’s when Barbara Sidway carefully and lovingly restored it to its former glory. http://geisergrand.com Full of pioneer spirit, you will feel like you have travelled back in time if you stay here. Across the road is the US Bank where one of the largest nuggets found during the Oregon Gold Rush sits in a glass case, a similar size and shape to a goat’s skull.
For all you need to know about Oregon visit www.traveloregon.com
Aer Lingus, Ireland’s only 4 Star airline, operates Ireland’s first direct service to Seattle, Washington State. Flying from Dublin four times weekly, fares start from €259 each-way including taxes and charges, when booked as a return trip. Visit aerlingus.com for further info.
10 Night Washington & Oregon Fly Drive
Based on 2 adults sharing, travelling in September 2019
Return flights with Aer Lingus direct to Seattle
Fully inclusive Car rental
10 night accommodation
Checked bags & airport taxes included
Eur1599 per person
Tel: 01 8535000