We hit the trail recently — not in search of land to homestead, but rather to learn about those who came before us, looking for land and fortune, and who oftentimes found bad luck instead. We packed up our Prius with some provisions, all-weather clothing, and a tandem bicycle, and headed south and east to learn about Northwest history.
We also packed maps and reference books, a requirement every time we take a trip. GPS systems in cars and cell phones are great, but give me a good paper map and a copy of “Oregon Geographic Names” and I’m a happy traveler.
First stop was one we regularly make when heading to central Oregon — lunch in Terrebonne. “Why’s it called that?” I asked myself, and turned to the “T’s” in my book to find the answer. Turns out it was originally called Hillman after two prominent railroad men — James Hill and E. H. Harriman. Then a local man named Hillman got into trouble. The citizens didn’t want any association with the guy, and renamed their town Terrebonne (“good earth” in French).
At home, we had packed some essential foods in our larder — garden vegies, potato chips and beer. We added to our provisions after lunch. Thinking about what the pioneers had packed for their long journey to the Oregon Territory — hardtack being one of the essentials — I was glad for a food market that sold microwavable burritos, imported cheese, fresh baked bread and chocolate bars.
We visited with family for a few days, then continued our journey, passing through Prineville, named after Barney Prine, a merchant who sold whisky in the front room and blacksmithing supplies in the back. We had a glorious picnic in the Painted Hills, then drove on to Prairie City, our next overnight destination. Prairie City is a quiet town today, but in 1862, a gold strike was made in nearby Dixie. In 1910, the railway came to town, and Prairie City became a major shipping point.
The Hotel Prairie was our home for a few days, while we made excursions throughout Grant County. We visited Canyon City, which during the gold rush years was reported to have the largest population in Oregon (and which today has a courthouse that is a perfect clone of Hood River’s). The highlight of our visit to Grant County, though, was a stop at the Kam Wah Chung state historical site. During the gold rush years, thousands of Chinese lived and worked in the John Day area. There, Ing Hay, a Chinese doctor, and Lung On, an industrious merchant, lived and worked. For 50-some years, the building was a social, medical and religious center for Oregon’s Chinese community. Today, visitors can experience it exactly as it was decades ago.
We drove out of Prairie City on a cool morning with a warning from the gas station owner that the roads were slick up by Dixie, and that we should take it easy. Luckily, we had anticipated some colder weather, and had put our winter tires on our trusty “steed” before leaving home.
I thought about the pioneers, whose wagons were not equipped with rubber tires perfectly designed to grip the trail.
We spent the next couple of days in Baker City. Just like the pioneers before us, we shared some of our garden vegetables with fellow travelers, but had to throw away some tomatoes that hadn’t made the trip unscathed. While at the Oregon Trail Museum, I found another reference book to add to my collection. “The Oregon Companion,” by Richard H. Engeman, is a delightful A to Z compendium of all things “Oregon,” from an entry about the Oregon Trunk Railway to one about craft beer. We stopped at one of those craft breweries, Barley Brown’s, and had a lovely “belly up to the bar” visit with a fellow retired elementary school teacher and her husband. Serendipitously, we ran into two Hood River Full Sail employees, who just happened to stop in at the same time.
Our reference materials ran out as we crossed the border into Idaho, but I was still armed with a good paper map of our eastern neighbor. Our travels took us to Weiser, Idaho, where we bore witness to the devastation caused by last year’s snow and ice. Onion storage barns were flattened, and a grocery store, which looked intact from the front, resembled a doll house with its back side sheared off.
Our three days in Boise were wonderful; we rode our tandem on lovely tree lined streets and along the gorgeous greenway. We visited the Basque museum and neighborhood in the heart of the city, and reminisced about our trip to northern Spain several years ago. In the Basque country, and in Boise, we feasted on Basque foods but turned down a glass of Kalimotxo, a mixture of Coke and red wine. On our one day of rain, we headed indoors to the Old Idaho Penitentiary, a fascinating though frightening state historical site that would make anyone wary of being jailed.
Our return trip was bittersweet. We were happy to be heading home to a familiar kitchen, comfortable bed and clean clothes, but sad that our vacation was over. We reflected on how the exhausted pioneers must have felt after months on the trail. In Pendleton, our last stop before reaching home, we were reminded about the simple creature comforts we take for granted when we spied this slogan on the side of a plumber’s van. “Round Up City Plumbing — Where a flush beats a full house.”