My long-ago travels in eastern Oregon would take on a different hue if undertaken today in Daydreaming on the Porch

  • Dec. 2, 2022, 12:24 a.m.
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It occurs to me tonight that most of my feelings, emotions, and memories brought back by an account of a solo road trip adventure nearly 40 years ago in the summer of 1984, have been chastened by current-day realities and changes over decades that make that summer seem almost idyllic compared to now.

Back then when I was researching the long journey across the country ahead of me, in the days before the Internet when one relied on books and print travel guides of all sorts, I certainly wasn’t concerned about encountering unprecedented 115 degree F heat from Portland near the coast, to the arid eastern portions of eastern Oregon as I made my way from Seattle back East along back roads. I didn’t fear dodging massive wildfires and acrid, polluting smoke, made so much worse by the increasingly dire effects of human-caused global warming due to a century and a half of burning fossil fuels. That’s exactly what would have confronted me if I’d made the same trip in the summer of 2021. What a world of difference in 40 years.

This won’t stop future travelers, campers,and Nature lovers, of course, but there’s something seriously wrong with today’s climate compared to then. Driving through hundreds of square miles of charred woodlands would drive the point home. Nothing like stark reality. It makes my journal accounts written in the 1980s all that more poignant and suggestive of what could be lost forever as the terrible dangers future generations face become a reality in the next 10-30 years, a much shorter time scale than the scientists even imagined just ten years ago.

Thus it is that as the years pass, I think more often of those solo car trips across the country in the 80s, and of the many beautiful rivers I walked along or crossed in the course of those spirit-lifting journeys into new and, for me, unexplored, lands.

Flowing fast and fresh from mountain snowmelt, the sight of of them coursing free across desert and plains always lifted my spirits immensely. Now, the tributaries that feed the mighty Colorado River, and which provide water to 40 million people, are drying up from prolonged record-setting heat and drought. Snowmelt in many places is diminishing to a trickle.

The Missouri River, which starts in the far western parts of Montana, and the Ohio River in the eastern part of the country, are the major tributaries of the broad, and normally high and fast-flowing Mississippi River, which our agriculture sector is dependent on for exporting crops. But who can forget the photos of it this Fall drying up along vast stretches, grain barges moored to, and stuck along, shallow banks, unable to move. I grew up less than a mile from the Mississippi in New Orleans, but where we lived in my early childhood years was just blocks from the river and it’s high levee. I feel a very close connection to it. I even worked two summers in college on that river. So it’s painful to see those pictures of some of the lowest Mississippi River levels in history, some of the most shocking and alarming I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them in news accounts over decades.

All those climate-change related alterations in our natural world sadden and would me deeply because I know my generation has played a big role in what is occurring today, and will continue and worsen in the near future. But despite all this I maintain hope, and rivers fascinate me, and give me more of that hope. They are symbols of adventure and freedom, mysterious and beautiful as they flow to the sea.

I want to discuss and recall one particular river I can never forget, so beautiful and otherworldly is it along its entire stretch. I want to remember how it was and not think about what it could become in a seemingly never-ending period of drought and desertification which has befallen almost all of the American West. I think about this river fairly often simply because of visual images that stay in my mind, and also because it’s been decades since I was last there where it flows. I very badly want to return some day soon and explore all of eastern Oregon, from the magnificent Steens Mountain and desert basin in the east central part of the state to the northeast tip and the Oregon Trail historical sites. Eastern Oregon is one of the last, great open and empty places in the continental U.S. It’s a world apart from the scenic, wet and still somewhat lush western coastal areas of the state along the Pacific Ocean..

The John Day River rises in the Umatilla National Forest of north central Oregon, at the convergence of several branches, including the North, South, and Middle Forks of the river which are stunningly beautiful streams in their own right. Up near the source waters in the Blue Mountains are towering and majestic Ponderosa Pines. After the main river is formed from its tributaries, it widens significantly and flows through basalt canyonlands with vertical cliffs up to 500 feet high, and then makes its way through sagebrush rangeland to the Columbia River. It is the longest free-flowing river in the Columbia’s basin, undammed for its entire length. For 246 miles it is protected as a Wild and Scenic River and 327 miles are designated as an Oregon Scenic Waterway.

Much of the fascinating history of eastern Oregon is associated with the John Day, and Arthur Campbell has chronicled it mile by mile in this book “John Day River: Drift and Historical Guide.” I remember staying in the little town of John Day and driving east one morning along the river and seeing a valley of incomparable beauty and the snow-capped peak of Strawberry Mountain in the distance.

Here follows an excerpt from my travel journal, dated August 6, 1984 and written in Ontario, Oregon. It describes my first real acquaintance with this area of the country and my obervations about the John Day River:

Yesterday was a day of contrasts, of otherworldly scenery and vistas, constantly changing and new for me. Eastern Oregon was the Old West and a New World.

Deschutes River State Park is near the site where Oregon Trail emigrants first saw the wide Columbia River and got a glimpse of the end of their westward journey. A brisk wind was blowing as I stood on the banks of the river where it flows into the Columbia. To the north was the Columbia River Gorge and to the south and east the hills, plains, and rock outcroppings that characterize the dry eastern part of Oregon in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains.
On a remote stretch of highway, open space and wheat fields stretched out endlessly to the horizon. The land was gently rolling, then the road entered a drier, rockier area with high hills.

Down again into canyons and on to the valley of the John Day River. At John Porres Park on the river, the John Day is in the last stretch of its 284-mile journey to the Columbia from its source waters high in the Blue Mountains. Here was perfect stillness by the river, slowly flowing through quite barren ranchland. There is an exquisite beauty to these hills and conyons, so silent and mysterious.

I just had to make a short side trip through the town of Fossil. Like other towns distantly interspersed on the highway, it is an outcropping of life, a sheltering habitat of green for humans who have settled in this great, open desert-like land. From Fossil it is about 100 miles to the nearest larger city or town. The place has a look of almost defiant independence, as did Condon and Wasco, two other tiny hamlets I passed through.

At the junction of two highways, I at last came to my goal for this day’s traveling — the road skirting the upper John Day River and leading to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Again, hills and rock slides, but this time a winding road following every turn and bend in the John Day for more than 100 miles. The desert everywhere ended abruptly at the river, which was a long ribbon of oasis — cottonwoods, willows and lush reeds along its banks. The road would wind up low hills and to slight overlooks where the formerly narrow river widened and was separated by sand and gravel bars.

The stretch from Kimberly to near the town of John Day has fantasic rock formations, sedimentary layers of green and beige with basalt columns rising up in defiance of ceaseless erosion by the elements. There are occasional torrential rains and thunderstorms here, but the average annual rainfall is about 12 inches.

Some of the most valuable fossil remains of plants and animals from as long ago as 40 million years have been found in these layers of rock. At Fornee Fossil Beds, I walked a short trail among sagebrush to an overview of the John Day River Valley and the jagged rocks which protruded above the smoother hills.

Silence but for the wind blowing strong. In ways I felt like I was at the top of a mountain on the moon or some other alien landscape. There was the slighly unreal sensation of being totally alone, apart from the rest of the world. I can just begin to appreciate what it must have been like for the Oregon settlers who traversed this land over the wagon ruts of earlier, perhaps luckier, expeditions. Water is a profoundly precious commodity. Nearly all the creeks which led to the John Day were nothing more than shallow, dry rock and gravel beds, with only the faintest hint of the water which last coursed down these streambeds.

Despite the strange new beauty of eastern Oregon, I began to wear down a bit after leaving a last scenic section of mountains and Ponderosa pine to enter this time a true desert with high hills in the distance. This wore on for many miles in 92 degree heat until I came at last to Ontario.

One observer of those who endured the hardships of this area in pioneer times posed the question: “Why would anyone leave the comforts of a settled life back East to strike out with family and every earthly possession capable of being transported on a trail which crossed mountains, deserts and Indian territory, and which offered the prospect of starvation, disease, a pitiless sun and no water?”

The answer, he concluded, will probably never be known. I think those determined early settlers who came across the country on the Oregon Trail were powerfully inner-motivated to discover a new life and have the chance to “follow the setting sun,” but their reasons must contain many other hidden truths.

John Day River
(Photo from Bureau of Land Management, Oregon and Washington

Last updated December 02, 2022

Jinn December 02, 2022

Gorgeous picture. I wonder how it looks today ?
The younger generations should be terrified and horrified at the climate changes. Now it is their children and grandchildren who are going to have to learn to survive on a badly damaged planet

ConnieK December 02, 2022

Climate was a concern during the 1960s but something happened when our generation became adults. The free-wheeling lifestyle morphed into big spending in the 1980s and by the 90s, investment greed triumphed over environment. Before you long for the good ole days, remember that the industrial revolution began the whole roll and that is for 90% of the countries in the world, not just the US.
As to the pioneers, I would imagine the reason for going were as varied as the people themselves, from seeking a better life for your family to wanting to open a business to serve the new settlers to outrunning the law.

Oswego ConnieK ⋅ December 04, 2022

I remember when I was in high school, how crazy it seemed that we’d drive around in cars and trucks belching noxious gases as if we could go on doing this forever and nothing would come of it. It seems even crazier now, and we’re paying the price for it. It boggles the mind how such a really primitive technology as the internal combustion engine has prevailed for decades as if there was no alternative. We all know the reason — greed and utter indifference to the harm caused to people and the environment.

The pioneers’ unbelievable suffering and hardship on that 2,00 mile journey west was endured because of the hope for a better life, always that quest for a new beginning.

ConnieK Oswego ⋅ December 04, 2022

Before our cars of the 1950s, it was factory waste. We've cleaned up a lot since the polluted waters of the northeast and Midwest (and started banning harmful chemicals like DDT), but we have a long way to go.

The trail to the west must have been tempting to poor people in particular, I would think. The lure overrode the danger?

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