Friday 18 October 2019

Oregon... Go west, and keep going

Michelle Jackson takes a road trip from Portland to Eastern Oregon with her father.

Cowgirls in the saddle at the Pendleton Round Up
Cowgirls in the saddle at the Pendleton Round Up
The quilts hang out at the stitching post during the festival of quilting in Sisters, Oregon
The Emerald City of Seattle
Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City

Michelle Jackson

I'm travelling in a loop from Portland to Eastern Oregon with my father by my side.

This is a family road trip as it was for 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.

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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 got into difficulty. They had to make the 1,924 miles of trackless journey in 150-180 days before the harsh winter arrived and as many as 10pc of those 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," wrote fur trapper William Sublette in 1842. Sublette was 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 with a much smaller car than we had paid for, and one that doesn't have a GPS.

We decide to sort things out the next day 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 have 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 behind along the harsh route. We also enjoy views of the autumn foliage along the river from our suite.

Next morning after a drive to Portland Airport, we change our small wagon to a comfortable Volvo jeep. Now we're ready to cruise through the giant pines around Mount Hood, a popular area in the summer with lovers of the great outdoors for 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 snow. In this area expect to find coyote, quail and jackrabbits - even cougars are known to appear sporadically.

Our drive finishes at the Long Hollow Ranch where Shirley and Dick Blumfelt welcome us to their charming home, built in 1904. Located in the high desert 900m above sea level, it is surrounded by irrigated pastures and farmland. Shirley and Dick 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 a jar of fresh yellow flowers from her garden by my bed which is already an abundance of rose-patterned fabric. I settle down into a comfortable sleep with the howl of a coyote in the distance. Next morning I'm woken by cows bellowing under the window and the aroma of breakfast pancakes. It's time for a ride through the juniper trees in the surrounding gentle hills and my dad makes 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. (lhranch.com)

Our first real taste of the high desert is a sandy-beige plain dotted for miles with tufts of green bush, framed with the three lilac peaks of Faith, Hope and Charity. The peaks 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 Harvest Faire is famous. (visitcentraloregon.com).

The town of Bend, some 20 miles away, 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. The late conservationist Donald M Kerr created this foundation to record the raptors, mammals and reptiles that inhabit Central Oregon. We get up close and personal with a hawk and learn about the indigenous people and their heritage (highdesertmuseum.org).

Some days later, we find ourselves at the Tamastslikt centre on the Umatilla Reservation (tamastslikt.org), 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 races - 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. This world-class facility is well worth stopping at to experience the rich culture and history of the different 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 of 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 stout called Flood of 56 carries with it the story of a flash flood which left the town devastated and took away a family of four.

Dad, a Guinness man, tastes it and gives it the thumbs up.

Mitchell is a town of 125 people with two hotels, four restaurants and - as the Trans American Bicycle Route passes through it - 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 on the 45th Parallel - halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. It boasts a palaeontology centre and a place to find fossils that you can take home.

Pine spiked mountains surround the Wilson Ranches Retreat just outside Fossil (wilsonranchesretreat.com), 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 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.

We drive some of the most scenic winding roads through Indian country as we reach the town of Joseph. The autumn foliage laps the pavement and there's a beautiful permanent exhibition of sculptures that include Austin Barton's Attitude Adjustment and Chief Joseph by Georgia Bunn. 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 and a 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 Round-up, 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 brothel, in the centre of town. Next door, Underground Tours takes Dad and I through the tunnels running under the buildings on Main Street. During prohibition, the tunnels came alive with laundries, saloons and bars (pendletonundergroundtours.org).

We meet some locals at Hamley's, a store and steakhouse. 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, portraits of pretty members of the opposite sex hang on the walls there too.

Take Two: Top attractions

Grand old style

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Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City
 

A cool place to stay is the Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City - once regarded as the Paris of the West. Opened in 1889, the Geiser Grand was lovingly restored to its former glory in the 1990s and is full of pioneer spirit. (geisergrand.com).

A gem of a city

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The Emerald City of Seattle
 

Nine hours from the Emerald Isle is the Emerald City of Seattle, the gateway to the cruise ships that take visitors on the route around Alaska. Seattle is a vibrant city, and your taste buds will never forgive you if you miss the Pike Place food market.

Get there

Aer Lingus, Ireland's only four-star airline, operates Ireland's first direct service to Seattle.

Flying from Dublin four times weekly, fares cost from €259 each-way including taxes and charges, when booked as a return trip. aerlingus.com

Oregon Odyssey

Ten-night Washington & Oregon fly Drive, based on two adults sharing, travelling in September 2019

* Includes: Return flights with Aer Lingus direct to Seattle

* Fully inclusive car rental

* 10 nights' accommodation

* Checked bags & airport taxes

* €1,599 per person

Contact: info@platinumtravel.ie / go to platinumtravel.ie or else you can call 01 8535000. More information: traveloregon.com and flydriveusa.ie

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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