Northeast Oregon

Northeast Oregon
During my saunter around Northeast Oregon, I realize John Day is a big deal in these parts. There's John Day River, the John Day Fossil Beds and John Day City. Not bad for an ordinary member of John Jacob Astor's 1810 fur trading expedition on its way to establish Astoria, Oregon. Day's distinction? He was stripped of his clothes in an Indian ambush and left to wander naked until rescued...

It's 6:30 p.m., 104 degrees, and I almost envy Day his ignominious disrobement. The Tiger and I steam into John Day City after cresting the 5,100-ft Canyon Creek summit on 395. The valley's brutal heat displaces the cool, cedar-scented air of the Ochoco National Forest. I've just blasted across 150 miles of semi-desert and range from Prineville, shadowing Crooked River and Beaver Creek. The question uppermost in my mind is, where is everyone? It's mid-July: shoals of motor homes suffocate the roads everywhere else, but not in northeast Oregon. It's empty.

My trip began two days earlier in Umatilla, an agricultural industry sprawl on the Columbia River. Rolling west toward Heppner Junction on the straight two-laner in the sweltering heat, I pray for the dawdling trucks ahead to boot it so I can feel some breeze. Even in jeans and a mesh jacket, the afternoon air is stifling. I snap my helmet visor closed: it's actually cooler that way - opening it feels like I'm sticking my head in a pizza oven. Soon I'm cruising south through open farmland to Ione where I'm looking for a cut-across to Ruggs. I have to circle back before I find tiny Rhea Creek Road, but it's worth the effort. Wriggling along the creek's side, the pavement is fresh though uneven, and in places dwindles to a single lane.

In Ruggs, my route turns west for Condon, and becomes an archetypal Oregon backroad: long stretches of two-lane chip-seal punctuated with hairpins winding down into a canyon, then twisting up out of the canyon on to more miles of farmland, range and/or semi-desert. Though the twists are intoxicating, I slow my pace after a couple of loose gravel turns and crossing some badly patched potholes. Blithely, the Tiger swoops along, soaking up the ripples through its supple suspension.

Stark bluffs line the country highway from Condon to Fossil, and the Tiger races round the long, fast sweepers. Fossil is my first overnight stop, and I quickly settle on the Bridge Creek Flora Inn, a charming, rustic B&B on the main street. The alternatives are a crusty RV park and a hotel that I never manage to find. I ask owner Lyn Craig where to eat; she points me to the Shamrock Club, which isn't a club and has no apparent Irish connection.

It may sound like a movie cliché, but everyone in the bar really does stop talking, turn and stare as I walk in. I exhale a cheery "Hi", slide onto a stool at the bar and order a Mirror Pond Ale. With normal conversation returning and the glances diminishing, a group of three men and two women walk in. They hesitate, look at me, and then cast eyes around the spare, bare-walled barroom. I realize I'm sitting in "their" place. I pick up my beer and slink off to a corner bench where a painter, brush in one hand, cigarette in the other, is slathering white paint over yards of graffiti. There's a restaurant behind the bar and I decide to eat there instead…