Twenty Years in Oregon

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, twenty years ago (the 27th), I crossed the Snake River into Ontario, Oregon pulling my life behind me in a modern day Conestoga wagon.

logging truck

the tandem-axle log truck was ubiquitous on Oregon roads

(Helpful that it was a 302 V-8. I was carrying a couple boxes of papers, books and vinyl records behind the van in an old two-wheel teardrop trailer.)

vale oregon - oregon trail sign

Vale Oregon – Oregon Trail sign

Immediately I got stuck between two log trucks. We passed through Vale a couple miles later.  There was no way to tell what Oregon looked like, but we wanted to make some mileage.

The night before, just coming out of Arco, Idaho, and literally AT Craters of the Moon National Monument, the Ford Econoline had carburetor problems, which forced us back to Arco, where we lost two or three hours and all daylight. From Craters of the Moon through Boise, to Oregon, sights stopped and it was just driving in the dark. Accommodations didn’t look promising (this is an actual Vale motel), so we kept driving in the dark.

Vale,_Oregon, bates motel

We drove on, my mechanic friend and I, and stopped by the Malheur river, between Ontario and Juntura. Grabbed some sleep. Woke up and took my first look in the light of day at Oregon.

malheur river near juntura

Malheur River between Vale and Juntura

Not actually a lot to see. We drive to Juntura in the early light. And we needed gas.

There is one gas station and a restaurant in Juntura. Appropriately, the restaurant was called the “Oasis.”  But, since the gas station and restaurant still weren’t open, we had to park the van and trailer and wait. The restaurant opened first, and so we had breakfast, watching for the gas station to open. This was Oregon.


The metropolis of Juntura

There really wasn’t much to look at. Just endless nothing, really. The “Oasis” was aptly named. But the breakfast chitchat of the locals was interesting: I distinctly remember it because the fellow was talking to the other fellow about the new Oregon rest area … with NO wood materials. That weren’t right. They needed to specify that OREGON wood products were being used to build shelters and other governmental offices. Period. Etcetera. Wood was very important to the locals. Their lives were seen through a lens of lumber.

juntura oasis interior

(I always like to eavesdrop on the local breakfast chit chat. Tells you a lot about a town.)

juntura malheur country

The opening part is scrambled

And, of course, this struck me, because if there was anything that I could say about the Oregon I’d seen thus far, nary a tree was in sight, save for the trees planted by the original townspeople. But here, in this arid volcanic mixmaster there were no trees.

US 20 near Juntura

US 20 near Juntura

It was Godot.

malheur country0

Or Cocteau. One of those.

juntura oasis stools

They had a pretty good cheap breakfast for about five bucks. The gas station opened. We gassed. We drove.


My ’74 Econoline  van, more or less.

A thin green strip of life clung to whatever water was present. The road clung to the green if it could.

Juntura was the GARDEN spot of the next three hundred miles or so, past Burns to Bend.

burns aerial0

And Burns, with no visible forests in any direction, had a lumberyard, piled high with fresh-killed tree trunks being watered by industrial lawn swivel sprinklers.

central oregon

Near Burns. I kid you not.


Burns, Oregon

Not when I got there, but close enough.

20 near Burns, Oregon

Looking back at US 20 and 395, which merge in Burns

Many subtle shiftings on the theme of desert, but desert, to Brothers, Oregon, consisting of one working gas station and the bones of another:


No Keeper in Brothers.

At some point, rippling in the heat haze off the highway, white Cascades shimmered in the distance. Forever it seemed, they drew closer. They were the Three Sisters. 

out of the oregon outback Finally, you enter the enormous debris fields of the Newberry and Sisters volcano complexes. And Bend, which you can read about in any golfing magazine, so I’ll skip that.

I couldn’t help but think how much longer it would have seemed on foot, which was how the “pioneers” arrived: you only rode in a wagon if you physically couldn’t walk or were deathly ill. Seasickness was common, so that was the LAST wagon in line. No: they walked.

teardrop trailer

We were dragging a beat-up teardrop trailer (not as nice as this one) that my mechanic friend got from a Kansas farmer in lieu of the wages he  was owed. Inside were vinyl records, books and 20 years of  writing files.

Thence into Santiam Pass, which no one who has never done mountain driving should attempt pulling a trailer, lest no brakes make it to the bottom.


Santiam Pass

I will not elaborate: it is a blossoming entrance into the greenery of Oz. At some point, the pines and firs I have seen all my life all over the West suddenly became GIANT.

Oh, and it goes on and on and on. We looked at the map and thought: hey! Another hour.

Right. Three hours in good weather and traffic and, well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

And I thought: So THAT’S what happens if you water ’em!


Where the trees begin to become GIANT

Holy crud!

santiam pass

Santiam Pass

Basically, you follow the MacKenzie River from its headwaters in the glacial pools of the high Cascades down to where it becomes a navigable river in Springfield. (Which is, coincidentally, WHY Springfield is where it is in the first place.)


Sahalie Falls (and yes, the water really is that blue)

And greener and greener and then, just as Springfield and Eugene were almost, at Leaburg Dam,  in … reach:

leaburg reservoir

The Promised Land – Where That There Destiny Manifests

a 45 minute road work delay.


@&!?*& FLAGGERS!!!

I still see a lakeside pizza place’s neon seared into my retinae.  

leaburg dam

Leaburg Dam

Funny. We were actually talking about the FIRST Civil War as a way of killing time while we waited. The Mechanic maintained that John Brown and William Clarke Quantrill were deadly psychopaths. Equally.

And I disagreed. John Brown, I thought, was a lunatic for a cause beyond himself, and Quantrill was ever only FOR himself, and there was a difference. The point was robustly debated, as though such a thing could never happen again. Twenty years later, I’m not so sure.

John Brown mural in Kansas state capitol

Nullification, passive-aggressive secession. Open TALK of it. I can’t believe that twenty years later we’re HERE.

Thankfully, the GUIDE TRUCK showed up, fifteen cars ahead of us, and led a parade through single lane land around the lake, and the Leaburg Dam, and the Leaburg Canal. And then we were on our own, free and clear.

Watch on YouTube (in a new tab or window)

Just for luck, I had started at Independence Missouri’s courthouse square, and now here I was at the end of MY Oregon Trail.

Oregon Mormon Trail

And the sun was setting.


Arriving at the Emerald City

Later, I would visit the ACTUAL official end of the Oregon Trail, and Applegate and the rest, but, 20 years ago, today, I reached trail’s end.

American Progress, John Gast 1872

Manifest Destiny, Illustrated: ‘American Progress,’ John Gast 1872


You don’t see many logging trucks in Oregon anymore, tandem axle or no.

logging truck2


This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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