Late August in Eastern Oregon! Temperatures are expected to soar into the nineties by midday but for now, the early morning air feels cool as we step out of the restaurant. Cycle shoes click on the parking lot as we busy ourselves with our bikes: last minute adjustments to gear, straps fastened, tire pressure checked, sunscreen applied, water bottles filled. Eighteen friends, sixteen bicycles and two SAG (support and gear) wagons! Our group (what do you call a collection of cyclists – herd? flock? grind? mob?) is quite a gathering in the parking lot. Finally, we’re ready to clip in. The first pedal stroke of countless more that will take us 250 miles in six days along the beautiful Old West Scenic Bikeway in Eastern Oregon.
Our trip had begun the evening before at the bike friendly Hotel Prairie in Prairie City where our group assembled from various places in Oregon and Washington. Eighteen people, even without bikes and SAG wagons, pose a presence in the small town restaurants and hotels we visit. Yet, we are welcomed everywhere by the kindness of people wanting to provide the best possible experience.
The morning of the first day we arrange to drive the first 15 miles to the Austin House Cafe in Bates where the restaurant owner has breakfast prepared: pancakes, bacon, copious amounts of coffee. Then, outside to the cool air, bikes and the Old West Scenic Bikeway. This is the fourth week-long bicycle trip that our friend, Matt, has organized for us over the years and I feel fortunate to have such a group of friends who love to adventure. Some of us are slower, some fast. Some like to cycle the distance, others to cycle part way then ride in the SAG. The only group requirements are to be safe, stay hydrated, enjoy amazing scenery and great company.
The day goes downhill after breakfast which, in cycling terms, is always a good thing. 51 miles on scenic rural roads, tucked into a valley carved out by the middle Fork of the John Day River, and with enough of a downward leaning gradient to inspire a smug complacency – only 200 miles to go! How hard can this be?
The road and river eventually lead to Ritter Hot Springs, an old Stage Coach Inn, and Post Office established in 1886. The resort has a rustic charm and the owner is very welcoming. However, the buildings reflect their age and are in need of some renovation and a group discussion ensues over the definition of “rustic charm.” There’s a fine line between rustic and run-down! Ritter Hot Springs Resort and General Store began operating in 1896.
The original store, built in 1894, still stands. Old pictures dating to the early 1900’s are proof of the importance and popularity of the hot springs to the local homesteaders and visitors from as far afield as Portland. A swinging bridge spans the John Day River linking the resort to the hot springs and the remains of the old soaking baths, built in the early 1900’s. A soak in the water was purported to help cure a number of afflictions including rheumatism, skin disease and gastro-intestinal disorders.
After a day’s cycling I’m thinking I have a lot in common with the “charm” of the resort – old and in need of renovation. A dip in the swimming pool, warmed by sun and spring water, is a perfect antidote.
A full moon rising over the river and an early night after a day of cycling cut short any star gazing ambitions. Hotter temperatures and the knowledge that not all roads on our next 40 mile segment lead downhill, mean an early start to our second day. The pioneer Baptist Minister, Reverend Joseph Ritter, clearly wielded some influence in the area, not only lending his name to the Post Office and Hot Springs but also to the summit we cycle up in the morning, Ritter Butte at 3,993 feet. From there, we follow the gently rolling vastness of blue sky and high desert plateau for several miles, gradually losing our hard earned elevation down to Long Creek. And ice cream! Sustenance for the last climb of the day and an exhilarating free wheeling ride down the escarpment to the Monument Motel and a swimming hole, tucked under the bridge into town.
The heat of summer means an early start to cycling every morning. I’m not much of an early riser, so I’m appreciating the novelty of seeing fingers of light tinge fields and sky shades of pink and gold, as the sun climbs over the ridge of hills. This day we need the early start.
The ride follows the valley carved out by the John Day River and is so spectacular, it’s hard not to stop every few yards just to enjoy the view. Osprey nests and a flock of cranes feeding in the meadow reveal the lushness of the river and valley floor, in stark contrast to the red ochre and arid green of sagebrush and rock rising up on either side. It’s a slow 45 miles to the Fish Inn at Dayville.
To cycle the Old West Scenic Bikeway is to explore a rich history of land and people, layered like the rock strata in the valley we’re traveling through.
The rock formations reveal a geological history of tectonic forces crushing, melting, reforming and uplifting the land, ancient lava flows cooling into towers of columnar basalt. The John Day Fossil Beds protected as a national monument piece together a fossil record of evolving plant and animal life and the climate forces that influenced the region from 55-5 million years ago.
Rooted in this landscape is the story of the people who left their mark and their name. Little is known about John Day, an American trapper for the Pacific Fur Company, although his name persists in the river we follow and the towns we cycle through on Highway 26 from Dayville to John Day. The historical building Kam Wah Chung & Co is evidence of the thriving Chinese community in the town of John Day, drawn to the area like so many others in the late 19th century, to prospect for gold and work on the railroad.
We spend another night in Prairie City then head off on the 40 miles to Sumpter. Gone is the gentle downward gradient and smug complacency of the first day. Clearly we’re pros by day five, since Highway 7 takes us up, over and most importantly from a cyclist’s perspective, down three, 5,000 foot mountain passes. Granted we’re not climbing from sea level but the combined elevation gain is around 3,500 feet, so check in at The Depot Inn, lunch and a lazy afternoon exploring the history of Sumpter are very welcome.
I grew up in England where medieval buildings are very much a part of the landscape and anything post 1800 is considered modern. Here, there is a visceral intimacy to the history of the Old West. The remote homestead cabins and old buildings from the turn of the century, many of them in disrepair, carry a compelling story of people’s hopes and dreams, realized or crushed, within their weathered clapboard.
It’s hard to imagine this quiet town with a population of around 190, as a booming gold town. The US census of 1903 recorded 3,500 registered voters in Sumpter which of course didn’t include the women, children and Chinese. The gold was first discovered in 1862 and by 1900 there was a peak output of almost 9 million dollars from 35 mines. More efficient extraction technologies were developed and in 1913 dredges were introduced to mine the gravels of the valley floor. Eventually three were in operation for over 40 years, each chewing up 60 acres of gravel and rock annually. These huge machines floated on ponds of their own making, scooping up rocks and gravel, using mercury to extract gold, then depositing huge mountains of rock tailings in their wake.
Two local 12 year old boys, volunteer Junior Rangers with the National Park Service, offer to give our group a fascinating tour of the last remaining dredge that ceased operation in 1954. We look out over a valley reduced to a moonscape of rubble, pocked with ponds where the dredges floated. The fertile topsoil was washed away long ago by rain and river, but a unique wetland ecosystem has evolved that now supports an abundance of birds and animals. Watching an osprey overhead prospecting for fish in the ponds, it’s hard to imagine that 100 years ago this was a bustling, industrialized landscape, the noise from the dredging operation rumored to be heard for miles around.
In 1897 the Sumpter Valley Railway extended the track to Sumpter. Hauling timber, passengers, gold and machinery to Baker City, it connected with the Union Pacific, until its last run in 1947. In recent years a non-profit organization, the Sumpter Valley Railroad Restoration, has taken over operation.
Manned by volunteer crew dressed in period costume complete with authentic firearms to guard the “gold” on board, we are treated to an historical re-enactment of a hold-up and train robbery by the Gold Rush Bandits.
Day Six and my smugness is back since I now think of the distance to Baker City as a “mere” 30 miles. It could have something to do with the promise of last day, the beautiful Geiser Grand Hotel and a brew pub at the end.
However, before the celebratory drinks we head off to the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center to discover another chapter in the human story. From Flagstaff Hill the wagon ruts, gouged into the dirt by the countless wagon trains that traveled through here, are still visible. Between 1840 and 1869 over 500,000 pioneers, their lives contained within covered wagons, made the 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to the West Coast, following what is now known as the Oregon Trail. Fueled by the promise of unbounded opportunities in the West, they encountered hardships and challenges, many succumbing to disease and dangers on the journey. It was the largest mass migration of people in North American history and one that left its mark on the indigenous peoples and the landscape, changing them forever.
Our cycle trip, in distance, scope and hardship is nothing in comparison to the Oregon Trail. Nevertheless, a celebration of our modest achievements is called for at the Barley Browns Beer Brew Pub where we discover for ourselves why this brewery has been winning awards for its outstanding beers for the last 10 years. A wonderful end to an amazing bike trip with great friends!