The Wild West

This summer, we went to Oregon with my wife Ilenia’s parents. This was their second time in the US, but their first in Oregon. One of my favorite parts of Oregon to show people – especially Europeans – is the eastern part of the state. In most of Europe, you’re never very far away from the next town, and more often than not, you can always see a house, wherever you are (fortunately, they usually look good and fit in with the environment, but that’s another topic for another time). So being out “in the middle of nowhere” is something that makes an impression on anyone who’s lived their life in that kind of environment. To give you an idea of just how empty a place can be, compare these two maps, set to the same scale, of a chunk of eastern Oregon, and the Veneto region, in Italy:

One of the especially noteworthy portions of our trip was a little detour we took. We’d driven out to Shaniko, a ghost town, in the morning, and we also wanted to go to the Painted Hills. The normal route would have been to go all the way around to Highway 97, down to Prineville, and back on Highway 26, but that’s quite a long way around, and we’d already been up 97, so it wasn’t very appealing. Since we had plenty of gas, food, water, and warm clothing (it can get pretty cold in the high desert at night, or if the weather changes), and since Ilenia and I both are “road less travelled” people, we looked at the map, and noticed that there were some roads indicated on the map as “gravel” that went straight through, so we though what the heck, let’s have some fun.

From Antelope, we headed down a windy paved road, and soon off onto a nice, smooth, wide gravel road that we rolled along at a good clip. That took us as far as the Big Muddy Ranch. That’s a name that doesn’t mean much to most people, but it’s the ranch that the “Rajneeshees” bought and converted into Rajneeshpuram in the 1980’s. Fortunately, that’s in the past, and we were able to drive through the property without problems, but it was there that the real adventure began. The road down to the ranch was rough, but entirely manageable. The road from the ranch through the hills to the John Day river was not something to sneeze at in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, let alone the Toyota Camry we had borrowed from my parents to roam around the state in. Over the next several hours, I think we must have averaged about 5 miles an hour – anything more, and we risked tearing out the underside of the car on the numerous rocks and ruts that characterized the road. Even I was a bit nervous going over the road, hoping that it eventually came out somewhere instead of petering out in some impassable terrain. My mother and father and law were, I think, a little bit beyond nervous. Even at the top of the hill the road went over, there was barely a sign of human civilization for miles around.

Luckily, after having crept down the other side of the hill, we spotted a ranch, which meant that

  1. We wouldn’t die alone in the wilderness.
  2. There must be a real access road – it was pretty obvious that not much of anyone drove over the road we’d just travelled.

But, just to remind us of our folly, lie one more obstacle, just as we rounded the bend where we could see the beginning of a wider gravel road. A creek with rough banks sat between us and salvation. After a thorough inspection of the creekbed, we managed to gun the car through, and roared down the road in the hopes of making it to the Painted Hills before sunset.

Unfortunately, we didn’t quite make it, but did manage to see some similar rock formations while driving down the gravel road (that at this point seemed like an interstate highway), so it wasn’t a total wash.

Later that night, we finally rolled into Prineville, found ourselves a hotel and ate at the only place open late at night, an Applebees, which was not well received by the pampered palates of the Italian contingent, but it beat not eating.

While there were certainly some nerve-wracking moments, it was an excursion worth its while. My mother and father and law have friends from Italy who have paid lots of money to go see famous sites in the US, but how many people can say they’ve driven through the Rajneeshee ranch, and down the Muddy Creek Road to the Painted Hills? Not a bad day at all.

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