I’m not quite sure where my desperation to see the west coast came from, nor when it started. I can recall very clearly though, hiking up through the pine forest towards Unaka Mountain in Tennessee on the Appalachian Trail and having a conversation with Loops about taking a road trip out west.
More specifically, I think we were in the process of making a pact that if we both got fed up hiking, we’d just rent a car and spend the duration of our hike time driving the coastal road next to the Pacific Ocean.
Well, we are now just a little closer to that dream…because we’ve just arrived in Oregon.
Crossing the border, I am a little concerned. Due to my own hype, I have a gnawing worry in the pit of my stomach that I’ve set myself up for a fall. You know that feeling, the one you have when there is so much anticipation of something occurring, that when it actually happens it just doesn’t live up to your expectations. And immediately after crossing a river bridge and seeing the ‘Welcome to Oregon’ sign, I felt my face drop in disappointment.
Now I know, logically, that expecting a state to be all singing and all dancing from the literal moment of crossing into it is completely unrealistic. But somehow, in my heart, this is exactly what I expected from Oregon. I had this image in my mind that right there on the doorstep to the state, there would be some mind-blowing and tear-inducing panoramic mountain vista, that would make me believe in some type of grand universe design and feel my life’s purpose fulfilled. And so when we drove through into a rinky-dink little town with corn fields scattered about, some dry grass fields and farms with decaying farm equipment in the driveway, well, yeah, I felt a bit gutted.
Luckily for me though, Oregon has a trick up its sleeve….she’s a sneaky one, hiding all her goodies for those hardy enough to go looking for them beyond her border line.
We’ve taken a gamble on which way to drive across the state, for we have arrived in the south-eastern corner and need to get all the way north-west for our eventually entry in to Washington. If you look at a map of Oregon you might notice that there are actually only a couple roads that cross east to west and therefore we are limited in our choices. We had planned to try Route 20, but had been advised by a couple back at the last Elks Lodge that they were carrying out major resurfacing on the road, that it was holding up traffic for hours and then resulted in you having to drive your rig through chippings of gravel for miles. Yikes!
So we settle on Route 26 instead, and what a fabulous stretch of road it is.
It takes a little while to pull ourselves free of the outer edges of the state, but when we do, our route treats us to the following views: alpine valleys with open tall grass ranges, cattle ranches scattered about with huge beef cattle grazing in the pasture land, glistening blue lakes that appear out of no-where when you round a bend, thick pine forest set off with a crisp blue sky background and of course, dark brooding mountains with their peaks lit with snow in the distance.
This is a drive where you don’t want to blink for an instant, lest you miss something beautiful. For me, it’s the scenery of my dreams.
Directly set to the side of Route 26, is the Clyde Holliday State Recreational Area, and it is here after a long, but soul-lifting drive, we decide to call home for four days.
It is a relatively compact park consisting of around 25-30 RV sites with partial hook-ups, tent camping, and four tepees that you can rent out to stay in. They also possess the craziest grass watering sprinkler system I have ever seen. Its main function appears to be to water the concrete road, the sides and roofs of everybody’s RV, the gravel walking pathways, the shed housing the firewood to purchase and some of the trees, at leaf level. But at no point does it water the grass on site.
If you wish to make use of the river wildlife walking trail, you first have to do battle with the sprinkler system, timing it just right so you can make a mad dash past it, before it jerks back towards you on its out of control, water fiesta arc.
The challenge is worth it though because, for a park with such limited space, it does have an excellent walking trail jam-packed with wildlife and plants. On our second day there, I took a leisurely stroll (after the compulsory mad water dash of course) and was so excited by my finds, I went back to the bus to grab Loops to come and enjoy it too!
The gravel track leads you along the gently bubbling John Day River with young trees either side, creating a tunnel effect for you to stroll through. As the walk continues, the trees become more mature and have had bird next boxes affixed to their trunks. And from each of these boxes as you pass, you can hear tiny cheeps from inside; noisy and hungry chicks impatient for their parents to return. Stand still, and guaranteed within two or three minutes, mum or dad will return, setting off a whole other level of screaming from inside. Even better, each next box appears to be inhabited by a different species of bird; of which I can only haphazardly identify two as a type of wren, and a swallow or martin.
Our pathway now diverts from the river, taking a gentle curve to the right and now we are in a small open dry-grass field, with poppies keeping us company to our right and on a single tall telegraph-type pole in front of us – an osprey nest, complete with sitting mum. She seems somewhat agitated though, she’s alarm calling. And when we scan the area we find two other ospreys in the area, one circling above and one sitting on a fence post in the distance to our left. We watch them for a time, with the sitting bird eventually taking to the wing (an intruder maybe?) and the one in the air completing a few circuits before alighting on the nest.
We leave them to it, and make our way over to another water feature, a pond, sunlight rippling on its surface with the occasional fluttering breeze. The edges are lined with wildflowers in all hues, bright butter yellow blooms, large oxeye daisies, blood red poppies and another purple flower I cannot name.
There are dragonflies zipping about on the pond surface and from somewhere not far off, I hear an odd sound, somewhere between a calf bellowing in distress and a creaking gate. I can’t for the life of me identify it. No worries, Loops to the rescue! It’s a frog he tells me, or a toad, sitting somewhere in the pond. And low and behold, he spots one right at the water’s edge. We stand stock still and wait patiently to see if he moves. And in a flash, he leaps out towards the bank and grabs a dragonfly off of a flower and dives into the water!
My surprise discovery of the day comes on our walk back to the bus, where I discover with a squeal of delight – Teasel! This is without a doubt one of my most favourite plants from home! And here it is, right here in Oregon, how is that?! I spend a happy couple of moments creating a ‘ziiiip!’sound by running my fingers up the dried out seed husk, before heading back to Belle in a state of happiness having been steeped in nature today.
Here at Clyde Holliday we are nestled between the two towns of John Day and Mount Vernon. We are only 5 or so miles from John Day, a seemingly insignificant dot on any map, but in reality a small community that I actually feel immediately some type of affection for, but don’t really know why. There is a main high street with a scattering of businesses, the two largest in town being the Thriftway for groceries and Len’s Drugstore for, well, most other stuff. It has everything you require to be a little community getting by in what feels like the middle of nowhere. If you are looking for big name shops, you won’t find any for about a three or four hour drive in either direction. Once you’re here, you stay here, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say there are probably a fair few residents in this town who have either never ventured out of it, or probably have never left Route 26 in their entire lives.
Now with that said, the town of John Day has, what I consider to be, a fascinating history to it. The town was founded in 1865 and is named for a trapper and hunter of the time. But it’s most interesting period of history focuses around the time of the gold rush in America. While many people are familiar with California being the main site of gold discovery in the 1800’s, Oregon also had its fair share of success. This desperate search for gold was not only an American quest though; it brought immigrants from across the ocean. And in the case of John Day, it brought a huge number of Chinese immigrants escaping war and starvation in their home country.
Now, if you’re like me, this would be a surprise to you. While I am well aware of immigration from Europe, the English ruling the US for a bit and the Spanish-Mexican influence; the contribution of the Chinese to the west of the USA is a completely new entity for me.
If you wish to learn about this period in the timeline of John Day, there is no better place to do so than at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, located right in the heart of the town centre. I have to say, this place is very deceptive. It is simply billed as a ‘historic building and interpretive centre’, but what they should say about it is that it is an absorbing personal historical story, a literal physical step back in time.
Kam Wah Chung and Co. was a business owned by two Chinese gentlemen, Ing Hay and Lung On. Both emigrated separately to the USA in the late 19th Century, but came together to form a lifelong business partnership and friendship here in the town of John Day. Today in the town, the population is approximately 1600 people, roughly the same population as back in the time of these two men; the difference being is that around the 1880’s, the Chinese immigrants formed approximately 1000 of those residents and the non-Chinese only around 500.
This was a hugely popular area for them to live and work and Ing Hay and Lung On took advantage of that by setting up a traditional herbal medical practice, dry good store and import business, all rolled into one. It became the hub of the Chinese community in the town, an important home from home for local immigrants.
At this period of history, Chinese residents faced a large about of discrimination and hostility, with laws passed to restrict access to services and stricter immigration controls. Due to this, Kam Wah Chung therefore provided an even more important function, a safe community gathering place. People would come here to speak their native language with others, the building has an informal library and Lung On would read and write letters to and from home, on behalf of those who could not.
As time passed on, these two men became respected members of the John Day community, with Lung On expanding his hand in many businesses and Ing Hay becoming known as ‘Doc Hay’, treating both Chinese and non-Chinese patients, using ‘pulse diagnosis’ to identify and treat their ailments.
The incredibly sad part of this story is two-fold. The first is that when Lung On and Ing Hay left China, they did so leaving their families behind and never returned; potentially out of fear of the newer immigration controls, that they may not have been let back into the USA once they left.
Additionally, these two men lived the rest of their lives in John Day, running Kam Wah Chung for nearly 60 years, but left something unique behind. When Lung On passed away in 1940, he gave all of his business assets to Ing Hay, including ownership of the Kam Wah Chung building. Ing Hay continued to run it on his own, even after going blind, right up until the day when he broke his hip in 1948. He left the building to go and receive hospital treatment, locked the door and left everything as it was, fully intending to return. Sadly he did not. He needed to be moved into a care facility and died there in Portland in 1952.
Kam Wah Chung & Co. was given to his nephew, but the building was left locked and abandoned until it was donated to the Oregon State Park Service to be used as a museum. It was only then it was re-opened almost 20 years later. And a veritable time capsule came alive.
The building looked as if it has been left in mid-use, much as it does when you walk into it now to visit. Items are still stocked on the shelves, medicines neatly labelled ready for use, a worn consultation chair arranged for patients, a fully stocked kitchen waiting to be cooked in and a wood burning stove prepared to be lit. This building doesn’t just give an impression of being old and historical, it is old and historical. There is still soot on the walls from the people who smoked in here and from the fire they sat around. The floors are scuffed from the feet of the many people who crossed it in the past hundred years. You are stepping back in time when you enter the cramped little building, but more than that, you are standing with all of the people who came to visit Ing Hay and Lung On, you are right inside the story of their lives. It is a most remarkable place to stand inside and experience.
The Oregon State Park Service has done a commendable job keeping Kam Wah Chung true to its original state, and in addition to that, they also host a small interpretive centre just a two minute walk from the medicinal store. Inside they have created a first-rate exhibit, telling the story of Chinese immigrants and why they emigrated, the history of these immigrants in the John Day area and how Ing Hay and Lung On established themselves in the community. Each piece of information is a clear and concise snippet, easy portions to hold the attention and yet still fully explain the historical context. In addition they have documents, letters and photographs from the time which help the story of this community really come alive.
Hopefully you can tell I enjoyed the site and of course would encourage people to visit. If you are interested in a little more information about Kam Wah Chung, they have a nice volunteer website – www.friendsofkamwahchung.com – that you can peruse at your leisure.
And just to end the tale, in what I thought was rather heart-warming conclusion; when the gold rush ended and the majority of the Chinese community that had settled in John Day left the area, both Ing Hay and Lung On decided to stay on to live out their lives there. They had become such an integral part of the town that when they both died, instead of having their bones sent back to their ancestral lands as is the custom, they each chose to be buried right there in John Day. You can even go and visit them up on the hill at the town cemetery, as Loops and I did.
We filled our final days quickly at the campground; busy catching up on admin, sorting out my reading for AJ’s wedding in August (yes, she trusts me to stand up and say something!) and Loops finally fixed the annoying splashing toilet flapper!
We also made two stops to the Grubsteak Mining Co. restaurant while in town, for dinner and then a lunch; definitely a good place to eat for a fair price. While there our waitress helped fill in some of the blanks regarding a few of the ‘characters’ we had been seeing around the town for the past couple of days.
The ‘characters’ in question basically looked like homeless people, and I mean rough homeless people, who hadn’t showered in weeks and looked like a fair few were pot heads. The really odd thing is, for a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, we were seeing large roving bands of these people, way more than you’d expect of a normal homeless population. Some were carrying backpacks and just loitering; others holding up signs for money (or in one case outside the Dairy Queen, a plea for ice cream).
Our waitress explained to us that all these people are apparently part of the ‘Rainbow Family’. Neither Loops nor I had any clue what that meant, so over to Google we went. To put it in its simplest terms the ‘Rainbow Family of Living Light’ are hippies. They are people from all over who gather once a year at these massive gatherings held on public lands, and I guess sit around and do hippie things. I’m not quite sure why being a hippie has to equate to not bathing and begging, but there you have it.
Apparently this year, in about a week or so from now, there will be around 13,000 people gathering in Flagtail Meadow, Forest Service land just a couple miles from John Day. All of these loitering people are just the beginning of the massive wave to follow. Well, we’re sure glad we are getting out of town just in time. The waitress doesn’t seem too happy about it either, she tells us about town meetings that have been happening, locals concerned that the land will be damaged or rubbish left behind for others to clean up.
I really do hope that’s not the case, but from the people I’m seeing so far, I think it’s a bit of an empty hope.
We call time on our stay in John Day, get back out on the road and head towards Bend and the coast.
I want to reiterate again the point I made at the beginning of this post; in the 13,000 miles we have travelled so far this year (and probably another 4,000 or 6,000 last year), I have yet to drive down anything as scenic as the US Route 26 across the width of Oregon. I don’t quite know why I prize this landscape above all the others we have seen, but to me, it is perfect.
And while I could try and sum up it up using words such as: breath-taking, inspiring, homestead, simple, time, slow, heart-tugging, powerful, natural, forever, nature, attention-seeking; none of these would resonate quite right in your heart and mind.
So here is the best I can do, to show you why ‘West is Best’.