Busyness abounds here in Oregon. It seems there is plenty to see and do without even really trying much, which suits us very well. After having spent half the year driving massive distances to reach out of the way places, it’s great to simply be able to drive a single day and end up seeing so much along the way.
Leaving our oceanfront camp we head up the well-travelled Route 101, which runs all the way along the coast from Washington down into California. Loops tells me that the best way to see it is traveling opposite to what we are doing, from north to south, and it soon becomes apparent why this is.
The 101 has plenty of pull-outs along its length for you to stop and take in the ocean views, but of course they are all on the left side of the road (for us). This means if you are heading north, you have to cross the oncoming traffic in order to pull in to a rest stop and then do the same coming out again. While that might not sound like too much of a big deal, try it when you are 60 feet in length, on a blind bend and on a small two lane road with no room for manoeuvring or mistakes. Then it becomes a nightmare. As a result, sadly we have to drive past all of the viewpoints and settle simply for what we can see out of the front and side windows as we chug past.
Having said that, I enjoy simply meandering along the winding road, checking out the little towns and villages along its length and viewing the roadside wildflowers; which at this time of year seem to be at their absolute best. We pass blooms of red, purple, white, yellow and plenty of greenery. What makes this especially pleasing though is, much like at John Day when I spotted my teasel plant, I can clearly identify brambles and foxgloves along the verge. These are plants of England. And very much akin to my experience in Texas, being able to spot and identify these plants put me at great ease, I feel much happier in the environment around me.
Our main stop for today is on the northern outskirts of the town of Tillamook and involves one of my favourite foods – cheese! The famous Tillamook Cheese Factory is slap bang on our route and wouldn’t it just be totally rude to ignore it and their cheese tasting samples?
The Tillamook factory has obviously made good on tourism. It has a humongous car park that is packed to the brim when we arrive, and is in fact so full with no-one leaving, that we have to drive Belle around and into the ‘Bus Parking’ zone behind the visitor centre to fit in(which several other RV’s following suit).
Now, for those of you thinking about visiting the factory, let me warn you – there is no big visitor centre at the moment! Apparently the centre they had before, with a viewing window of the cheese making, closed in May of this year (*rolls eyes*) and the new bigger and better version apparently doesn’t open until next year (*more eye rolling*). So right now, I would say it is worth a visit if you are driving past, but not necessarily a 30 or 40 mile detour or anything.
I will say the exhibit that is currently on show is a nice representation of the dairy industry though. They have information about the dairy co-op in the area and fiberglass models showing the breeding and rearing cycles for dairy cows.
They have an example milking parlour showing the equipment set-up and a really good video which is about 10 minutes in length showing farmers talking about their farms, herds and what an average day entails to get the milk from farm to the factory to be used. The most interesting thing I took away from it was the fact that back in the 1800’s, when the land in Oregon was first being settled, a man and his family could claim 640 acres of land anywhere they chose, free, as long as they ‘improved’ it. For most this meant building a house and farm to rear something. So when I look and wonder how people out here manage to afford or find to buy such large areas, it’s worth remembering that the very first people to the area got large swathes of land free of charge by settling on it and therefore having something to pass on to subsequent generations. Obviously my relations where not the farming type.
I have to say, it is history and stories like this that make me feel that somehow by living in today’s age we have missed out on the prime adventure, innovation and exciting times that happened in the USA. Everyone else might feel that the technological age is great to be in with new advances and discoveries, but I don’t know, for someone like me who focuses more fundamental and basic living skills, I think actually some days I would prefer to take my chances in the Wild West. Yeah, even with cholera, diphtheria and dysentery, I think there is something wonderful about the hard core pioneering spirit that drove people on and how amazing it would be to watch the inventions of the time be created, getting excited by railroads and plumbing and the like. That and I wouldn’t mind 640 acres of land to mooch about on. I could totally see myself as a goat or alpaca farmer.
By the evening we find ourselves almost at the most north-western part of the state, staying at Camp Rilea, the Army and National Guard base, just a few miles south of Fort Stevens State Park. We use our evening productively, to go visit the park and the beach it contains, and are surprised by the size of the campground there – it has almost 500 campsites! We drive in and out of the camping loops to see how busy it is and find practically every single site taken. Wow. It looks a pretty decent place to come though; there are tons of walking and biking trails, a historic military fort, a lake you can swim in and access to the beach – with its own shipwreck!
We happen to stumble upon the shipwreck as we wander on to the beach – it’s a massive steel frame sticking upright out of the sand and is part of the Peter Iredale, a ship which ran aground in 1906. It’s covered with, what I assume are, tiny barnacles. All over it. It’s rather amazing to look at up close. The sand here is also interesting for its colour – dark and dirty looking rather than yellow sand. If my little bit of research bears me out here, darker sand contains iron-rich minerals which are heavier than pale sand which is quartz-rich; meaning that you only tend to see the heavy dark sand on beaches when it gets washed up during times the sea is really churned and has a high energy surf. The Pacific Ocean around the rugged Oregon coastline seems to fit this bill most of the time, and so I guess this is why you see it far more than on quieter flat coastline beaches?
Our beachcombing done, we head back to Belle for a good night’s rest with a planned early start to get us to Portland by the early afternoon, via a stop at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park and the city of Astoria. To be honest, we probably tried to cram in too much given the fact our plan was to aim for a walk-in campsite at Ainsworth State Park, in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge. But hey-ho.
In case you aren’t aware, Lewis and Clark were the chaps that President Jefferson sent off on an exploration mission in 1804, to go and check out what was in the western uncharted portion of the country. The Louisiana Purchase has just happened (so Jefferson wanted this new land mapped) and no-one had successfully completed a route into the Pacific Northwest, so the land lay unclaimed, and Jefferson, of course, wanted it – before the pesky British or other Europeans laid claim to it.
Most people associated Lewis and Clark with being guided by Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian woman. But if you actually look into the Corp of Discovery expedition records, they are actually an amazing account of the two year journey that the 31 explorers undertook – keeping in mind that many things they saw, did or experienced were brand new to everyone, what with this being the very first expedition in to the west.
Where we have come to this morning is Fort Clatsop, the place where the explorers spent the winter of 1805. While the original fort has not survived, there is a rather nice brand spanking new replica where it stood. The fort is actually smaller than I would have expected, but contains various rooms that would have been used for sleeping and as offices and all of these have all been decorated to give a lived in feel, like everyone has just stepped out for a couple minutes and will be right back to huddle in front of the hearth again.
Because of our pressing time, Loops and I literally only have time to do a brief sweep and peek of both the indoor educational centre and the fort, before having to get underway again. I would recommend this location as a visit though because there are a number of re-enactment activities that seem to be scheduled, the fort and centre are very good, and there are walks through the forest to other locations on the site that would have been used by the explorers; we just didn’t make the best use of the park is all.
Our next stop is within the town of Astoria. For those of you out there who are 80’s film buffs (step forward, AJ) – you might already know that Astoria and the surrounding area were used as filming locations for the epic film, The Goonies. Sadly, I only remembered this information once we had left the town, so didn’t manage to take part in any visits to the places in the film, but Loops and I did go there for a rather neat reason – to stand atop the Astoria Column and throw paper airplanes from it (well, balsa wood airplanes technically).
Built in 1925 and dedicated a year later, I am sure the creators of this fine column did not foresee its future as a rather tall launch pad, but that is certainly what it seems to be used for these days. The Astoria Column is, without a doubt, a beautiful site. The column stands 125 feet in height, but in itself stands on top of Coxcomb Hill (600 feet high), providing you with a premium 360o view of the city below and waterways surrounding it.
However, it is not simply its height and vantage point that make the column worth the visit, but the decoration of it. From top to bottom the column is decorated in brown, beige, tan and white paint and plaster carvings; depicting 22 historic or significant events that happened in the region.
Just some of these events include: Before white people arrive, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the sailing of the merchant ship Tonquin, the coming of the pioneers and the arrival of the railroad. The only slight difficulty about the column and its intrinsically painted frieze is that it’s so darn tall; it is really difficult to properly appreciate the details after about half way up, just standing there trying to make them out will give you a crick in your neck. Between 2008 and 2015, the column had undergone restoration work externally as well as having the internal staircase replaced, so if you go and see it now, it’s really looking at its best!
But, what about the airplanes? I hear you cry!
Well, once you pay your couple of dollars to get in and park at the tower, you can go into the tiny gift shop there and purchase a balsa wood airplane for a dollar, climb the 164 spiral steps to the top (warning – it will get you huffing and leave you a little dizzy), burst forth into the light of day and then throw your plane from the top and watch it sail to the floor.
Loops bought us a couple planes to try it out. I did have a panic about littering the environment (!), but everyone around me kept assuring me that balsa wood is 100% biodegradable and all was well. Loops took the first flight, which really put the pressure on, because as his plane set off from the tower, it was immediately caught by a breeze, lifting his plane up and around in a perfectly controlled flight and descent to the ground. It was so graceful it could have been set to music.
This led me to um and ah for a bit, practice my arm movements, try and get an idea for wind speed and direction before finally deciding I was ready. By this time we now have some other visitors (without planes) gathering round and trying to provide advice as well, which only added to the pressure to not simply throw my pane and have it crash dive to the floor. Finally, I bit the bullet and let go!
While not the elegant flight of Loops, my plane did have a long and winding voyage, with twists and turns from gusts of wind. At one point it looked like my plane might hit an electrical pylon nearby, then it took a slight nose dive towards a car entering the car park, before recovering itself to land safely…in a tree. As I looked at my plane nestled in the branches, I realised it wasn’t alone. In the trees surrounding it I counted at least seven other planes just with a quick sweep of my eyes.
I can only hope what everyone told me is correct, that my plane will eventually just rot away with a bit of rain and time; because throwing it off the top of the tower and seeing it fly really was rather cool and I enjoyed it a lot. I did manage to fetch back Loops’ plane from the floor as a souvenir, so that’s one less to worry about!
Riding on the high of our tower flights, we head back to the bus in good spirits to finish off our long drive over towards Portland, for now we really are in a race to make it to the state park and grab a walk-in site that we hope will still be available.
I’m still not quite sure how exactly we ended up in Washington State, but certainly we did. I’m going to blame it on the pesky Google GPS woman. She hates us. She gets all uppity when we try to stick to the back roads, keeping off the motorways that she wants to divert us on to, and today she’s taking her revenge.
Without us noticing, she has decided to alter our route from continuing along the old and scenic Highway 30, shouldering the Columbia River and passing through tiny towns, and instead has surreptitiously inserted a turn on a roundabout that leaves us no choice but to head over a large metal grate bridge and into the state of Washington, which lies on the other side of the Columbia.
We have no idea what is happening until I spot a ‘Welcome to Oregon’ sign over my shoulder as we curve around the roundabout, wondering what the heck it’s about, and then have it slowly dawn on us that the river is the state boundary, followed by Loops and I going back and forth with “We’re going into Washington, aren’t we?”, in a state of disbelief.
Now, in a way, it’s not really a big deal. What the annoying lady has done is to decide it’s faster to cross the river and take the I-5 motorway to Portland and then cross back over the river onto the I-84 once we get there. We will arrive where we planned, and possibly in better time (if we can get out of the traffic jam we are now stuck in crossing the bridge).
However as I’ve discovered, having now passed through about 14 other states this year, you have to be ready for the transition from state to state. You can’t be crossing state lines willy nilly. Or at least I can’t. Loops is mostly peeved about the traffic and missing out on the scenery back in Oregon. I am more freaked out that we are in Washington, a pinnacle state for me, and I don’t have my game head on to start taking it in.
We bluster on and ride the really rather ugly motorway as directed, as trying to turn around and go back is simply not an easy option for us; curse you GPS woman! And as suspected, we eventually make it back into Oregon and onto the I-84. For all that the I-5 is ugly; the I-84 is the exact opposite, a motorway blessed with some of the prettiest scenery you can image, for we’ve now entered the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
If you take a look at a map of the area, you will quickly see that the road sits sandwiched between the wide Columbia River and tall mountainous cliffs bordering the Mount Hood National Forest. Pretty much everywhere you look is stunning – water, trees, mountains, cliffs and waterfalls. Yes, even here from the road you can spot waterfalls streaming down from the cliffs to the side. It’s slightly surreal to be driving along and glance out the window to a view of water falling over a cliff and disappearing into nothingness on the way down.
Loops reliably informs me that this area boasts the largest concentration of the waterfalls in the lower 48 states, and even just looking from the road, it’s easy to believe this is true.
So taken with the view and surroundings, I had almost forgotten that we were in a bit of a race to get to our destination 30 miles east of Portland. We are really going out on a limb here, because if our luck doesn’t hold and there are no spaces left, there really isn’t anywhere else in the nearby area (within 50 miles or further) that has spaces open or spaces big enough for us. We really are throwing the dice and hoping for a win.
We pull into Ainsworth State Park campground and immediately I’m scared. This park is tiny. We are basically in a forest where someone has thrown down some asphalt in a very higgledy piggledy way on a hillside, called it a road, and then proceeded to proclaim some really miniscule, tight spots as campsites, not one of which is level.
The good news is that we can see a single open spot, here at the bottom end of the campground, which is where the walk-in sites are situated. The bad news is that it is a one-way campground, meaning we have to drive all the way through the rest of it to reach it. Yikes!
Loops seems undaunted. I on the other hand am sitting literally on the edge of my seat, gripping it with both hands. We begin a very slow, very loud, chug around the camp. We have to first head up the hillside along the road which is only about 2 inches wider than we are. We take a gentle S-bend type bow (and I wait for The Beast to come a cropper) in order to reach the descent to the lower part of the grounds. Now I think we are going to be stuck. Not only is the road ridiculously narrow, it also curves very visibly to the right and I really do believe we are just simply too long to make it around; I suddenly have images of us becoming stuck or having to now reverse uphill to try and leave the park. Loops obviously has far better spatial awareness than me, confidently navigating us downwards as I peer through my fingers in terror.
Well, it seems luck is firmly on our side today – not only do we make it in one piece, but the campsite is open and free for our use for four days! Oh, but first we have to jack her up on wood planks to try and level her out of course. We can’t have everything be perfect after all.
Right, time to make a plan on how to spend our last days here in Oregon before heading into (or back into anyways), Washington.