The Old West Lingers on in the Oregon Outback
An old cow skull and handmade chair on the porch of the Frenchglen Mercantile
“Next gasoline 99 miles,” read the sign just east of Bend, Oregon. We were on a late April trip to eastern Oregon, land of high desert and vast, sagebrush-covered distances. There used to be several mom-and-pop gas stations along this straight stretch from yuppie Bend to cowboy Burns,
but these places now sport broken windows and tumbleweeds. Just the kinds of places that Americans think of when we imagine Route 66.
Driving past the road to the Pine Mountain Observatory; it’s the wrong time of day to stop for sky-watching. Passing Glass Mountain, a mountain of shiny obsidian (black volcanic glass); someday we’ll stop, but our time is limited. A quick stop to check out the restored buildings in the historic Civilian Conservation Corps at Gap Camp Ranch, where young men labored under the hot sun and into hope.
Into Burns, a small town of ranchers and loggers hit hard by the timber wars of the 1990s, that left mills without enough logs from public land to stay open. Burns is the place to fill up with gas and groceries for the push into even more remote country. I stop here for some quick photos of signs and an abandoned motel. Then we push on for another 60 miles without a town along the route.
We pulled into Frenchglen (population 11) as twilight approached. This town was named for Peter French, a cattle baron of the late 19th century who controlled most
of the land in the vast valley of the Donner und Blitzen River. He left his mark on the land with scattered ranch outposts and a spectacular round barn in the middle of nowhere. Alas, in old West tradition, he was murdered by an outlaw.
Frenchglen is tiny. There is a K-8 school that draws kids from the surrounding ranches. Eleven of them, as counted in a photo from the Frenchglen school website, but a more recent article pegs the number at 14. Just imagine, in our world of vast suburban sprawl, that this direct descendent of the one-room schoolhouse still exists! And how different the education of these children must be.
Across the road, the Frenchglen Mercantile stands tidy … and empty. As does the house next door where I believe the owner used to live. A sign on the window of the store says you can still get gas here if you place a phone call to a nearby resident: $40 minimum plus a $2.50 service fee; cash only, please. I imagine this recession and high gas prices and the increasingly urban interests of our society made life difficult for the owner of this little store.
Just down the road is the Frenchglen Hotel, which is actually a state historic site that still offers lodging to folks passing through. As of 2008, the price for a room was $67. There is a colorful true story about the hotel’s manager from 1948 to 1974. One night, after a few drinks, Kenny Pruitt decided that he needed to remove his own appendix and did some self-surgery. It didn’t have a good outcome, as you might guess. Read more about Pruitt and the colorful history of the hotel in an article by Richard Cockle at The Oregonian.
We drove on a couple more miles to our destination, the pleasant Page Springs Campground operated by the Bureau of Land Management. This camp sits at the base of Steens Mountain, accessible by road in the summer but certainly not in April, when snow still blankets the nearly 10,000 foot peak. We set up camp and crawled into our sleeping bags after I tinkered with a few night photos in camp.
We awoke just after dawn, to a temperature of 22 degrees F. You might think late April in the desert would be relatively warm, but this is high desert. The campground is at a 4,200 foot elevation, so nights here can be cold until summer
arrives. From here, we spent three intense days visiting a Greater Sage Grouse lek, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the Diamond Craters volcanic area. I’ll describe these in detail in another post, but one more note about the settlements of the area. The next day we visited the hamlet of Diamond, which sports two signs: one says “Population 5,” and the other says “Congestion,” seemingly with a straight face.
Highway cut through a rock outcrop near Frenchglen
Cattle trails on rangeland near Burns
The classic Central Hotel sign in Burns has Art Deco touches
Western Juniper in our campsite with a dazzling starry sky above
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