Gilliam County

Sites and impressions from the Oregon road

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Oregon, geographically and geologically, is an assemblage of parts that don’t truly make for a whole. Like its northern neighbor, Washington state, it is divided by ecosystems that also provide a rough border of the political divisions that have never seemed deeper, particularly following the dangerous four years of twice impeached former President Donald Trump.

West of the Cascade Mountain ranges are the state’s most densely populated areas, and they are more to the left in the northwest corner of the state. The lands east of the Cascades are sparsely filled. They include the northern farming counties of Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Union, and Umatilla.

On this trip I passed through Gilliam County, which features stunningly scenic rolling hills and an endless supply of wind that led to the siting of extensive wind farms. Outside of the federally recognized tribal holdings and communities, the areas is overwhelmingly white, but is now seeing an influx of some Latino residents, who do much of the agricultural work in this part of the state. Politically, this is as red as red gets anywhere in the United States.

I drove south from the Columbia River Gorge on Highway 206 through Condon, then took a right going south on Highway 19 through the abandoned intersection community of Mayfield to Fossil. Here is where landscape turned from rolling hills to deep canyons, revealing millions of years of geological history. Farms that draw from the John Day River line the roads that wind through a “scenic byway.” Some of these stunning geological formations are partially protected in a federal land management area called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area has some of the richest collections of fossils spanning a 40 million year period, showing the evolution of species, plants, and ecosystems that existed long before homo erectus walked out of the plains of Africa to populate the planet.

After a brief stop at the monument’s fabulous visitor’s center, I took a right and headed west on Highway 26 that took me through more stunning canyons, multimillion dollar ranch holdings of land barons, and to the turnoff for the Painted Hills Overlook, which are some of the most photographed hills in the annals of photography. I first came here in 2003 and had forgotten how stunning the scenery was.

After taking a great walk and taking my obligatory tourist photos, I jumped back on Highway 26 (the Ochoco Highway), which climbed through the scenic Ochoco National Forest, where sites of recent forest fires were visible. Along the way I observed how severe the drought conditions were, with the Ochoco Reservoir down at least 20 feet. I passed through Prineville, which once identified itself as a town tied its ranching and agricultural past, celebrated in its public art. In reality, it has become a bedroom community for nearby and fast-growing Bend, about 25 miles to the southwest. The community is now home to larger data servers that tap into cut-rate cheap federal power provided by the nearby Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River.

Facebook recently announced it was building two more buildings here on top of nine existing structures, with operations the size of 80 football fields. The new investments will cost $2 billion. Apple also operates large data farms here as well. These investments make the bucking bronco and cowboy sculpture feel as old an a Roman antiquity sculpture.

Rudy at Paulina Lake

Rudy Owens at Paulina Lake, smiling because it snowed the night before in early June 2021.

I ended my drive in Newberry Crater, another national monument about 45 minutes southeast of Bend. This is one of my favorite places in Oregon. It similar geologically to the much more famous Crater Lake National Park, but more developed for campers and fishermen. The day I arrived it was nearly 32 F, and it snowed during the night. I had almost an entire campground to myself. I woke up with white stuff on my tent, and it was still the second week of June. I loved that, actually! From my campground, I did a long overdue nearly 8 mile run around Paulina Lake, which is one of the finest running loops I have done anywhere. That was worth the trip alone.

Icons of eastern Oregon

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During the past two months, I have traveled widely in Oregon. I always enjoy an Oregon road trip. The high and wide-open plateaus of north central and eastern Oregon, just before the Blue Mountains, rekindled my love of the open road and empty places.

I made two separate trips: one to Condon, in Gilliam County, and another to Pendleton, in Umatilla County. Gilliam County is bisected by the John Day River, a popular fishing and rafting destination. The landscape is dominated by a high plateau and constant wind, making it an ideal location for massive wind farms that sprout majestically above wheat fields. The county seat, Condon (pop. 682), is a charming community that felt alive and loved by its residents.

Pendleton (pop. 16,682) sits on the Interstate 84 corridor, further to the east, straddling a valley near the start of the Blue Mountains. The community is a true Western town. It is famous for its rodeo, woolen goods, and also whiskey. Nearby Umatilla is also famous for the now decommissioned 20,000-acre Umatilla Chemical Depot, run by the U.S. Army that was home to a massive stockpile of chemical weapons.

Agriculture, along with wind energy, are two major economic drivers in this sparsely populated area of Oregon. Native Americans have lived here for millennia. Pendleton lies within the ancestral lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, whose designs adorn Pendleton’s famous woolen blankets and more. The tribe also runs the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, a major economic resource for the area.

Visually, I was mostly struck by the iconic imagery presented by the grain elevators in both areas, along with the towering wind turbines. The site of large, manmade structures in mostly open spaces has always appealed to my visual sensibilities, wherever I may be.