Van Go: Flying High and Cherry Pie
By Julie Snyder
An enormous cherry pie perched atop the carefully packed provisions for our Van Go venture to southeastern Oregon.
“What’s this?” I asked Joe. Space was tight in our VW camper, and a cumbersome pie wasn’t part of the plan.
“Just a little campfire dessert,” said my sweet-toothed husband. I’m sure he could feel my eyes roll behind his back.
We set off, the pie wedged between a duffle bag of bedding and a crate of water. Our six-hour journey took us around the base of Mount Hood, south to Bend and then southeast to Frenchglen, a blink of a town in Harney County.
We arrived at the one-hundred-year-old Frenchglen Hotel too late for lunch service. Instead, we made a snack in Van Go and ate it while sitting on the front steps of the hotel, an Oregon State Heritage site built in 1916. Across the road, the southern expanse of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge unfolded in a carpet of green and maize.
Our campsite was just outside Frenchglen. But we’d heard rumor of world-class milkshakes an hour down the road in the Fields Station, a one-time stagecoach stop on the edge of the Alvord Desert. The sweeping high-desert landscape and the shakes—mint oreo for Joe and root beer for me—were worth every bit of the one-hundred-mile roundtrip.
By the time we settled into our campsite at Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort, the sun was dipping behind a bluff in a rosy shimmer. We had just enough energy to make up our mini-bed and steam salmon and asparagus on a charcoal fire. Joe perked up for dessert—a super-size slice of, you guessed it, cherry pie.
Why had we ventured to this remote corner of Oregon? The initial draw was Steens Mountain, a massive granite fault block that stretches some forty miles and rises to nearly ten thousand feet. “The geology and vistas are spectacular,” friends had raved about the fifty-nine mile Loop Tour of the behemoth along the highest road in Oregon.
“It’d better be spectacular to compensate for this road,” grumbled Joe, as Van Go bumped along washboard gravel edged by sagebrush. The gradual climb crossed the Donner and Blitzen River—named, not for Santa’s reindeer but the thunder and dry lightning German soldiers encountered there in the 1860s.
Kiger Gorge—about twenty miles along the well-signed Loop route and just shy of the summit—is a jaw-dropper. Anchored on either side by a staunch wall of basalt rock, the U-shaped glacial valley slopes half a mile deep. Though the summer paintbrush and lupine were on the wane by our early fall visit, groves of aspen blazed golden.
We bounced a few miles further to the rim, where the mountain drops a vertical mile to the Alvord desert and views extend to Idaho, Nevada, and California. We peered down at Wildhorse Lake, a sparkle of sapphire in a natural amphitheater. The price for closer inspection was a one-and-a-quarter mile descent that dropped twelve-hundred feet—and then the arduous return hike. We were content with our long-distance look.
When the paved road returned at the end of the Loop Tour, it was welcomed by our joggled bodies. “A little cherry pie will fix us right up,” said Joe as we headed back to the campground and the comfort of our camp chairs. More eye-rolling from his co-pilot.
The next morning, our first stop was the Pete French Round Barn, a distinctive and solitary silhouette on the rangeland horizon. Constructed in 1883 by a local livestock company to train ranch horses during the winter months, the barn is currently home to a handsome pair of horned owls. We hoot-hoot-hooted as they roosted in the struts spiraling off a giant juniper center post. Their response? A few lazy winks.
We followed the Diamond Loop Back Country Byway, past lava-pocked terrain, to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge was another reason for our southeastern Oregon sojourn. Our friend Jerry had passed away early in the summer, and we had a small measure of his ashes to return to the earth. Since he had spent decades as a pilot for Pan Am, we thought it was only fitting that he join his fellow winged creatures at the Refuge for future flights.
Malheur was designated as an avian preserve by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 when hunting for ornamental feathers plucked the population of migratory birds. (Limited hunting and fishing are permitted at Malheur, though shooting residents of a nature refuge feels like an oxymoron to me.)
Malheur’s one-hundred-ninety-thousand acres features diverse habitats, including three shallow playa lakes, a host of small ponds, expansive wetlands, and native grass meadows. It’s an avian sanctuary, especially for waterfowl traveling along the Arctic-to-Mexico Pacific Flyway. Bird enthusiasts flock to the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival in early April for a glimpse of shorebirds and waterfowl temporarily occupying the wetlands on their journey north.
(In early 2016, Malheur made the news for an occupation of a different sort. An armed group of far-right extremists commandeered Refuge headquarters for more than a month to oppose federal control of public lands.)
Songbirds swoop in during late spring and nesting birds set up housekeeping in early summer. Sandhill cranes dine on grain fields until early fall. And fall migration actually spans six months, from late June through mid-December. Tundra swans are a winter highlight. In all, more than three-hundred-twenty species of birds and sixty mammal species have been observed at the ecologically rich Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
And all we spotted while meandering past acres of straw-stubbled fields, peaceful ponds, and cattail-edged wetlands were a few common geese.
The tree-studded Refuge headquarters, with a visitor center, museum, and nature center, felt like an oasis, albeit one under COVID closedown. We wandered past lawns dotted with benches and picnic tables to a blind on the edge of the pond, hoping we could get close enough to the water fulfill our mission.
It wasn’t quite that simple—woven barricades blocked most of the shoreline. In a small act of civil disobedience, we jumped over a low roadblock and stepped into the waist-high grass edging the water. Joe videoed me reading a haiku and dusting Marshall Pond with Jerry’s ashes. I taped his poignant toast, followed by a slug of Jerry’s favorite single malt Scotch. We both shed a tear for our departed friend.
After slowing for an AWOL cow strolling down Sodhouse Lane, we headed north on Highway 207 toward Burns. Our only stop in the quiet ranching community of 3,000 was Gourmet & Gadgets, dubbed “the biggest little kitchen shop in Eastern Oregon.” Joe managed to find a few gizmos lacking in our kitchen.
Our campground that night, fifteen miles north of Burns, was all but deserted. Temperatures dipped into the twenties overnight, and we cranked up our van heater for the first time to ward off the morning chill. While I made coffee, Joe schmoozed a San Diego mountain biker in shorts who bemoaned his inadequate wardrobe, and a woman from Spokane who said she was ditching the cold and moving back to Florida.
Our route north cut through a flat fringe of Malheur National Forest before it ascends into the Blue Mountain pine forests. Fall was on display in the ocher rabbitbrush dotting the rangelands and the sunny aspen that escorted us into the small town of John Day. After a stroll down the main street and some canine canoodling with a half-dozen Irish Wolfhound sisters chilling in the back of a Ford Explorer, it was on to fossil land.
Eastern Oregon’s paleontological prominence as one of the richest fossil beds on earth was first recognized in the 1860s. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument showcases forty million years of ancient history dispersed over twenty square miles. We planned to explore two of the monument’s three sites, called “units.”
The Sheep Rock Unit is home to the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center, where eight ancient ecosystems have been recreated by scientists from fossil bed discoveries. COVID closure of the center meant we were left on the outside looking in.
The advantages of being on the outside soon revealed themselves. Badland outcroppings sculpted by erosion, bronze floods of basalt broadcasting across the valley, layers of compressed volcanic ash mirroring the tint of surrounding sage.
Short trails led to well-positioned benches where we paused to consider the incomprehensible—that we were observing layers of earth deposited at least twenty-eight million years ago.
“Oops, we forgot to top off the gas,” I said as we made our way along Highway 26 toward our next fossil field. “Out here, I’d rather be low on gas than short on charge in an electric car,” Joe said.
Luckily the one-street hamlet of Mitchell had a gas pump—and, as it turned out, a pair of Tesla charging stations. We filled up on fuel and local intel. The woman tending the pump said that their county had been COVID-free and functioning fairly normally until their first case in mid-October. We also learned that it was elk season, and the regional economy got a big boost from hunters. Not long after our chat, we spotted the antlers of one unfortunate creature poking out from beneath a tarp in the back of a half-ton pick-up truck.
Our gas tank full, we drove on through ranchland with grazing cattle amid tiny black blobs that we soon recognized as napping newborn calves. When brown and gold cliffs began to confine the curvy road, we knew more antediluvian attractions were not far off.
The Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument lives up to its name. We followed paths and boardwalks around mounds of bright yellow, red and lavender-gray clays, and popcorn-textured claystone. At Leaf Hill, mounds of rock shards attested to extensive excavation by fossil-hunting paleontologists. On the horizon, hills striped with taupe, orange, and black turned luminous in the thin fall sun.
After our mind-blowing geological tour, we welcomed the peace of a deserted Forest Service campground on a creek where quaking aspen whispered. It felt like camping in a treehouse. Slumber was sound until the middle of the night when Van Go’s battery began to screech. By the time we figured out how to stop the ruckus, all hope of sleep was gone. So much for peace.
We drove home to Portland over Santiam Pass in the Cascades, both apprehensive and curious about viewing the landscape scorched by recent firestorms. Devastation emerged not long after we crested the summit and began to wind our way down the west side of the mountain. Ridges torched to toothpicks. Charred trees with seared needles. Shells of vehicles. Lone chimneys. Stairs to nowhere. Soaring stacks of logs and branches along the roadside where cleanup was underway. Singed bear carvings in front of a burned-out gas station. Random destruction.
Our memories of this adventure are random as well. We’d honored the life of a departed friend, witnessed the aftermath of a climate tragedy … and consumed an entire cherry pie. Bittersweet, bitter, and sweet.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.