The start of the trip was later than I expected or had hoped but it started all the same. The plan had been to leave on Sunday, January 24, but goodbyes and cleaning up my apartment extended our stay in the area through January 26.
Monday was the night I handed over my keys to my apartment. It was late, about 7 PM, to make setting out for John Day, Oregon seem an impractical decision. As there wasn't a place to stay Ashley and I decided to stay in town and try out some of the features of the Yaris we had yet to put to extended use. After I got a celebratory set of nachos to mark my new found freedom, we set about trying to find a place in Vancouver to stealth camp in the car. We settled on a location in my old neighborhood and converted the vehicle to sleeping mode.
After a restful and slightly cramped night I said a few more goodbyes in town and we set out on I-84 heading east at 11 AM. After several hours of driving we cut down US-197 toward John Day, Oregon and the Painted Hills. The rain from the morning changed to a streaked sky framed by rolling hills rock faces around winding turns. After not so many hours we were there. Sort of.
At the first sign we saw for the Painted Hills we turned. It was nothing more than a parking lot for a boat launch but, not knowing what to expect, Ashley and I agreed there was a 15% chance that this was it. It wasn't but there was this dirty but friendly tiny, curly-haired, white dog running and jumping at us with enthusiasm. Not wanting a new dog, but know I was susceptible to both persuasion and too adorable animals I went exploring the boat launch. After I came back about 10 minutes later, Ashley was worried that our new friend, tentatively named Shaun T, was without an owner. Skeptical but moved I suggested we look for his owner and if that failed we could drive him into town as our temporary road dog.
No luck. Oso, as we learned, was owned by the dog of the house closest to where we found him. We turned him over and committed to continuing on.
A mere 10 minutes later and we were face-to-face with the Claro Unit where descriptive trail interpretive signs explained geology that I found both fascinating and was far too quickly to forget. The majority of the formations in the area were preserved from lahar flows from nearby volcanic activity and ash deposits from the ancestral Cascades between 20 and 30 MYA. There were three short interpretive trails one ending in an arch, something I did not expect to see outside of Utah, overlooking the nearby highway.
With the sun setting and two more areas to observe before heading east towards John Day it was time to make dinner and tuck in for the night. This proved more difficult than expected. At the Claro Unit there was a recreational map that listed several nearby campgrounds. With several names in hand we headed for the Painted Hills looking for signs north of town of Mitchell. None. We drove toward the Painted Hills looking for campgrounds. Along the way we stopped in a town and picked up a propane canister and steak. We looked for campgrounds. None. More driving. None. It was dark, time to park. I found a paved forest road in the opposite direction of where we intended to go and started down it. The snow, which had been at the margins for our drive, began to creep in. The blackness was absolute. Due to a combination of fear, hunger, and poor traction control we pulled off into a turnoff along the forest road and started setting up for the night.
My headlamp not working and, like most poorly planned things at night, I used my cell phone for light. I propped it on the back of the hatchback for light while ruffling through the spare tire compartment become pantry. In 15 minutes Ashley and I had managed to put together a fried sweet potato with arugula and steak on a camping stove. Cleaning up was a bit of a chore. I've been far too critical about organization and things being just right. Through some means of flustered everything was cleaned and ready. I shut the hatchback only to hear the sound of ice or sand. Odd. It didn't close to easily, I thought. I tried again while saying aloud, "I wonder what that sound was?" only to be greeted by Ashley's reply of: "Your phone?"
And in a moment I was the proud owner of two different items that previously composed one phone. Lesson #1 of the trip. There is no hurry or need for speed. Stop and think when you have the luxury. And with the luxury of silence I tossed out some cathartic swears into the darkness.
And we awoke to semis driving quickly past us. In the morning now only were we surrounded by austere mountain views in every direction we were also welcome to see that we had pulled into an old, unmaintained road of the forest road on to private land and that the forest road was actually the ideal route for moving equipment to some distance location. Perhaps not as remote as it felt. We ambled over to the Painted Hills and some had a indulgent photo session. It's unique. You should see it.
With only the Sheep Rock unit of the monument remaining we sped along. Running low on gas we stopped in Mitchell, Oregon just off the highway. A town of about 100 we would later learn. Stopping at the gas pump we waited for an attendant (required in Oregon). With no attendant we walked into the town's store and asked to the schedule. The older, friendly lady behind the counter informed us that the gas station was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. We'd make it. Probably.
Ashley needed to ship her extra laptop so we walked five doors down to the post office where the wonderful clerk provided all of the shipping materials needed and told us more about the town. She moved to Mitchell nine years ago from Portland and has written a couple young adult novels and tagged fish in the area for five years. She also told us about the school and how they have a substantial international student population that is about a third of the school's population and helps keep the school in the black. They live in dorms provided by the school. Looking at a map and seeing all of the small towns puts into perspective all of the stories and great people we have yet to met on our trip. Thanks for the help Bryn!
Departing Mitchell we headed for final stop in the area, the Sheep Rock unit and the fossil museum. Along the way I contacted my father who is working out of another small town, Huntington, Oregon along our path to see if we had a place to stay. We did, but it would be later in the night so we had time to kill. Arriving at the gate to the museum we saw that it was closed. It should have been open according to the hours, but with it being the off season we decided to head out towards John Day.
With the extra time and a little too much public radio we thought we would the long route through Burns, Oregon and perhaps get a site of all of the news vans in town because of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Bad idea. First because the road was closed after a 40 minute drive. Second and more devastating to the psyche, snow. It was at the fringes in our journey but became more prominent soon. With our tail between our legs we headed toward Huntington to meet my father in one of the two bars in town.
Arriving around five, I sat myself down at the empty bar feeling ever the 10-year old impersonating an adult. Stuttering, "I'll have a pint of Bud to the bartender" I was greeted with a confused look that led to me slowly pronouncing Budweiser. I told her I was waiting for my father, who had assured me he'd be known, and was met with blank looks. I waited staring at some empty sitcom on a 500lb 40 inch Magnavox sitting on some hastily constructed scaffolding.
He arrived. Terrible spaghetti was had, shots of fireball and forced glad-handing with the locals. My dad directed Ashley and me to the house he was staying with some other workers. He and the majority of the company he works for are in the area building roads along the mountains in the area so wind turbine equipment can be moved. Without complaint we fell into a slumber ready for the start of tomorrow.
I haven't outlined much in the way of goals for this trip. But Burgdorf Hotsprings was one of them. It can only be reached by snowmobile in the winter.
Ashley and I headed toward McCall, Idaho taking obligatory state sign pictures in the 20F weather surrounded by onion skins. The snow was now omnipresent and difficult in a tiny subcompact but through luck we made our way to McCall, Idaho and the place we were renting a 2-person snowmobile Cheap Thrills.A quick discussion with the proprietor and we had the bunny suits and directions we needed. Thirty minutes later I was navigating down a snowmobile groomed road passing by idyllic cabins. I suspected this road would be more difficult going in the opposite direction.
The attendant quickly walked through everything one needs to know to snowmobile and we were off! Burgdorf was 22 miles from the start of the trail. I got my bearing with with the machine and was soon laying into it. Luckily, I suppose, it had a governor. I switched off with Ashley and we zoomed along in the meditative snow-covered trees without a soul in sight.
Our map told us there was a small stop a bit further so we continued to the Secesh Stage Stop where we were greeted to twenty other snowmobiles and a full house. After my embarrassing attempting at something resembling parking we went inside to tea and hot chocolate.
Surrounding us was a group of guys debating weather to break a new trail or continue along what was already there while sipping at beers and margaritas. Meanwhile dollar bills were being pounded into place with tacks and pennies about the bar. Not about to skip out Ashley quickly festooned a bill with trip memorabilia (#yarhome) and we hammered in beneath the washboard in the corner. With time limited we headed toward the hot springs to get back before dark.
Speeding to Burgdorf we arrived and check-in at the desk. Walking around the corner we were greeted to a huge pool of 100+ degree water and two smaller hotter pools. They were completely empty and snow had started to fall hard. What followed was a meditative, relaxing hour in a perfect setting I won't soon forget. Too soon though we needed to head back. We inquired about staying (fairly cheap) but decided against and agreed to split a place in town instead. With time short we red-lined it back to the trailed and turned the snowmobile in.
The car parked on a one degree grade was completely stuck. I flailed with chains before throwing in the towel. It was then that we met Chuck (who we would later learn was one of the owners). He walked us through what we needed to do along with admonishing my city tires and adding a new dad joke to my arsenal ("Did you know they are selling $CARMAKE with heated tailgates now? It's so your hands don't get cold when you have to push"). After pushing and traction devices failed he tugged us out with his truck and instructed us to get a running start and keep it at 20 MPH lest we get stuck again. With the help of strangers on our side we made it back to Cheap Thrills.
There we met the lady we had met before. Ashley, ever courteous handed her a thank you card and explained what Chuck had done. She introduced herself as Mrs. Chuck and we began to pepper her with questions about McCall, her life, and things to do. She informed us that tomorrow, January 29th was the beginning of Winter Festival and that 80,000 people would be flooding into town.
With dinner and accommodation suggestions we headed to a hotel to settle. At this point the car is dirty on the inside and stuff has begun to overflow. The snow continues. We are not prepared. Afraid the car won't be able to make it we walk from out hotel toward the city center for dinner. With logistics my eye would glaze over at attempting, Ashley secures a table at the best place in town.
As we have some time to wait before dinner we wander the city looking through windows. And then Ashley spots it. Line dancing.
We walk into a bar to see approximately fifteen people age 50 or better stepping the night away. Briefly after meeting some onlookers Ashley joins in. Not wanting to be a stick in the mud I reluctantly join in a hiker's line dancing costume. Led by a poised and western-festooned couple we're told it's Electric Slide time. "Does anyone not know the Electric Slide?" is asked, to which I sheepishly raise my hand. And I literally stumble through it. I take my seat and watch the pros continue as Ashley participates in another. With approbation from the belt-buckled leader we head off to dinner under my promises I'll learn more.
After dinner, we head back hoping to catch them before they leave and through some miracle they are still there about to leave. We get drinks and hear about their lives and how McCall fits in. We learn that the expert, belt-buckled man was born in SoCal, worked in IBM starting in the 70s and some how found himself swing dancing in the late 90s. We learn that if we haven't been to Boston for the history then we must. That you'll never see more cowboy boots than at the Calgary Stampede or dance as hard. That renting an RV in Alaska is probably a better idea than driving one all the way up like they had in years past.
And than he teaches Ashley the basic steps of swing. We head to our hotel and pass out. The snow continues.
Itinerary questions are forever on the tip of each others tongues. But boy oh boy are we already sick of the snow. The next stop was to be the Grand Tetons for some cross country skiing but seeing how the care fared we decided it best to skip this and to get out of Dodge. We went for a walk looking at the snow sculptures in town as part of the Winter Festival only to discover that the logging truck just outside of our window was the masterpiece. With a potential foot of snow predicted we make south without a plan. In Boise, Ashley calls her friend in Provo to see if we can secure a night.
And we have a couch available in a house in Provo. A short six hour death drive through mountain passes and icy canons we make it into Salt Lake. A disappointing meal later and we are warm and ready to wait out the snow. We spend the next day passing the time. Provo gets six inches so we spend some time at the rec center and hanging out about town. We look at tickets to Cancun and means of escaping. Unfortunately we've promised to meet friends in Denver the next weekend so shot down to Denver doesn't make mileage sense. There is another snow storm blowing in the Monday morning.
With out thoughts towards escaping the snow we will probably test our luck by pushing through the storms to Colorado.
Perhaps a roadtrip across the United States in a subcompact car in the heart of the winter was less than wise?