Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fave Five: High Desert Spring Break.

Eastern Oregon is overwhelming in its vastness. It is full of wide open spaces, room to make big mistakes. But it's also not just a sage brush prairie. There are mountains and hills and gaping canyons that come out of nowhere. It's desert and forest and lava fields. And a whole lot of cows. A LOT.

But no matter what it is, it is big, incomprehensibly so. And mostly empty. An emptiness that leaves me feeling awed and slightly uneasy. But it is really, really pretty. 

We took a two and a half day road trip at the end of my spring break this month to see some of it. As we do with road trips, we crammed a whole bunch of stuff into a short period of time. Here are some of my favorite parts of the trip, in an absolutely random order.

5. Shaniko.

Our first stop on the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway (we REALLY LOVE a scenic byway) was the "ghost town" of Shaniko, Oregon. There were a bunch of old timey shacks and civic buildings and such that are a tourist draw in the summer, but at the beginning of a very chilly April, it was almost an actual ghost town. We did see a few other people but not many, starting a theme for the whole vacation, really. Still, cheesy tourist trap or not, it was a really fun spot to take pictures, AND we got to meet a friendly dog named Sadie. Win-win!

4. The High Desert Museum.

Visiting the High Desert Museum outside of Bend, where we headed for our last day, was a literal last minute decision after other outdoorsy plans were nixed due to it snowing outside. Because it snows in the high desert during spring break! FYI! The High Desert Museum is a little pricey to get in (although they take AAA discounts!) but it was awesome and totally worth it. You get a bunch of history and edumacation stuff, including a particularly good wing dedicated to high desert/plains American Indian culture, which is markedly different from the coastal nations that you most often see associated with the Pacific Northwest. There is currently another exhibit about the high desert during World War II, where I learned a bunch of stuff, including some particularly terrifying things about the Hanford Nuclear Site. Hoooooly shit. It is incredible that at 33, I am still learning new stuff about World War II. 

What makes this museum unique though is that there is also wildlife to see, and a ton of it! We watched a badass peregrine falcon demonstration, and did you know that peregrine falcons can fly over 200 miles per hour, making them the fastest animal on the planet, because they can and they are! We also saw owls, eagles, tortoises, snakes, lizards, a porcupine, and a bobcat. A BOBCAT!

And we saw this amazing band playing old timey folk songs, which made us feel real peak white people.

3. Fave Food: Little Pine Cafe and Spork.

Welcome to me not-so-sneakily squeezing more than one thing into a single number on this list; it is about to get even more ridiculous when I get to number one!

We stayed one night in Mitchell, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere where we constantly worried about our survival, either from ghosts in the one hotel in town in which we were the ONLY GUESTS, or from the other folks in town who were REAL BIG FANS of open carry laws. BUT the one place in town where we definitely felt the happiest and most welcome was the Little Pine Cafe, also known as the Mitchell Stage Stop. The food here was standard American diner fare: burgers, sandwiches, salads, but everything we got was really good and the waitress was really friendly. And we learned that in Eastern Oregon, you take friendliness where you can get it. Even though we were, unsurprisingly, the only customers, it was a really cute space and we didn't feel uncomfortable at all. And their homesqueezed lemonade was STELLAR. 

Somehow we did survive our stay in Mitchell, even with Manda's Hillary sticker still on her car and Kathy's queer haircut. For this, I consider myself blessed.

Back in Central Oregon in a town where we didn't feel like we might get shot if we spoke positively about Obama, we ate at Spork in Bend, a food cart turned hip brick and mortar restaurant. And like all food carts turned brick and mortar, the local residents seemed evenly split on their Yelp reviews about whether this place was even more awesome now or TOTALLY SOLD OUT. Luckily, we are not locals, so I can say without any anxiety about how cool I am or not that it was neat and delicious and I really enjoyed it! While I got the spicy Korean chicken because like any red blooded millenial it is hard for me to say no to spicy Korean chicken, everything on their menu looked great and I would love to go back. 

Having been to Bend a few times now, I think the area where Spork is, on the west side of the Deschutes along Newport Avenue, is one of my favorite places to be. It's just down the street from Chow, which is also delicious, and a few blocks north of 10 Barrel Brewing on Galvelston. Of course, I think this area of town is newer, more manicured than older parts of Bend, but that's the nature of the beast with Bend--so much of it is new and manicured that as an outsider it's hard to figure out what's authentic, or rather what authentic even means, making Bend both really cool but kind of weird. While this can probably be said of any town in the West these days, it seems particularly true here. 

Anyhoo, Spork was great! And ALSO had good lemonade! Well, mint limeade, actually, but close enough!

2. Alpacas at Crescent Moon Ranch.

One great thing about having a friend like Manda is that she will always make you stop anywhere it looks like you might be able to pet animals, and it is ALWAYS WORTH IT. Crescent Moon Ranch is just north of Redmond near Smith Rock, and even though getting in and out of it almost gave me a heart attack because it's right off this section of 97 that has WAY TOO MANY CARS WHY ARE THERE SO MANY CARS, 10/10 I would go back again. You can buy feed in their store and then give it to ALL THE ALPACAS. They are so cute and so soft and they don't really like you except for the food and they might spit at each other or at you if you give the food to the wrong alpaca instead of them but gosh they are the best.

1. The John Day Fossil Beds.

A) Clarno Unit.

The John Day Fossil Beds were the real purpose of our trip. They are a national monument spread over three distinct units, with many miles between them all, full of geology and science and history and diverse landscapes. We hit all three and they were equally fantastic. The first one, heading west to east, is the Clarno Unit, these hulking cliffs that come of nowhere from the rolling hills surrounding them. 

We only walked part of one of the several trails here. It was full of placards that told you about the things that happened millions upon millions of years ago to make those cliffs, when there were no Cascade Mountains and the Northwest was basically a jungle, and it was at this point that I realized my small human brain cannot comprehend what millions and millions of years ago even means. Time + Earth = WHAT.

B. Painted Hills.

The middle unit of the John Day Fossil Beds, Painted Hills, is the most famous of all three for a reason. It is out of this world. Much of the landscape makes you feel like you are legit on Mars, or at least the closest thing most earthly mortals can imagine of Mars. A lot of the hills look so soft and smooth and inviting that you just want to throw yourself upon them, but DON'T DO IT. The rock that forms these otherworldly formations and striations has been here, again, for millions upon millions of years, and much of the landscape is so fragile and protected that while there are a number of trails here, most of them are relatively short and limited, including some boardwalk trails. You know, so that us humans can't eff up this magnificent place too much. *ahem* AND THIS IS WHY WE NEED THE NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM.

C. Sheep Rock Unit.

The biggest of the three units and the furtheast east, closest to the actual town of John Day, is the Sheep Rock Unit. It's also the hardest to describe. It is surrounded on both sides of Highway 26 by an incredible canyon, and then once you turn into the heart of the unit, there are sweeping landscapes of sage covered valleys and peaks that are just...breathtaking. The kind of landscape where you turn off the music in the car so you can sit in silence and fully take it all in. 

There is also a great visitors center here, the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. You can walk through a rather impressive exhibit about the natural history of the area, where I learned about a bunch of ancient animals that apparently roamed this place that I had NEVER EVEN HEARD OF BEFORE. You can also watch REAL PALEONTOLOGISTS AT WORK through a glass window like you're in a scientist zoo! In addition, there's a small theater where you can watch a 20 minute video about the John Day Fossil Beds. We debated where the exact copyright of this video fell, although I feel pretty strongly that it was between 1990 and 1994, but whatever it was, it was fantastic! There is nothing I like more than a video at a national park visitors center! 

Manda and I also purchased National Park Passports here and got to stamp it THREE TIMES, once for each unit. Best day ever!

There are a ton of trails and things to see at this unit, but a storm was blowing through all of Oregon this day and it was so cold and windy that you could barely function outside for more than five minutes. In a way, this was good, because now I have more of an excuse to go back.

Some photos are just made for a harsh Instagram filter.

Man, that was fun to write. But now I miss vacation even more. Why can't every day be a day for exploring? 

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