Bicycle Geographies: A Personal Reflection from Eastern Oregon
Part Two: John Day Discoveries

Photos and Story by Craig Beebe, 1000 Friends Communications and Development Coordinator. Opinions are my own. 
Note: This is part two of a two-part story describing my recent cycle touring adventure on two of Oregon's newly designated Scenic Bikeways. Read Part One: The Grande Tour, Union/Baker Counties, here.

The Grande Tour was a blissful challenge to begin our experience with bicycle touring, and we were hungry for more. After a rest day in Wallowa County, we relocated to John Day, home base for the 175-mile Old West Scenic Bikeway. This is a very different kind of ride than the Grande Ronde, with much more climbing, long stretches of isolation, and rugged Ponderosa and high desert beauty that amazes at every turn. The towns we passed were quite distant from each other, feeling much more remote than the relatively bustling La Grande and Baker City areas. But there was another degree of hospitality as we crossed the hills and valleys of Grant County, where the impact of bicycles (and our fellow two-wheeled tourists, motorcyclists) is much more apparent. Here, in these far-flung hamlets, there are many signs announcing “Two Wheels Spoken Here”, and the local shopkeepers prove it.

This is country that clearly demonstrates many of the complexities and paradoxes of the west as we see it and speak of it today. Grant County has a timeless feel but many of its residents are newcomers, seeking either a different landscape or an entrepreneurial opportunity. The land itself is a checkerboard of ownership, despite what our maps showed—an area marked Malheur National Forest contained many layers of ownership, from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs undertaking restoration efforts along the Middle Fork John Day River, to the Nature Conservancy, and of course, private ranchers and federal agencies. Every cattle grate in the road is a reminder of the complexity of property ownership and management.

The tour follows several branches of the John Day River, Oregon’s second-longest river and the longest free-flowing river west of the Continental Divide. But in many of the reaches, the river flowing through forest and rocky canyons seemed little more than a creek. The middle part of the county is a high prairie that when entered from the north after climbing over Ritter Butte, feels like the dome of the West, with the sky as big and as close as seems possible in Oregon. Yet even this high prairie is deeply carved and rutted by seasonal creeks draining into the John Day.

Here too is considerable productivity, even amid the fantastical rocks of blue, pink, and white in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument area. Near Kimberly, a burst of green provides a mirage-like contrast to yellow hay fields and brown hills, as lush orchards utilize a unique microclimate and water from the river in an otherwise dry landscape. Near the Condon Visitor Center at the Fossil Beds, the restored Cant Ranch tells the story of a region where herds of sheep once covered the hills and valleys now given over to cattle and alfalfa. Along the main John Day Valley from Picture Gorge to Prairie City, irrigated hayfields and ranches fill most of the flat bottom with the rugged Aldrich and Strawberry Mountains rising to the south.

We were struck too by entrepreneurism in the high desert. In John Day, a tiny state park celebrates one early example, the Kam Wah Chung store, which served the sizable Chinese community of Canyon City and John Day during a period of great mining in the region.

That spirit lives on in folks like Tammy, the owner of a general store and café in Long Creek, who came from California to run a ranch and this store, all while developing her own line of ice creams called “Crosseyed Cow." (We skipped the ice cream for a full breakfast when we came through Long Creek one morning after a major bit of climbing. While the breakfast was delicious, after the things I’ve heard about her ice cream, I wish I’d ordered a scoop.) And there's Philip, a gregarious Hawaiian transplant who has purchased an old store and house in Monument, with the hopes of building a hospitality center for bikes, complete with campground and restaurant. As we rolled into Monument around noon on a day that reached the 100s, Philip called to us and bid us to sit in the shade of his walnut tree, then brought us full Mason jars of cold, filtered water. He has the hospitality thing down! Any place as beautiful as Grant County attracts people with big ideas, and we saw plenty of that.

And here in Grant County was a unique sort of unembellished amiability, particularly to us as outsiders wearing funny clothes but ready to spend money. At Austin Junction, where a store is most welcomely situated after a long climb over Dixie Butte, the shopkeeper told us we were lucky she was open—Tuesdays are usually their day off, but a large group of cyclists from Linn County had reserved the restaurant. We were lucky, indeed—the milkshake there was one of the best I’ve had. There was a campground host at Oregon’s newest state park, Bates, who is spending the hottest time of the year amid a quiet row of campsites where the trees are still saplings but the views are wide open—he told us about a spring we’d missed just a mile back, which had some of the most delicious cold water we tasted in our journey. There was talkative Tammy, friendly Phil, and the postal clerk in Kimberly, who invited us in to her tiny post office to cool off in the air conditioning and make small talk as we stretched and refueled with energy bars.

And there is the incomparable generosity of a small Presbyterian church in Dayville that has opened its doors to passing cyclists (many of whom are crossing the country) for decades. No questions asked, no payment required (donations are welcome)—but a hot shower, space to sleep or set up a tent, pancake mix in the cupboards, and wireless internet were supremely welcome after our longest, hottest day of riding.

Many of the people we met said they didn’t understand how we could ride where we were riding, but thankfully they understood our intentions: to see beautiful places, support local businesses, and have some memorable experiences along the way. We spoke with local residents, businesspeople, and fellow visitors like us, passing through via one conveyance or another—tourists at the John Day Fossil Beds, several other cyclists at the Ritter Butte summit, and even a fellow with a goat who is walking across the country to raise money for a friend’s charity, intending to build an orphanage in Kenya. (Learn more here.)

With cycle tourism, there is always an easy conversation starter—“how far are you going?” And that can take you many places. This is a river and region named for a man who wandered, in his case getting separated from one of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company parties (even though he never set foot in Grant County). That wandering continues—intentional or not.

Many Geographies, Many Lessons

Cycle touring provides access to several different kinds of geographies. Most obviously there is the literal geography of a place or region—witnessed through the shape of the earth and the course of rivers, in the location of towns and the roads that connect them, in the resources that support an economy and a healthy environment. There is the geography of the body—the little twinge that becomes a major ache, the discovery of hidden stores of energy halfway through a big climb, the thrilling sensation of descending from a major pass. And there is the geography of the spirit—discovering the meaning of motivation and fatigue, struggling through a stiff headwind, talking with and encouraging your companions.

These are geographies you may have encountered before, you may have thought you knew. But cycling opens an entirely new window on them, and a new appreciation of what they represent. There is discovery at every turn—not always easy, but relentlessly rewarding.

Ultimately, we found that these Scenic Bikeways are more than pretty views, wide open roads, and terrific exercise. They’re an opportunity for Oregonians to come together to identify new possibilities for economic development that don’t require destroying the health of the land or massive changes to rural communities. They’re a declaration of the power of seeing Oregon first, and meeting fellow Oregonians from just down the road or far beyond the mountains—informing or even transforming our idea of what it means to be a part of this great state.

I can’t wait to get back out there.

Learn more about the Scenic Bikeways program and find additional resources to plan your own trip here.

View a slideshow of our trip on the Old West Scenic Bikeway, plus an additional loop into the Strawberry Mountains, below:

Return to Part One of Bicycle Geographies: Eden before Eden.