The last light faded from the horizon hours ago, and a thin strata layer obscured any hint of luminescence from the moon. To our left rose a vertical wall, a mix of boulders and sediment. To the right we stared into an abyss of inky blackness. We knew what was down there-nothing, at least for a hundred feet or so. Illuminated by our high beams, the rutted two-track we were traversing was only visible as far as the next bend in the mountain. Just wide enough for our Jeep JK, the trail had been void of turnarounds for several hundred yards. The thought of a downed tree blocking the road, as well as that of the sheer drop-off just outside Suzy's window, kept my eyes pinned beyond the hood. Somewhere behind us was La Grande, Oregon; beyond the headlights, the Washington border.
A few days earlier we'd said goodbye to our new friends at the Bear Cat Lodge in Seneca, Oregon, and zigzagged through a maze of logging roads in search of a dirt route north. After multiple dead-ends and closed roads, we were forced back onto the blacktop for seven miles, then another nine. This was killing our all-dirt averages, but the Strawberry Range created a formidable barrier, and paved roads occupied the only navigable north-south real estate.
Though we had issues with deciphering the OOHVA maps for the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Trail (incorrect waypoints, no legend for Section 1, and fuzzy print on the topo maps), they were actually a good reference when combined with a DeLorme Atlas and Garmin's MapSource. We were as lost as a vegetarian at a steak-lover's convention trying to get from Seneca to OBDT Section II. But as I like to say, "We are never lost, just exploring a bit!"
I think the last person who told me most of eastern Oregon is a vast desert was under the influence of a controlled substance. Unlike the Sierra Nevada of California, which are bordered by desert on either side (yes, the San Joaquin Valley was mostly desert before modern irrigation), the forest-blanketed mountains of eastern-central Oregon seem to go on for days-in our case, literally. We were smack dab in the middle of two of America's historic boom-and-bust industries, timber and mining. Though the logging industry has harvested billions of board-feet of timber, enough to build the nation (including the wood-framed homes of those who think we should ban logging), the forests appear fairly healthy. The only real signs of devastation are of the economic type-the still-standing skeletons of towns once supported by local mills and mines.
Rolling into the 1890s mining town of Sumpter is like stepping into a 90-year time warp. Faded hand-painted billboards advertising services and sundries adorn weathered brick buildings, and old-style hitching posts line the wood-plank boardwalks. On the side streets, rickety wooden barns lean at precarious angles. An old blacksmith's shop and livery stable are reminders of the areas rough-and-tumble past. Across from a brick ice cream parlor, which is still serving, we stepped into the Elkhorn Saloon. Every head in the place turned to check out the tourists as we swung open the creaky wooden door. It was Taco Tuesday, but we ordered from their menu of forty-two types of burgers. (Good burgers!)
Founded in 1862 by a few South Carolinians en route to the California gold fields, the town began to grow when the railroad arrived in 1897 (population 300). Sumpter enjoyed its heyday between 1900 and 1903, when a population of 3,500 souls extracted an estimated nine million dollars in gold (and this figure did not include the booming timber industry). Today, a massive river dredge still floats in a pond amidst miles of rock tailings.
Rolling into the 1890s mining town of Sumpter is like stepping into a 90-year time warp. F
It's not Russia, but it is Moscow.