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The Long Way Home

Back Roads from Baker City

There's a strange thing in a field of green. It's almost the size of a dog, but thin. I spot it as we drive by, and my brain finds a glitch in the scenery: green grasses, fence posts, pine trees, more meadow, green, green, huh? Something out of place, a light copper dusky color. Not a deer, nor a coyote. I can't think what it is. I mention this to my brother who is driving and I do not even have to ask — he immediately turns around so we can find the anomaly in the landscape.

We pull off the road where we can sneak up on it from behind a grove of pine trees and a slight berm. We make our way through a barbed-wire fence and around cow-pies until we see it: a sand hill crane stooping and feeding, now upright. This is worth the backtracking. This is worth the stop.

Not that we're in a hurry. This is the kind of trip we like. Circuitous, inquisitive, leisurely, with a goal in mind but no hurry to get there.

We're on our way back to Portland from Baker City having taken more than ten hours to get there the day before stopping at Shaniko for ice cream and another for exploring the fossil beds near, um, Fossil, where we possibly saw eagles and lots of other birds we regrettably could not identify. We did recognize a bunny ducking under a boulder though. We refueled at the town of John Day, but really stopped because the windshield was covered with a thick layer of bug mash from going through a bug-hatch blizzard off the river at Picture Gorge.

This day we left Baker and climbed the hills above Sumpter and continued past the semi-ghost gold mining town of Granite to make our way across the Blue Mountains and arrive in Ukiah, a town we'd heard of from friends for years, yet never seen. Even though the friendly USFS ranger told us the road was open, it wasn’t. Snowed in. Oh, well. Only a thirty-five mile detour.

Now we're back on the main highway and satisfied with our sand hill crane sighting. I drive while my brother sleeps. We'd spent the night at Baker tucked away in mom's guest room – a little travel-all trailer in the back yard called The Hilton. It's sweet and comfy with a kitchenette, bathroom and twin bunks, but I am accused of keeping my brother awake all night talking, so he naps.

The sunshine disappears as thunderheads appear. There is lightning in the distance and I am driving directly into it. I almost wake him to see the exhibition of the oncoming storm but think perhaps the thunder and rush of rain will wake him. It doesn't. I head north out of the storm toward Ukiah across the middle and north forks of the John Day River and into unfamiliar mountains of alpine meadows and pine forests.

Ukiah is not only famous as elk hunting headquarters, but has a boarding school for kids from too small communities that cannot support a school. It also has several cafes and we pick one for lunch. After burgers and finding the school and the manufactured home dormitories for what must be homesick students, we head toward Black Mountain to drop down to Heppner. A sign says the pass is closed. Shall we believe it? Duh. Should we go back the mile to Ukiah and fill up with gas or head straight for the freeway at Pendleton, some 40 miles away? We decide to fill up, mostly because it's so nice here and the thought of the freeway does not entice. While we are at the gas pump, the station owner leans against the wall of his café in the shade watching his grown son do the filling. We're ready to drive off when he points with his cane to a back tire. "Do you know you have a low tire?"

No problem, his son has a repair shop behind the café/gas station so we simply roll ten yards to the shed. The shed is a spectacle of ingenious sculptures, many with moving parts, constructed out of scrap metal. The nail is pulled from the tire which my brother says must have been my fault for driving exceedingly fast on rural roads, though he confesses that his tire had been losing air for weeks.

The tire fixed, we ask the father and son how they get to Portland.

"Not if we can help it," is the answer. When it can't be avoided they take the Butter Creek cut-off to I-84 near Hermiston. We need no convincing that this is a good thing to do and have a lovely meandering tour through wildflower speckled meadows, rattling across cattle-guards, wandering along the winding creek accompanied by slow-moving cows, prancing calves and meadowlarks. We finally hit the freeway and speed home, a mere twelve-hour trip.

If anyone knows a longer way to and from Baker City, we'd like to know about it.

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