Memory can be tricky, especially when it comes to a sense of place. There are places that can be so built up in your memory that you’re unaware of where the truth lies. For me, the Otis Café is one of those places. In college I worked at a summer camp that was close by. After a weeklong camp session, we counselors would put the kids back on buses, wave goodbye, and as soon as the busses were out of sight we’d rush to the Otis Café for breakfast.
...If you go to the Astoria Column, which is a great place to get oriented after arriving, you’ll see the city’s history illustrated on it, spiraling up the structure in sepia tones. There’s a winding staircase inside if you’d like to climb to the top, but from the ground, atop the hill, there’s already a very good panoramic view. To the South, you’ll see the Coastal Range, including the distinctive Saddle Mountain. To the North, you’ll see the mighty Columbia River. And, of course, the Pacific Ocean is West.
Set high on the Columbia Plateau, Shaniko appears like a mirage. As it emerges out of the wheat fields and shimmering heat, it’s hard to believe your eyes. Out here? Why? So you pull over to stretch your legs and explore.
Shaniko inhabits the liminal space between reality and fantasy, town and ghost town. It is technically a “living ghost town,” as it has a population of about 30 people. The town is about six gridded blocks, defined by highway 97 on the western edge. Truck traffic running down this highway to Bend, Madras, and points south provides the only sound. Shaniko itself is silent.
It’s a mysterious place with a ton of history, both old and recent. As you wander the town clicking photos and poking your head into the jail, museum, and auto barn, you wonder if it’s all real or part of a movie set. Shaniko is simultaneously charming and disconcerting. The emptiness feels both liberating and constricting. There are a few businesses: an ice cream shop, a jewelry store, some antiques, a penny candy shop, and a post office in case you need to mail anything. The historic Shaniko hotel has been closed for a few years but is still cuts an imposing figure in the center of town, which adds to the air of emptiness. The atmosphere is difficult to describe; you have to experience it for yourself. Shaniko is well worth a stop, and if you spend any time in Eastern Oregon you will inevitably stumble upon it. Spend a bit of time wandering and taking in the sights. Let Shaniko reveal itself to you and fill in the rest of this narrative.
230 miles from Portland, 160 from Baker City, nearly 90 miles from even Bend, The Painted Hills sit lonely in the backcountry of Central Oregon.
Coming from the west you climb slowly along the banks of the Wallowa River. The grade is gentle, and the walls of the canyon are steep. As you reach the valley the walls of the canyon get lower and lower, and suddenly there are plains of grass blowing in the wind. You emerge out of a canyon into a lush green valley, which opens up as you pass through the towns of Wallowa and Lostine, eventually reaching the county seat of Enterprise and then Joseph. The Wallowa river is your companion, flowing next to you for most of this journey--granted, in the opposite direction. The Wallowa mountains frame the view to the south, their scale and grandeur making it near impossible to take your eyes off them.
There’s a lovely place called Six Mile Meadow, named for being six miles up the West Fork Trail in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, where sparse dirt paths crisscross a broad carpet of green grass and wildflowers. On the margins, pine trees spring up, accenting the granite peaks behind them. It’s like being in the middle of a Bob Ross painting, and it’s a great place to eat a sandwich. For some, this is the zenith of their day hike, a rest stop before heading back down to Joseph on foot or on horseback. Others carry on with camping gear into the mountains.
From the right vantage point, the arches all line up and produce a telescoping effect, appearing small at the east end high on the hillside and growing taller and taller as the land slopes toward the river. The height of the bridge and depth of the space beneath are both exaggerated, and the resulting sense of volume is truly spectacular. The space between and outside of the arches is the real focal point. There’s an elemental feeling about the space. Land and water partner with the bridge’s architecture to suggest you’re inside a structure. It’s a magical feeling under the bridge.