The Push to Portland
Thursday, May 7th, 8 a.m. I step outside the morning sky is painted orange, the air cool, refreshing and further notice the space where my friends flatten Audi lay just 24 hours ago is now empty. I hope he makes Denver ok. Wait a minute; a Navy adage my father taught me comes to mind, “red sun at night sailor’s delight red sun in the morning sailors take warning!” Does this mean trouble lay ahead? Quickly the saying is shaken from the mind and I walk to a nearby restaurant for the last road breakfast. Afterwards the moment of truth as I slip back into the packed Volvo and give the ignition key a turn: click, click, click, click, click, then, before anxiousness sets in the starter engages with the flywheel and the mighty four-cylinder engine comes alive, YES. Since discovering this malady with the starter, pushing has not been necessary and currently that trend continues. TheVolvo and happy driver accelerate onto Interstate 84 and one hour later cross the Snake River (the same river motorcycle daredevil Evil Knievel unsuccessfully jumped in a rocket back in the 1970’s) stopping at the first rest area near Ontario, Oregon to check on a loud noise from underneath. A closer look reveals a golf ball size hole of cancerous rust in the muffler, no doubt, due to years of weather and eight-hour days of continuous driving or is this the work of the “red sun in the morning” curse. I move on.
Five days of driving through rain, heavy traffic, hot and humid country, snow showers, and mechanical problems slowed my progress and almost ended it but here I am in Oregon. The window defroster remains on keeping the engine cool by transferring heat from it to the passenger compartment making the latter toasty hot and uncomfortable. Without the speedometer cable pace is kept with other traffic to not stand out, and that finicky starter, above all, keeps me from really enjoying this adventure. Radio reception is poor in this mountainous region so the game of watching cars pass by and fade into the horizon is revisited only this time they disappear into the snow-capped Wallowa/Blue Mountains. These peaks to the north must have looked as awe-inspiring to the travelers on the Oregon Trail as they do to me.
Low on gasoline I pull off I-84 at Baker City, Oregon to refuel keeping the engine running and,after being kindly asked to shut it off, explain to the attendant the situation to which he is not happy with what could happen. Baker City, on the Historic Oregon Trail, sits between the Wallowa Mountains to the east and the Blue Mountains to the west and is bisected by the Powder River. The city and surrounding area is best known for mining and being the backdrop of the 1968 movie Paint Your Wagon, coincidently, about people on the move west and gold. Up the road a mere 95 miles is a location known as Emigrant Hill named so after the scores of migrants who paused in their prairie schooners and glimpsed, for the first time, the promise land from 2000’ elevation then started the dangerous, twisting descent to the valley floor. The interstate route I take has less turns and twists but still is driven with extreme caution leaving the Blue Mountains behind and I am treated to a magnificent sight framed by Pendleton, Oregon in the foreground and the Cascade Mountains on the horizon. Spectacular! Pendleton known for woolen Indian blankets, quality plaid shirts, and the Pendleton Roundup Rodeo is just north of a large basalt formation on the Oregon Trail known as Pilot Rock used by travelers as a landmark assuring the correct direction.
Up to this point grassland has dominated but gives way to cottonwoods, pine, and oak trees as The Dalles, Oregon comes into sight and needing gas pull into the nearest station, again, leaving the engine running much to the chagrin of this station attendant as well. The Dalles is in the scenic Columbia River Gorge where travelers, whether modern or those from the 19th century, are introduced to this pristine area stretching 80 miles and goes from 4000’ above sea level to sea level at river’s mouth on the Pacific Ocean. Pioneers loaded their wagons on barges and floated down the Columbia (probably in awe of the basalt cliffs rising above as I am) 60 miles to the mouth of the Willamette River near Portland then upriver to Oregon City and trails end. Later, a less harrowing route, called the Barlow Road, was constructed taking wagon loads of settlers overland through rugged country south of Mt. Hood and on into Oregon City. From The Dalles I-84 steers me north of Mt Hood through the Gorge, past Hood River, and on into Portland where I am greeted by a longtime acquaintance where I proceeded to break down releasing tension from five days and 2400 miles of lonely, cramped, overheated driving, car trouble, leaving family, and moving from Michigan. I was certainly glad the trip over.
The Great Migration that started in 1843 uprooted thousands from secure homes in the east for the chance to start a new life in a new world most of them realizing they’d never return and through courage and perseverance most of them succeeded. In my modern wagon that made a similar journey in just a fraction of the time I experienced mechanical problems, traffic congestion, and various weather conditions not unlike what those migrants went through. While other motorists zipped past and may not have or wont have any setbacks the ones I encountered provided a vivid picture of the hardship and fortitude of the 19th century traveler with the grandeur and jubilation of Trails End.