The tenth in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395.
Antelope, Oregon marks the terminus of State Route 293 and the junction with State Route 218, which takes me back to U.S. 97 and the one time, “Wool Capital of the World.” Route 218 is just as isolated as 293 which brought me to Antelope. The isolation doesn’t make it unattractive.
This is Oregon’s grassland, where ranching and wheat share top billing. I’m navigating past a sea of grain. Yellow-gold reaches out for miles and an occasional breeze whips up rolling amber waves – just like the song goes. At a junction I come upon a wooden gateway that frames the shimmering body. It’s desolate out here, but not unnerving. I’ve been on secluded roads and felt uneasy. This isn’t like that. This might be out in the middle of nowhere, but it doesn’t feel that way. I’m in middle Oregon’s sea of tranquility.
Shaniko started out as Cross Hollow in 1879. Eight years later the Cross Hollow Post Office shut its doors and then reopened under the current name.
By the turn of the Twentieth Century, Shaniko, which served as a rail hub for the Columbia Southern Railway, was the fifth largest city in Wasco County. Surrounded by 20,000 square miles of land that produced wheat and grazing land for sheep, Shaniko achieved its zenith in 1903 when it was dubbed the “Wool Capital of the World.” Those were the flush times, when Shaniko was home to the largest wool warehouse in the world, when it shipped as much as four million tons of wool in a single year. That’s as shit load of sheep shearing.
Eight years later, the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, opened a line that diverted traffic from the Columbia Southern, and Shaniko suffered the fate that other rail towns across America had either endured or succumbed to. In 1910, the population of Shaniko was 495. Now, 113 years later, over a century after the iron horse sauntered off, only thirty or so souls still call Shaniko home. Shaniko succumbed.
I stop and wander around the town. But for the occasional pickup truck that passes through, the town is grimly quiet. This is a land of pickups. There are plenty of pickups out in the suburbs of San Francisco where I live, but those only haul the egos and a couple sacks of groceries for accountants who dream of being ranchers or cowboys. Out here a pickup is as necessary as a knife and fork. Hell, more so. You can always eat with your hands, but in ranchland there’s always something to haul.
There’s an open space in Shaniko that’s filled with rows of benches. It looks like a community theater or town meeting place. An old timer sits on a bench, alone, but for the company of Shaniko’s ghosts, the residents who either left town or their earthly lives. They were ranchers and farmers, teachers and preachers, parents, children and shopkeepers. The old timer sits and stares at – what. The past? His past? The town’s past? Do these old timers, marking time in dying towns, wonder what might have been had they just bailed out with the rest?
I enjoy solitude but I don’t think that I could sit alone on a bench treading the waters of time in a forgotten town in a vast ocean of wheat fields, cheatgrass and ranchland. I wonder how long towns like Shaniko can hold out. Who would raise a child out here, a place where future generations are promised nothing beyond a seat on an empty bench?
As I walk around it looks like there could be a future here. Many of the buildings seem to be in good repair. This looks like a town that could spruce itself up a bit and trade on its past glories – either real or mythical. Gut out the hotel and turn it into a bed and breakfast. Open up a saloon, a general store, and a souvenir shop. Stage four times a day gunfights on main street, for the tourists who, after watching the outlaw take a bullet, can then stroll off to one of those photo places where they can dress up in 19th century garb and pay more money than the souvenir sepia toned photo is actually worth.
Apparently that was attempted but a wastewater issue scuttled those plans. Maybe it wouldn’t work anyway. Shaniko is a little island in the midst of the golden sea and there’s nothing else in the expanse to woo the tourist trade.
Just twenty minutes north of Shaniko is Kent, the next ghost town in what’s an endless series of towns abandoned by a fickle railroad. Kent’s population as of five years ago was 67.
The railroad is a two timer. Its loyalty to a suitor lasts only as long as a town serves its greedy purpose, and then it moves on to the next sucker. Over thousands of miles of road trips I’ve driven through many a dead or dying town that was forsaken by a railroad.
This is a rugged land, evocative of the tradition, some might say the myth, of America’s wild west, independent spirit. Indeed, out here, there’s an ongoing struggle for an independence of sorts. From here through the rest of my journey through Oregon, I’m traveling through what some people envision as being part of the state of Greater Idaho.
Greater Idaho as a state doesn’t exist on any U.S map, save the one that resides in the heads of conservatives from thirteen eastern Oregon counties, and four partial eastern Oregon counties, who wish to secede from Oregon and become part of Idaho.
Greater Idaho is an aspiration headed up by a guy named Mike McCarter, who writes on the Greater Idaho website, “The political diversity in this state is becoming unpalatable. Since 1988 Oregon’s urban dwellers have elected a group of individuals that represent nothing short of an aristocracy of political power, they have switched their role in democracy from servant to lord. These people have successfully disenfranchised and subjugated the people occupying everything not Portland or the Willamette Valley. They have enacted laws with little or no debate and no amendments. They have stated they will fix admittedly flawed laws after they are enacted, this is backward legislative procedure designed to exclude and silence opposition, oftentimes with out-of-state money from East Coast power brokers.”
Idaho is a beautiful state, one of those that can honestly bill itself as an “outdoorsman’s paradise.” It’s also about as MAGA as a state can be, as well as being militia central. While many states are starting to crack down on private, right wing militias, grown men and women waving Gadsden flags and King James Bibles while playing army with real live guns, Idaho is working to overturn its single law banning militias. Idaho is one state where I wouldn’t dare to take a dirt road on a whim, for fear of landing in a camp full of camo dressed crazies.
At face value, one might think the Greater Idaho Movement makes some sense. But not so fast.
There’s something insidious and downright un-American about the notion of political diversity being unpalatable. Political diversity is the necessary bedrock of democracy, a philosophy that’s been given a bad name by the ‘my way or the highway’ right wing ideologues. Political tribalism has been an ever growing infection within the democracy, an infection that turned to sepsis with the election of Donald Trump. And now, for some, the cure is to amputate, to cut off entire sections of states and redraw maps.
Imagine if the disgruntled of every state decided to change the boundaries so that they could be aligned with people of like politics in a neighboring state. Southeastern California could align with Arizona. The whole of western Minnesota could jump ship and join North Dakota. Eastern Pennsylvania could hook up with New Jersey. The possibilities are almost endless and none of them are desirable – except to the short sighted who want to further divide an already fractured nation. The map would become a crazy quilt and at some point one could see a direct path to the destruction of the American union. Segregating ourselves by our politics is the perfect way to draw a line through that clause which envisions “a more perfect union.” The Greater Idaho idea rests on a shaky foundation of delusion. The notion that Oregon’s legislature will green light Greater Idaho and then get approval from Congress is a fantasy.
Somewhere between Kent and Biggs Junction, I flip on the radio and meet a radio preacher who goes by the name of Pastor Robert. I’m about to hit the scan button. but I pull my hand back. Let’s see what the preacher has to say.
Verily, he tells the story of a woman who for years had been trying to get pregnant without any luck until she met – Pastor Robert. According to the pastor’s story, he prayed for her to get pregnant until, lo and behold, a miracle occurred, and she conceived. Not once, not twice, but thrice, each a year apart. After the third birth, the woman asked Pastor Robert to shut down the pregnancy pipeline with the Almighty.
Pastor Robert is prattling on about God’s plan, and keeps coming back to the woman’s story. While sharing the credit with God for the baby making, he’s giving himself top billing. I’m not inclined to give either God or Pastor Robert the credit, but that’s just heathen me. I chalk it up to three well timed torrid nights of rolling in the hay. Before Pastor Robert has a chance to ask the flock to send him blank checks, I bail out and scan for music.
At Biggs Junction, Highway 97 smacks perpendicular to the mighty Columbia River. Transportation moves Biggs Junction. Home to a mere twenty households, Biggs Junction is also home to one of the largest travel centers in Oregon.
Grain storage elevators dot the horizon. This is a major shipping point for wheat, which moves via rail and river barge. On the opposite bank is the State of Washington where a long freight train writhes along the shoreline like a multicolored snake. It would make for a wonderful picture, but I’m too damned tired and hungry to stop.
Three o’clock, fifty miles from Pendleton where a rest area and hunger beckon me. The rest area is well groomed and looks out over a vast tract of ranchland. A turkey sandwich, a bag of chips, some cool water and a nice view. What could spoil it? Well, maybe the gigantic pickup truck that roars through the parking lot, flying a massive American flag and an equally massive Fuck Biden flag.
I’m staying at the Rugged Country Lodge in Pendleton, an apt name because this is definitely a rugged town in a rugged land. Pendleton doesn’t wear its wild west tradition on its sleeve, it wears it on its chaps and Stetson. The biggest annual event in Pendleton is the annual rodeo. How wild west is Pendleton? In 2021, True West Magazine named Pendleton, number one on the list of the Top Ten Western Towns in America.
Below. Two of the many bronze statues of local wild west heroes that line the streets of Pendleton. On the left is George Fletcher. George Fletcher was the first African American to compete for a world championship in bronco riding at the 1911 Pendleton Roundup; he was denied the championship saddle by the judges, but the crowd declared him the “People’s Champion. On the right is Jackson Sundown, nephew of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. In 1916, at age 53, he was crowned the 1916 World Champion Bronc Rider. He is featured in Ken Kesey’s novel, The Last Go ‘Round
At check in, the desk clerk at the Rugged Country Lodge grants my request for an end room. As I’m about to leave the office, he offers me a set of ear plugs. From the end room at the Rugged Country Lodge you can almost reach out and touch the freight trains that pass by. It’s only one night – I’ll survive.
There is a pilgrimage of sorts that I have to make while in Pendleton, and that’s a visit to the woolen mill. By the time I get there, the tours are done for the day so I satisfy myself with a visit to the Pendleton store. The blankets are exquisite but far too pricey. There are some blankets with minor blemishes that are marked down, but still beyond my budget.
When I was in my early teens, one of the fashion articles was a long sleeved, plaid, woolen Pendleton shirt. I still have the one from my teenage years (that still fits) and three others that I’ve acquired over the years. Sadly these not inexpensive shirts are no longer made in Oregon. The material is farmed out to labor in El Salvador.
I take a brief walk downtown. Darkness comes early and the main drag sports some photogenic neon signs.
Dinner is a couple of microwaved frozen burritos and a Pellegrino. Don’t scoff at the noble frozen burrito. Along with Top Ramen, Spam and eggs, and oceans of Fosters Lager, the microwaved frozen burrito was a staple when I was trying to make ends meet on a retail worker’s wage.
Tomorrow I’m southbound on 395 until I take a detour on State Highway 205 to the little town of Frenchglen, Oregon.