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Celebrating our two-lane highways of yesteryear…And the joys of driving them today!

U. S. 20 Oregon High Desert & The Mystery Wheel

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I left Bend (Orgeon) on US 20 on Tuesday and flew past Horse Ridge, Millican, and Brothers since I had visited them the day before with my son, Drew. (See US 20, Bend...Episode 1). Hampton held no allure, but I thought I would have a stab at trying to locate Brookings.


The mystery of Brookings is that it doesn’t exist. It did exist. But no one any longer seems to know where it was or is. How does a hotel and supply stop on the highway just disappear? Aliens? The work of the Abominable Sand man?


While I was stopped looking at my maps, I noticed across the road an Oregon Highway Department truck, so I drove over. Patty, the driver, was having her lunch, and I interrupted her by asking about whether she knew of Brookings. She very kindly pulled out her detailed department road maps. She added the insight that it appeared that the old alignment left Hampton going due east, and after a few miles turned due south, as along a section line. She estimated where that might be, but when I drove back looking for such a road, there was nothing but sagebrush.



Patty, Helpful Oregon Highway Department Employee with Map


BTW, behind Patty in the photo is Glass Butte, an ancient source of obsidian for arrowheads. Patty noted that they were finding lots of obsidian in the bottom of the adjacent road department pit. The sample I picked up was kind of pretty with rust and reddish color glass inside the black. Being glass, the edges were almost sharp enough to cut my hand.


Obsidian, once used for Arrowheads


The road between Hampton and Burns doesn’t cross what I would call tourist country. I took a photo through the windshield passing milepost 78. Note the red cinder pile on the left. This photo is characteristic of the High Desert and what unfortunate homesteaders faced.



A View of the High Desert Through the Windshield


There were actually little towns of as many as a couple hundred people who resided out here 90 years ago. If it looks uninviting in the summer, imagine it with wind blown snow piling up against your shack. There would be nothing between you and the 10 below weather except some 1 by 6’s and as many layers of newspaper as you had to tack to the walls. I remember in the 1960’s finding little shacks out here and reading the newspapers still hanging from the walls.


Burns looked prosperous but the Harney County Historical Museum building was closed. However the Burns Visitor Center lady was eager to help. We commiserated a moment about a mutual acquaintance who runs the historic French Glen Hotel along the High Desert Discovery Byway south of Burns (which BTW deserves a separate write up on another day).


From Burns eastward the countryside perks up, with irrigated fields, mountain valleys, and riverside vistas. After Juntura US 20 loosely follows the Malheur River, across varied countryside, including some deep canyons with fanciful rock formations like those in Echo Canyon, Utah. I thought to myself, had this area been along the transcontinental railroad, every formation would have a name.....Castle Rock, the Old Man of the Desert, Old Abe, Pulpit Rock, etc.


An abandoned homestead cabin just west of Harney along the old alignment caught my attention, but there was nothing left to suggest Harney’s “former glory.” No doubt the homestead survived because there was an occupied farm near enough to discourage vandals. There were some farm buildings but nothing else at the site of Harney.



Cabin on Old Alignment Just West of Harney


Harney Valley witnessed the passing of the Lost Wagon Train of 1845. Stephen Meek, a former fur trapper persuaded an Oregon Trail party of about a 1000 to take Meeks so called short cut to the Willamette Valley. The crossing was so difficult the party came close to killing Meek. Twenty or more of the party lost their lives before they struggled into The Dalles on the Columbia River. Evidence of the party probably still exists as it did in the 1960’s when I followed part of the route with two friends who were the authors of Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, 1845. Back then we found oxen shoes and the juniper stumps left when the trees were used as brakes on steep grades.


Drewsey was a little healthier than Harney, but don’t plan to stay overnigh! There is a post office, a recently closed restaurant, and a small village that had obviously once been bigger. Even a little church survives.



Little Village of Drewsey on Old Alignment


At MP 202 I was surprised to see a steel truss bridge with a wooden roadbed across the Malheur River. A young ranch hand told me it had been on the abandoned railroad and was moved here. I should have asked what the round device with the spokes is for. I have seen them before, but I’m not enough of a farm boy to know their use. Are they used to lift hay? Picturesque anyway.



Old Bridge Over Malheur River with Mystery Wheel


At MP 207 I came upon a shutree, no doubt planted by the early settlers to satisfy the kids’ need for Nikes



Another Shutree! This One is at MP 207 on US20 in Oregon


I pulled into Ontario at about 9 PM, having taken 8 hours to cover what normally might be a 4 hour drive, and what in 1919 was cited as a 10 hour drive.


Wednesday I took US 30, known as the Old Oregon Trail Highway north. That trip will be posted next. In the meantime, Keep the Show on the Road!

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What a fabulous writeup! I like the photo with the mystery wheel the best; the oranges are so vivid, and the bridge is such a surprise to find there. I've never been to Oregon (closest is a sheep ranch near Redding CA) and so have never seen the desert up there. It seems despairing. I can't imagine trying to scratch out a living out there. It reminds me a bit of the desert I saw when I was in Coahuila, Mexico last fall, with its rock-hard ground that still somehow managed to grow a sparse brushy ground cover. I felt the same kind of despair looking out over the miles and miles of that hard ground. Now, that abandoned cabin sure had a square roof. And is that a No Trespassing sign on it?


This makes me hungry to drive north to my hometown, get on US 20, turn left, and then keep going for about a week. Unfortunately, my kids like eating, and I have to go in to work tomorrow in order for that to happen.



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I think the sign on the cabin was “Keep Out.”


I drove across the bridge. It sang. As the weight of the car tensioned the cables and girders they practically played a tune. On the way back across the bridge, I put the sunroof back and recorded a movie, which you can see here in Windows (WMV) format. (I have tried to provide Quicktime for you Mac folks but I think it is blocked for security reasons by the forum software....maybe something to check) I like the movie because it catches the character of an Eastern Oregon Ranch so well. But there is no sound.


The sad part is that this was a new camera, and my first movie with it. The idiots who determined the defaults require that you turn on the microphone to get sound, and the default is off. I didn’t know that until that night in the motel. So no singing of the bridge.


The area from Horse Ridge to maybe 20 miles west of Burns is mostly unattractive country for touring, but it does grow on you. Where they can get water, it thrives...but that isn’t often. From Burns eastward it gets quite interesting.


I skipped describing many places, like along the Malheur River where Peter Skeen Ogden of the Hudson Bay Company trapped. I wanted to get it up as soon as possible. I also want to get the Old Oregon Trail section up ASAP as I may head out again next week and never catch up.


I appreciate the appreciation. You know even better than I do how much time and trouble goes into preparing a photo post. The payoff is when somone says they enjoyed it. Thanks again!


Keep the Show on the Road!

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