Though today was a day of less riding than the last couple of days — 41 today vs. 64 yesterday and 71 the day before — we certainly made up for it with learning and socializing.
We awoke today late with a 6am alarm, so I cooked breakfast with the light of the morning bright enough to avoid the headlamp and candle lantern. (A note – candle lanterns are just awesome. I bought my first one in 1998 for a backpacking trip with my sister. I am now on my second and they are light, compact and give a great amount of light for reading or eating or snuggling.) We had the usual eggs & hashbrowns but did hear a pack of coyotes singing to the sunrise. What an eerily beautiful song. They made me think of my dear friend Rory and his coyote stories.
Off we set for a pretty quick ride into John Day. (The town is named for the river as is the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. John Day the person, however, never actually set foot in this part of the state. He was a member of the Pacific Fur Company and, with another member of the company, was robbed of everything including his clothing at the mouth of the river where it flows into the Columbia. Apparently the story was told & retold enough for the name “the river where John Day was robbed” to become John Day River. Funny to be eponymous for a large part of the state for essentially getting robbed.) Our first stop in John Day was the Kam Wah Chung Historic Site. In the 1860s & 1870s, Eastern Oregon, along with the rest of the west, was gold-boom central. With the boom came Chinese emigrants seeking a way out of the famine and wars in southwest China and a better life for their families (left at home due to anti-Chinese immigration laws). They worked as miners; laborers in the mine camps, roads and railroads; domestic servants and ran laundries.
John Day due to its proximity to the mines in Canyon City had a large Chinatown which was home to 1000 Chinese men (smaller at the time in size only to Portland and San Francisco). John Day’s Chinatown was also home to Kam Wah Chung & Co, a general store/ letter writing/ labor shop/ bar/ game hall/ Chinese herbalist doctor’s office. When the mines were running, the two owners, Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On, made their livelihood selling to the Chinese. As the mines dried up and the other Chinese made their way home to China (again, messed up US laws — the Chinese Exclusion Act — or worse anti-Chinese violence by Americans) or to Portland or San Francisco, the Kam Wah Chung owners shifted their business model to include American selling goods to appeal to the dominant population left in John Day. An incident of Doc Hay curing sepsis in a prominent rancher’s son’s arm allowed his medical skills access to the non-Chinese population. They were highly successful, Doc treating people from far & wide (some even by letter) and Lung On in businesses ranging from car sales to banking to land owning. Lung died in 1940 and Ing in 1950ish, leaving their business to a “nephew” who sealed the building and used only part of it for storage. Eventually, he willed it to the City of John Day with the stipulation that it be used only as a museum. In the 1970s, the building was finally opened to reveal a time and cultural capsule, left as it was when Doc Hay left it in the late 1940s.
Now, it is an amazing museum. They offer guided tours of the store plus a well done interpretive center with more artifacts and exhibits about the Chinese in John Day, the history of the business (including $23,000 in uncashed checks) and what was going on nationally at the time. They even had artifacts from the Chinese temple that once stood in John Day. What once was a bustling Chinatown and home to 1000 is now a parking lot, pool and park with one building remaining to tell the important story of the Chinese role in the growing of the American West.
After our visit to the historic site, we encountered a lovely couple, also cyclists who had just come down from cycling and camping along the road we were about to ride. They gave us info on the road (no shoulder but virtually no traffic) and on camping (the first spot is terrible, no privacy, right on the road and the second spot is creepy and full of hunters but the third one, Middle Fork is awesome). They even gave us a site number, “Number 4 is the best site there and the neighbors were super. You should tell them that you met us!” We learned that they have a son in Seattle and that they live on a sailboat in Mexico half of the year. They’ve been exploring and camping in Oregon for the last month or so. What a life!
The next stop on our day of lollygagging was for lunch a a local joint called the Squeeze In. Looking at the menu, Squeeze Out might have been a better name. They served breakfast all day, which is a gluten free person’s paradise, and as a side instead of toast, one could get bottomless pancakes. Yes bottomless. I had a gloriously large breakfast for lunch, the Hamburger Steak. It was a big, juicy burger covered with grilled mushrooms and onions, served with two eggs, hashbrowns and a big bowl of melon instead of the bottomless pancakes. It was fantastically delicious (yay for beef in ranching country) and huge. Björn enjoyed his gluten-filled version of my meal, a burger with mushrooms & onions & fries.
Next up for the day was a ride up and out of the John Day Valley. After a quick stop for shade and a water top off in Prairie City, we started up and up. The sun at our backs and the lack of shade made for a hot and sweaty climb. We were happy for the oddest viewpoint we’d ever seen. The view of the Strawberry Mountains and the valley was incredible; the double life size covered wagon was odd yet a welcome shade source. It was nice to know that we had plenty of daylight left to take a shade break.
It you haven’t figured it out yet, we love to stop at roadside educational signs and get excited when we see those brown “Historical Marker” signs and stop at almost every one. We saw one of the aforementioned signs near the top of the pass and took guesses as to the nature of the site. Mine: gold mine. His: the great bear rampage of 1859. Reality: an interpretive trail along the old logging railroad. The engineer who designed the route had an ingenious solution to the steep grades the train required to go up and down over the multiple mountain passes it crossed. Instead of just going straight up or down, they used a series of short tracks and switches to allow the train to switchback its way up & down the mountains. Cool!
The descent was delightful, a quick 7 mile zoom to Austin Junction, once a stop on the railway we just visited, famous for Ma Austin’s pies sold to railway passengers. There’s only a cafe there now, displaying a large ice cream cone. Given that my love, Björn is an ice cream fanatic, we pulled in sadly found the cafe closed. But we did find three other cyclists, two day trippers and an obvious tourist, riding a recumbent trike towing a trailer. The woman of the day tripper pair was trying to get a lift to the top of the pass “I’ve been climbing so much the last couple of days, I just don’t have it in me.” Having felt that way in the past, I understood her sentiment, but I’ve always found out that it works better to just do the climb. It’s so satisfying to accomplish something that once felt nearly impossible. The other cyclist, the tourist, turned out to be a 43 year old retired Greely CO cop who had just had a total hip replacement in February. He said, “I was tired of feeling sorry for myself, so I decided to do something,” so he’s riding from Colorado to Florence on the Oregon coast. This gentleman was easily twice the size of the largest bicycle tourist I’ve ever seen. He said of his trike, “It’s the only way to get a 400 pound man and gear up a mountain. I’m slower, but I am doing it.” Wow. What a fantastically life-changing event for him. We said our goodbyes and headed off to our campground.
We found that our sailboat fiends had given us great information. The first was terrible and just as they’d described. He second plus two unmarked camps were full of pickup tricks with antlers hanging out the back and white bags with hanging off of poles. Not exactly the kind of spot we were looking for. While I like the idea of hunting, the actual practice of cutting off an animal’s head sounds and looks a bit gruesome to me.
We finally arrived at Middle Fork to find a quiet campground right on the river, with large private sites and fantastic neighbors. We chatted about PT (he’s a retired social worker who did lots of medical work) and bike touring. As I filtered water from the river, I heard kingfishers and several songbirds, I watched the water skaters scurrying about and heard deer munching along the bank. While filtering water is a time-consuming and tedious process, there is always great eye and ear candy on mountain streams and rivers. We enjoyed our usual dinner and headed off to bed early.
Thanks for reading!