Wandering Eastern Oregon…With Trains

It started out as a simple enough road trip plan. We were going to drive to Oregon to ride on two tourist excursion railroads we’d never ridden before. It ended up being a 2,100 miles wander along back roads through colorful fall foliage and gave us a whole new appreciation for our neighbor state to the north.

I just counted 40 patches for tourist railroads my husband and I have sewn on vests from excursions we’ve ridden on. This does not include the dozen railroad museum patches affixed too. Yes, we admit it, we’re “foamer’s” which is the polite way of indicating folks who find a new railroad experience and foam at the mouth in anticipation of getting there. And awaiting us in Oregon were two new train rides, the Eagle Cap Excursion Train out of LeGrande and the Mt. Hood Railroad departing from Hood River.

So off we went. We adopted the habit of “shunpiking” decades ago. That is the habit of avoiding interstates and turnpikes and instead choosing the old roads that proceeded them. You need extra time when you “shunpike” because you’ll always be finding interesting things to distract you. Did you know on Highway 99 in Willows there is a duck plucking service? Waterfowl hunters in the Central Valley can bring in their birds and have a machine (I assume) pluck them so they’re ready to cook. Plucking a bird is deadly tedious process. I know from experience. Plucking an armload of ducks or geese could be a pain in the butt. Modern technology has arrived with duck pluckers.

Along with trains my husband and I enjoy micro-brewed beer and rockhounding. New breweries found and enjoyed include Klamath Basin Brewing in Klamath Falls, Terminal Gravity Brewing in Enterprise and Bricktowne in Medford and Dunsmuir Brewery. It seems every wide spot in the road in Oregon features a brew pub and there are literally hundreds of them in the state.

After driving east to Lakeview Oregon we started up Highway 395 through some of the emptiest country in Oregon. How empty? “Next services 90 miles” the sign says. To me countryside along a highway where no one has ever bothered to put up a fence is empty. Mother Nature is taking care of it. The obligatory “open range” signs are there, but along the Abert Rim are yellow signs with the image of Big Horn Sheep on them!

We travel with the books “Roadside Geology of Oregon”, “Rockhounding Oregon” and a good map as front seat reading resources for planning the next interesting side trip. We returned home with 20 pounds of assorted pretty rocks lining the floor of the back seat of the Subaru.

The two tourist excursion trains we rode were as contrasting as possible. The Eagle Cap Excursion Train is run by volunteers from the Friends of the Joseph Branch. There’s a line that runs from LeGrande to Joseph in the Wallowa Mountains and a major carrier was going to abandon it as unproductive. Volunteers got it leased to them and they run a dozen excursions a year from Elgin (near LeGrande) to Minum and back. The thing about this tourist train is that you get a three hour round trip on eight miles of track because the train goes real slow…really, really SLOW…Why? The condition of the track and/or the rolling stock. Go fast with 60 year old equipment and you might shake something apart. Lunch on this brunch train was a plastic box with a sandwich, fruit, salad, a cookie and a can of soda pop. Coffee was free. Volunteers in each car shared history along the line.

My husband got to ride in the engine as he volunteers with Roots of Motive Power in Willits and even in Oregon they know the good work our local preservation group does.

The highlights of the trip were the eagles, osprey and bears. Trains often go where there are no roads and along rivers so wildlife viewing can be great. We watched a large black bear race away from the rumble of our noisy train and it went straight up hill through grasslands and forest for a quarter mile. We seniors on the train wished we had the energy and stamina that bear displayed.

Spending the night in the Dalles along the Columbia River we dined at Clock Tower Ales. There is some illicit delight in choosing from an astounding array of microbrews inside Wasco County’s old stone courthouse. I’m sure the spirits of the old lawyers and judges who once inhabited the edifice would have been aghast at consumption of booze in a house of law.

The Mount Hood Railroad in Hood River was our destination the next day with a brunch train through the orchards and forests on the east side of Mt. Hood. This ride highlighted the difference in train operation by volunteers and a multi national corporation. Calling to make reservations I expected to speak with someone in Oregon. No, the woman I spoke to in Colorado explained Oregon’s line was one of a dozen excursion trains on three continents who used the same reservation center. Seems the parent company, Iowa Pacific, runs trains in six states in the U.S., several in Britain, and the Machu Picchu train in Peru. Commercial freight operations provide the company’s real income. This train’s equipment was better, the tracks were good, the food came on plates with real napkins and silverware and complimentary wine was poured. Highly Recommended.

For entertainment there was a cowboy sheriff trying to find the cowboy bandits roaming the train. The robbers attempt to hold up the passengers was pathetic as no one in our car would cooperate with the bad guys. The humor and banter was hysterically funny as they were inept as all heck and we had tons of fun teasing them. Little kids were impressed with them however. There was also a magician roaming the cars doing slight of hand tricks.

This was a long trip, a whole 13 miles each way and when we returned to the depot we drove to one of the orchards we’d passed because they offered about 100 varieties of apple. Kiyokawa Orchards were hosting a Mexican Fiesta recognizing the field workers who brought in the harvest in the Hood River Valley. Red, white and green balloons, Mexican music, a mobile taco truck and family events said “Thank You” to their workers.

After visiting Richardson’s Agate Ranch, a rockhound’s paradise outside of Madras, we went to Prineville to visit longtime friend and AVA contributor Bruce Patterson and his wife Trish. Our friendship goes back to when “Pat was hook tender and I was in the hole,” my husband states. To non-loggers this translates as Pat was in charge of wire rigging that dragged logs out of the woods and my hubby’s job was attaching it to the logs. These men remember exchanging cigars when their sons were born 36 years ago. The Pattersons are doing well, are gracious hosts, and send greetings to all their friends in the valley.

AVA contributors Katy Tahja and Bruce Patterson, with wife Trish, catch upon gossip in Prineville, Oregon.
AVA contributors Katy Tahja and Bruce Patterson, with wife Trish, catch up on gossip in Prineville, Oregon.

While many more adventures ensued we were happy to return home to a rain drenched landscape and fall into our own comfy bed. With 2,100 miles more on the odometer I hope my Subaru lasts forever.

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