After my friend Jen and I stayed in a yurt at Ft Stevens State Park in Oregon in April, I had the idea to try out another couple of state parks with yurts as a writing retreat while working on West Texas Interlude. Yurts are a perfect way to camp and write — they have locks on the door, so I feel safe camping by myself and being all solitary and writerly, and they have electricity, so I can plug in my laptop. Perfect.
They’re so perfect, they’re extremely popular and booked out months in advance. So, when I got around to looking for places to stay and write this summer, my options were limited. Very limited. I had two dates available in June at two parks, or I could wait until October. I quickly booked the June dates.
And so, on Tuesday morning I set out for Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon — Oregon’s “dry side,” the half of the state that, unlike Portland and the coast, gets lots of sun and little precipitation. Except when I set off, it was pouring rain in Kennewick — and it poured on me all the way to the Blue Mountains, where the rain changed to snow. Snow on June 5.
No worries, I thought, I’ll just make my first stop of the trip, and surely it will clear up and I’ll be able to enjoy the Wallowa Mountains and Wallowa Lake this afternoon and tomorrow in a less rainy/snowy/cloudy haze.
That first stop was the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside Baker City, a fantastic little visitor center that I highly recommend if you’re ever in northeastern Oregon. They accept the National Parks Annual Pass, which was the main reason I went out of my way to see it on this trip — why not drive a little further if you don’t have to pay the $8 entrance fee?
I do, however, recommend not going on a day with high winds and rain, so that you can walk the 2 mile path from the interpretive center on Flagstaff Hill down to the ruts from the Oregon Trail. Just standing at the top of the hill to take a couple of photos of covered wagons was miserable for me — the hood of my rain jacket alternately flew over my eyes and threatened to strangle me, or it violently jerked me backwards. As much as I wanted to make the walk, I was too chicken/lazy/reasonable to do it.
A few facts I learned at the interpretive center: One out of every ten people who started the trail died along the way. That adds up to one grave for every 80 yards of the 2,000 mile trail. The “prairie schooner” style wagons had a wagon bed 4 feet by 10 feet in size — that’s the same size as one of the raised garden beds at Quinault Community Garden (pretty big for a garden bed, small for a vehicle that holds all your earthly possessions). Some single men skipped the wagon and oxen all together and just walked the trail to Oregon, pushing their belongings in a wheel barrow. For 2,000 miles. That is a heart bent on emigrating.
By the time I finished up at the Oregon Trail and made my way back to La Grande and the turn-off to Wallowa Lake, the forecast hadn’t cleared up like I’d so optimistically assumed it would. Thick clouds still surrounded the mountains, and the online reports still called for a flood watch on the Grande Ronde River until late that afternoon. Snow and rain showers would continue through the night — the snow would be at levels above 4,500 feet, and the campground where I’d booked my yurt was at 4,600 feet. So much for the dry side of Oregon.
As much as I would love to say I’d camped in the snow in June, I’d already had enough driving on slick roads with busily flip-flopping windshield wipers for one day, and I didn’t relish giving up the interstate for a 2-lane mountain road for the next hour and a half in those conditions. Not for an overnight trip where I wouldn’t even see the mountains because of all the clouds and fog surrounding me. I headed for home (back through the snow in the Blues) and will try again next week for a writing retreat at a yurt in Bend, Oregon.