Monday, April 16, 2007

Volcanoes, Views and Volvos (er, Volvo)3

Ridin' along in my automobile

My Gypsy beside me at the wheel

I scratched her neck at the turn of a mile

My curiosity runnin' wild

Cruisin' and playin' the radio

With no particular place to go.

With apologies to Chuck Berry

I’ve driven US 97 across Oregon before--several times, in fact. There are only four major north/south highways crossing Oregon, and I’ve driven the western three several times. US 101, the western most highway in the old US Highway system, clings to the Pacific coast as it runs 366 miles from Astoria to the California line south of Brookings. It’s a stunningly beautiful drive, and my preferred way of getting between Portland and Smith River.

Oregon's section of I-5, the western most north/south piece of the Interstate Highway system, is 307 miles long, and passes through the most heavily populated parts of the state. It parallels the old US 99 and is a fast, efficient option. It does have some scenic parts, especially in the southern reaches. From Eugene north to Portland, however, you’re in the Willamette Valley and the road is long and straight and, in my opinion, pretty boring. Unless, that is, you're traveling through when they're burning the fields. Then it's boring and unhealthy at the same time.

US 95 only touches Oregon in Malheur County, Oregon’s southeastern corner, and home to few people, mostly Basque, and a lot of sheep. It’s alternative, US 395, enters the state alongside Goose Lake which straddles the Oregon/California state line, and heads north to Umatilla, passing through some of the emptiest land in the West. While I’ve driven parts of 395 in southern Oregon, and will be driving it for the first two and a half hours of today’s route across Washington, I have never driven the section between Burns and Pendleton in northeastern Oregon.

What Oregon does not have is a diagonal route that crosses from the northeast to the southwest. That fact has driven me crazy for the past thirty years as I’ve traveled between Missoula and Smith River. With no hypotenuse, I’ve been forced to make a right angle driving I-84 along the Columbia River heading west, then turning south at Portland on either I-5 or crossing the coastal range to pick up 101 at Lincoln City. The closest thing to a diagonal road is US 97, but calling it a diagonal is really a stretch as Biggs Junction at the northern end is at 120.50 west and Klamath Falls, near the southern end, is at 121.46 or so. A difference of one degree of longitude does not a diagonal make. Still, that is the road I chose for yesterday’s drive.

I pulled out of Smith River at 6 a.m. PDT, heading south on 101 to go north once I reached 199. Crossing the coastal mountains in heavy fog, I watched as the outside temperature dropped below freezing on the California/Oregon border. 199 is not a road to take lightly, with its sharp curves, lack of shoulders, and steep drops into the wild and scenic Smith River. That said, I had no difficulty getting to Grants Pass where, once again, I turned south on I-5. Amazing how I keep going south to get north.

After breakfast in Medford with my friend Jim, and after buying yet another jacket at Fred Meyers (hey, it’s a Columbia fleece and was 30% off, plus I get to add to my gas discount), I continued south on I-5 to Ashland where I took Oregon 66 to cross over to Klamath Falls. And the jacket thing? Well, when I left Smith River I forgot to grab any of my jackets there. Knowing that I have plenty of clothes in Missoula, I wasn’t concerned until I saw the snow on the hills and watched the thermometer drop. I figured I’d better have something to keep me warm at the photo ops along the way.

On the map, Oregon 66 looks like a much shorter crossing than Oregon 140 which runs from Medford to Klamath Falls. I’ve taken that road before and my memory says that it was a long twisty road and that it took forever to get from point M to point K. What I don’t remember is whether it climbs a mountain in all its twists and turns. Oregon 66 definitely climbs. And climbs. And then it climbs some more. Leaving I-5 at Ashland, you’re at 1900 feet elevation. Green Springs summit, on Oregon 66, is 4551 feet. From there you drop down to Pinehurst at 3368, then climb some more to cross Parker Mountain Pass at 4356. I can’t say that I remember this pass, because we were no longer twisting and turning, and there is virtually no drop the rest of the way to Klamath Falls which sits at 4340 feet. And remember the snow I mentioned seeing on the hills? Well on Oregon 66 it was not only along side the road, but in sheltered areas it was on the road. It was a beautiful drive, snow notwithstanding, and my only real complaint is that while I passed vista after vista, panorama after panorama, what I did not pass was any place to pull off the road and snap some shots. There are no shoulders on this road, let alone pull outs for photographic purposes. I did pull into the John C. Boyle Reservoir parking lot to take a shot of the Klamath River with Mount McLoughlin in the background.

Even though I’d had breakfast 80 miles earlier in Medford, that was four hours ago, and the map showed no promising spots to the north for quite a ways, so I decided to have lunch in Klamath Falls. There was method in my madness. Klamath Falls was going to be my major photo op for the day. Among the ideas I’m kicking around for photo/essay books, is one I call Alphabetical Oregon. I’d like to travel around the state profiling various towns from Astoria to Zigzag. My Oregon Atlas gives population figures for only three locales beginning with K, and Keizer, the largest of the three, is really just a suburb of Salem. Klamath Falls, on the other hand, sits isolated at the southern end of Upper Klamath Lake and is the largest city (19,000 people) in southern Oregon not on I-5.

I’d stopped in Klamath Falls one time before, back when I was taking and selling Cell Tech’s blue-green algae supplements. Cell Tech, whose blue-green algae (aphanizomenon flos-aquae—and how did I remember that?) is harvested from Upper Klamath Lake, had its corporate headquarters in Klamath Falls, and I chose to drop in the Corporate HQ on one trip in the distant past. I can’t say that the city made much of an impression on me at that time, although I do remember the office building itself appearing to be a transformed art deco car dealership. This trip I was going to spend a little time in town and see if I couldn’t get some good shots.

This time I was impressed by the town and will gladly return to do a more in-depth profile for my Alphabetical Oregon. I got some great shots, spoke with some interesting people (including one who recognized my license plate and asked if I was from Missoula), and had a second breakfast at The Klamath Grill, seemingly the most popular spot in town—or maybe just the only downtown restaurant open for Sunday lunch. I’ll write about Klamath Falls and its architecture and scenic beauty when I return for my follow up. What I really wanted to talk about today is US 97.

My memories of 97 are of long, straight stretches of road with no vistas to speak of. The road is bordered on both sides by thick forest, and as you drive across the state, you begin to wonder if you’ll ever get out of the trees. I also remember heavy snow, on the road, and the fear that we had descended into some form of frozen hell as the road went on and on, with nothing to see and snow falling constantly for hours on end. Suffice it to say that on this trip, I was pleasantly surprised by the highway.

US 97 has its southern terminus at Weed, California, where it merges with (or diverges from, depending on the direction you’re heading) I-5. Weed is the site of the infamous green highway sign that offers you the choice between Weed and College. There are 290 miles of US 97 in Oregon, and yesterday’s drive covered most of them. Having had dense fog on the first leg of my trip, and snow on 66, I was pleased to find sunshine and blue skies all along 97. I also noted that while the highway is still bordered on both sides by dense forest, the forest wasn’t nearly as dense as I remembered it. For pictures of the road, go to Marc Reitzell’s site at What was notable was the constant visibility of the volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range. If I ever submit a travel essay on US 97, I’ll call it Driving the Volcano View Highway. I seriously doubt that there is any other road in the world that gives you such an array of potentially explosive mountains.

Upper Klamath Lake & Mount McLoughlin
Taken 4/15/07 just north of Klamath Falls, Oregon

Just north of Klamath Falls, as the road follows the shore of Upper Klamath Lake, you see Mount McLoughlin (9495 feet). An almost perfectly shaped volcanic cone, the mountain is visible from I-5 between Grants Pass and Medford as you’re heading southeast. The view from I-5 is impressive, but the view from 97 is awe inspiring, in my opinion.

Mount Mazama (AKA Crater Lake National Park)
Taken 4/15/07 from US Highway 97, Central Oregon

You’re not quite out of sight of McLoughlin when Mount Mazama comes into view. Mazama, at 8050 feet, isn’t quite as high as her sisters, but then you have to cut her some slack. She lost the top third of her height when she erupted about 7,000 years ago, spewing rocks as far away as central Canada, and leaving a large caldera we know today as Crater Lake.

Mount Thielsen, I believe
Taken 4/15/07, US Highway 97, Central Oregon

From one vantage point, you can see Mount Mazama to the southwest and Mount Thielsen (9182 feet) to the northwest. I’m not sure if I saw Diamond Peak (8744 feet), but there was something in my sight looking west from La Pine. Mount Bachelor (9065 feet), Broken Top (9175 feet) and the Three Sisters (named North Sister, Middle Sister, and South Sister, and all over 10,000 feet) are all visible from US 97 as you drive through Bend, the largest city on 97 in Oregon.

Diamond Peak (?), Looking West from La Pine, Oregon
Taken 4/15/07

Mount Washington (7794 feet) is almost due west of Redmond, and Three-Fingered Jack (7841 feet) is just north of that. Mount Jefferson (10,497 feet) is west of Madras, and while looking at Mount Jefferson, if you turn slightly to your right, you’ll see Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest mountain at 11,240 feet. There is a turnoff on the southbound side of 97 where signs indicate which peak you’re looking at, but I was northbound and in traffic, and didn’t chose to stop there. While still in Oregon, you can see Mount Hood and Mount Adams (12,276 feet and across the Columbia in Washington state). If you continue north on 97 into Washington, there is a spot where you can see three volcanoes from one vantage point.

As awe-inspiring as these mountains are, especially when you just lose sight of one in time to catch the next, or even see two, or three, or as at Bend a whole series all at the same time, they do form the horizon line as you’re looking west. It reminds me of the old joke about 8 naked women performing the William Tell Overture, titty, bum, titty, bum, titty, bum, bum, bum. The mountains are kind of like that. Peak, rounded hills, Peak, rounded hills, Peak, rounded hills, Peak, Peak, Peak, flat space, Peak! Much closer to the road is the Newberry Caldera which sits a few miles east of 97. The highway crosses through the Newberry National Volcanic Monument and Lava Butte is immediately to the west of the highway. The monument was created by act of Congress in 1990. Boy am I sorry I didn’t get off the highway to explore that. Believe me, I will next time. (

I stopped at Biggs Junction to fill both my tank and the Volvo’s. The Volvo got Shell selling for $2.99/gallon. I filled my tank with Linda’s Diner’s liver and onions and got to speak to the chef after dinner (gee, just like in the fancy places). Turning east on I-84, I headed toward Umatilla where I crossed the Columbia into Washington State. Arriving in Kennewick at about 10 p.m., I got a room for Gypsy and me at the Econo Lodge where I’d stayed last October.

Once I get this posted, it’s time to shower, change, and head on north and east to Ritzville, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Lookout Pass, and, dare I say it, home, Missoula that is.

Till the next time, I wish you clear roads, blue sky, and lovely scenery. Oh and by the way, the Volvo g0t almost 29 mpg, YES!!!! 29 mpg in a Volvo V70 XC AWD. I think that's pretty awesome. And as for listening to the radio, well actually I was listening to Charles Hillinger's America, downloaded from and played on my pc, but broadcast to the car's sound system using a Belkin TuneCast. Also pretty awesome! Miles travelled, 581.

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