The super moon rose above the Blue Mountains in Oregon. Taken from Bennington Lake in Walla Walla, WA, using my iPhone. You can hear the cameras of folks taking pictures in the background, who had the same idea as me to watch the moon rise. The moon didn’t look any larger than usual, but it was still beautiful sight to behold.
One of my colleagues lives in the tiny town of Athena, OR (Pop. 1,126), and I’ve been meaning to check her town out. We decided that it would be our last small town on our tour around the Blue Mountains. After we got gas at Exit 216, Athena is a quick 16 miles away.
From Exit 216 to Athena, Oregon
The drive to Athena along Highway 11 is a beautiful one, especially nearing sunset. We got to Athena with just enough sunlight still out to take a few shots of the historic buildings on Main Street. Like the other small towns we visited, the town has probably seen better days. Back in the day, folks would stop in Athena traveling from Pendelton to Milton-Freewater or to Walla Walla. I imagine that the St. Nichols Hotel (below) was probably one of the places people checked into on their journey.
After our Starbucks break, we were back on the road. As was mentioned in a previous post, La Grande is the biggest town that we visited on our “small towns” adventure; and as such, we decided to just drive through it instead of hanging around. Plus, we only had about two hours left before the sunset, and we wanted to complete our loop around the Blue Mountains. From La Grande, we got on I-84 West, with the goal of exiting at exit 216, which would take us to the Umatilla Indian Reservation, where we would get gas before heading to our last stop of the day, Athena, Oregon (Pop. 1,126). Exit 216 is also the exit for the Wildhorse Resort and Casino, which is an interesting attraction for slot machine enthusiasts and folks into table card games. On this trip we wouldn’t be going to casino, but from previous experiences, it’s worth checking out, especially if you feel the need to escape the rural-ness of Eastern Oregon and Washington. Wildhorse Resort and Casino stands out like a sore thumb, given its isolated location, though, I was impressed by its recent renovations. One more thing of note: you can pump your gas at the gas station on the reservation, which is exciting because in the rest of Oregon (along with New Jersey) an attendant is required to pump your gas.
As travel for most people is often set aside for the weekends, it’s no surprise that a quick weekend road trip to a destination relatively close to home is often chosen by folks over airplane travel. I know in my own experiences, last minute travel by car is more common than not. Once Friday rolls around, especially if I haven’t planned any travel, my mind goes into brainstorming mode for quick day trip destinations or, even I’m really impulsive, a spontaneous weekend getaway. I have compiled a list of seven iPhone apps that I use to help me on my weekend road trips. Google Maps, I think, is a given, so I’m not listing it here. So in no particular order:
After our near poetic stop in Weston, our trek continued towards the Blue Mountains, to Jubilee Lake, specifically. Friends of mine had recommended that we go, and the unusually warm day was perfect for a lake excursion. Jubilee Lake is a lake within the Umatilla National Park in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. With campgrounds, trails, and a beautiful lake surrounded by pristine forest, we were excited to dip our feet into the water and just be with nature. Taking the Weston-Elgin Highway from Weston to the lake, you’ll spend about an hour driving (or about 35 miles) through the Blue Mountains and the Umatilla National Park to get to the lake. Be prepared for stunning landscapes, with a few solitary cabins dotting either side of the highway on your way up. I kept thinking how insane Winters must be up there.
From Waitsburg, our next destination was Milton-Freewater, Oregon (Pop. 6,470), which is right across the border from Walla Walla. I used to travel quite a bit to Portland from Walla Walla and would often pass through Milton-Freewater to get to Pendleton, OR, and ultimately to the I-84 freeway. Rarely did I stop to check the town out. In our search for interesting landmarks, we had our perfect excuse this time around. From the Washington border, you can reach the town in about 10 minutes. You’ll notice immediately, as soon as you enter town, all the frog statues in front of the storefronts. Each frog is made to represent the business standing behind it; the frogs give the town a quirky vibe. For you trivia nerds out there, the creation of the frog statues was inspired by a local festival called “Muddy Frogwater Days,” a name that locals to this day call their town.
This last weekend, my partner and I decided to really take the time to out to see the surrounding areas around Walla Walla wine country and the Blue Mountains of Oregon. With only a couple more weeks left of my work in this region before I return to Chicago, I figured it was now or never. Ask anyone about what they know of Walla Walla, and they’ll most likely say “sweet onions!” The sweet onion has long defined Walla Walla – even the local baseball team is named: The Walla Walla Sweets. What most people outside of the state don’t know is that the wine industry in Walla Walla has taken off and is transforming the area in really profound ways. No longer a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere Washington, the wine industry has ushered in an interesting moment in the town’s history. Wine tasting shops dot the surrounding Main Street area, along with high-end restaurants. My hair stylist – my local informant! – pined for the slow days when nary a wine tourist could be seen. “Things were a lot slower, but nice,” she told me. Though immediately she admitted, the money that the tourists spent in town was ultimately good for local businesses. “A Target store would be nice,” she confessed. I agreed.