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.
The main drag – fittingly called Main Street – spans a short distance, where you’ll see mom-and-pop stores and a few eating and drinking establishments. From the outside the restaurants and bars feel stuck in some sort of time-warp, with the facades looking unchanged since the 1960s or even earlier. This, of course, could be both a good and potentially sketchy thing: good, in a sense that these business have survived for so long; and potentially sketchy, for all of the same reasons, with the added bonus of what I call “local insularity” (ie. out-of-town’ers beware!). And while I’m always up for frequenting local haunts in new cities and towns, I must admit even I get a bit freaked out, especially when I’m in rural areas.
Having said all of that, I’m sure the Milton-Freewater Supper Club is just fine, and my paranoia (if you can even call it that) is just a case of my own urban insularity. While I’m sure most visitors probably pass through Milton-Freewater on their way to Pendelton or to the I-84 freeway, take a moment to stop in town and admire, at the very least, the froggy statues.
We decided to continue on our way along Highway 11, with the intention of veering onto the Weston-Elgin Highway towards Jubilee Lake in the Blue Mountains. Highway 11 is a beautiful road that cuts through scenic Oregon farming country. With the Blue Mountains on the left and the rolling hills of farmland on the right, you’ll want to stop and take a few shots. This is probably why we missed our left turn onto the Weston-Elgin Highway, distracted, as we were, by the picturesque views. We did a U-Turn and found the correct exit. Unknowingly, however, we missed another turn and found ourselves in Weston, Oregon (Pop. 717), which was perfectly fine by us. The sun was out and the air, warm – a perfect day to get lost.
Weston, like most small towns in rural towns with populations under 1,000, looks a bit weathered: in its facades, the buildings an houses that look abandoned, and the quirky lawn decorations strewn in front of people’s yards – the decaying of rural America, if you will. From its surface appearance, Weston certainly looks like it’s seen better days. There are, however, several historic-looking buildings that befits the small town. As small as it is, you might miss Main Street if you blink. We spotted at least one cafe: The Long Branch Cafe and Saloon . Our eyes, however, were focused at a spot further in the distance, as we saw billows of smoke rising into the sky. We decided to investigate. Sure enough, a large swath of the farmland was engulfed in fire, mostly like a controlled burn. The last time I got to see a controlled burn like that was out side of the U.S. in Asia. I didn’t think controlled burns were still being practiced in the U.S. today.
The smell of the burnt land was oddly intoxicating: so foreign to our urban sensibilities and yet so laden with nostalgia. We lingered on the side of the road for awhile, listening, as well, to the crackling of the charred earth and the occasional warm breezes hitting our ears, until we both got a tad self-conscious about being spotted by locals … how odd we might have looked to them, just standing there.
Our next stop: Jubilee Lake, or so we thought.