Baker county, population 16,700 is a remarkable place – and stunningly beautiful [whadaya mean?? all you see from I 84 is a Mc D, a couple cheap motels and a gas station]. Really, I mean it. With family living there, I had the opportunity to spend some real time in town and in the surrounding area. Baker City sits in the Powder River valley with the Elkhorns flanking the west, the Blue mountains to the north and the foothills to the Wallowa mountains on the east.
Historically, the Northern Paiutes controlled this land, now centered in Burns, though other tribes from the north probably hunted on this land. In 1841, the first settlers embarked on the Oregon Trail. They traveled right through Baker County. East of town is the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and wagon wheel tracks are still visible in the hills beside it.
Looking out, one only sees the grassy, arid hills and a farm in the distance; no phone lines, nothing. The land knows no time. Events a century or so apart for us, are but isolated moments in earth time. I went one Christmas Eve – a strange time to go, I know – we were the only visitors that day. The snow covered hills, with its scruffy vegetation peeking out, seemed even more desolate. In my imagination, I could see wagons slowly climbing up and down these hills carrying the farmer whose family went no further.
Gold was discovered here in 1861. With abundant natural resources and the railroad coming through in the 1890s, mining and timber catapulted Baker City as the largest town between Salt Lake City and Portland by 1900, complete with elegant hotels, an opera house, trolley service, and electricity. Ranching and agriculture grew. The mines played out in the 1930’s and the city fell into decline.
Driving east toward Hell’s Canyon or the Wallowa’s is like driving back in time; a farm here and there – about 320 acres apart. Nearly century- old houses are not uncommon here. This part of Oregon has been poor for the better part of the last half century, and embodies a critical aspect of the region’s culture. A hundred years after its heyday, the city, and surrounding communities are experiencing a revitalization built upon the core of its existence. The miners may be gone, but the land, the mountains and the trees remain. The city core contains over 100 buildings on the National Historic Register,maintaining the character of the old city, with Geyser Grand, built coupled with an award winning brew pub.
Since I just a half day, I passed on the 8.2 mile trail around Gunsight Mountain, and walked around Anthony Lake and up to Hoffer lake for a total of about 2 ½ miles. The trail is well used and wide; many of the trails here double as Nordic ski routes. Crowded in summer, I went in the fall. The mountain was virtually deserted, but the weather still warm.
Experiencing Baker City is like being given a bouquet of buds and dying blooms instead of flowers. The land, above and below the surface, created this community. One can’t help but see the decay and apathy, but along side of that is pregnant possibility – fusing the past with the potential of its future.
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