HALFWAY, OREGON_When Northeast Oregon starts awakening after a long winter, changes in the landscape happen quickly. Many consider this the prettiest time of year in parts of the byway. Dressed for outdoor chores, we took advantage of a change in our plans for the day, and took a drive Saturday, just to enjoy the beauty. Oregon Highway 86 from Baker City to Halfway is the southern leg of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, following the Powder River much of the way. (Many people miss out on the spring scenery when they learn the FS 39 Road is still closed to all but snowmobiles, due to the drifts of snow in the high-country pass. But don’t let the lack of a loop stop you! Taking either the south leg from Baker City to Halfway and the Snake River or the north leg from La Grande and Elgin to Enterprise, Joseph and Wallowa Lake offers a real treat for anyone who enjoys sightseeing and exploring tiny towns.)
While snow is still falling in the surrounding Wallowa and Elkhorn Ridge of the Blue Mountains, the valleys along the route are bright green with new grass, trees along the river banks are budding and pussy willows have spouted their soft kitty paws of seeds. Bright yellow forsythia bushes and a few pink and white flowering fruit trees add color to yards and garden patches of ranch houses.
For those of us who love animals, it is hard to beat the sight of frisky young calves in meadow after meadow – this is cattle country and there are thousands of cows getting anxious to take their babies from the winter feeding and calving grounds in the valleys to the fresh grass in spring and summer pastures in the hills. We noticed a lot of ranches were beehives of activity, as ranchers were taking advantage of the cloudy but dry weather to brand and vaccinate their herds in preparation of turning them out on the range. Brightly colored ear tags help match mother and calf, in case they get separated or need doctored. The family brand ensures a lost cow or calf can be returned to its owner or prevented from being sold by a cattle rustler – still the cause of economic loss across the west.
The spring scenery is truly spectacular! The mountains always look their bluest and tallest when tipped in white and partially shrouded by low hanging clouds. The rivers, streams and ditches are full and overflowing, giving the ground a good soaking that will keep fields green for several months. Flat-bed pickups, carrying black and white border collies and towing silver stock trailers, are ubiquitous on the country roads. Riders on horseback, mud-splattered ATVs and side-by-sides are everywhere, their people busy fixing fences, herding cattle and delivering minerals to tubs and feeders scattered across the fields.
We worked up an appetite just viewing it all and were pleased with the opportunity to try out The Main Place in Halfway. The restaurant and the building in which it is housed were given a complete renovation a couple of years ago, and the transformation is amazing. The historic building looks wonderful, inside and out, with a fine dining room, café and bar dividing the space in the ground floor and hotel rooms upstairs. A new patio and grassy enclosed lawn will be the perfect spot for outdoor dining and relaxing with a drink, once the weather warms. In our casual clothes, we opted for the café and each enjoyed a great meal that featured locally raised meat and fresh, flavorful side dishes. The staff was friendly, efficient and brushed away our apologies for the mud on our barn boots. We were assured that ranchers mix easily and often with visitors from urban areas and the café and town foster that exchange of cultures.
We didn’t travel the extra 14 miles to Oxbow Dam and the Snake River this time, but, will our next visit to the lovely Pine and Eagle Valleys. If not sooner, there is always our annual trip to Eagle Creek Orchard at New Bridge (near Richland, Oregon), where the organic peaches, pears and grapes are always sweet and delicious and well worth the scenic drive to seek them out. Jetboat rides, rafting, boating and fishing on the Snake River and Brownlee Reservoir bring lots of visitors to Halfway and Richland in summer and the winding roads through the rugged landscape are favorites for touring cyclists and motorcycle riders.
But don’t wait for summer! Now is the time for that scenic drive that only spring can offer.