On The Road is Think Out Loud’s radio road trip series: conversations with wanderers, tourists and residents along Oregon’s back roads and highways.
Oregon Route 82 arcs from La Grande to Joseph, around the north side of the Wallowa Mountains. The landscapes are breathtaking — tall peaks and rolling farmland. Think Out Loud recently traveled the highway, talking with ranchers, small business owners, life-long residents and visitors.
Stop One: La Grande
Just outside La Grande, we ran into Rich English. He and his wife were letting their dogs out on their way back home from Portland to Idaho. English had just been to his 50th high school reunion.
When we asked him what the reunion was like, he responded with one word: “traumatic.” He said he only recognized two people out of nearly 40 people because everyone had aged so much. “I never thought we’d be looking so old.”
He and his wife were also celebrating their first wedding anniversary. They both remarried after their previous spouses passed away. It’s not just a second chance at love, he says.
“It’s a second chance at friendship and caring and getting together to work to help other people.”
Stop Two: Alicel
Michael Miller manages the heavy machinery for Blue Mountain Seeds — a grass seed production company. The company just bought the storage facility in Alicel where we found Miller. Grass is a good business right now. “The price of wheat isn’t earning the farmers the money they want,” Miller explained, so a lot of farmers are turning to grass.
But it only takes a dip in the housing market or a rainy spring for people to stop buying grass seed, so the market is a fickle thing to predict.
“It does cycle up and down,” Miller said, “You have to hit the highs and lows and hope everything balances out.”
Stop Three: The Whitehorse Cafe
Molly Angelos runs the Whitehorse Cafe in Elgin. She had set out a bowl of plums for customers to eat in the entryway to the cafe. “We have more plums than we could ever use, so I’m trying to get rid of them,” she said, laughing.
Her family has owned the restaurant since the 70s, and she took over three years ago. Things have changed since the old days: the price of a steak has gone from $2 to $13, plus they’ve taken liver and onions off the menu. One of the old customers still comes in asking for it, but Angelos just can’t bring herself to do it. “I tell her ‘No, I’m sorry,’” she admitted. “The smell is terrible.”
Joyce Anderson arrived at the Whitehorse Cafe while we were there. She was looking to put up a poster advertising a fundraiser for the Elgin Stampede — an annual horse race from the hills outside Elgin into town.
She’s had a rough couple of years. “I lost my son and my husband both within three months of each other, and so I had just kind of a shut-down time.”
“You never get over it, but you learn to go on,” she said, which is part of why she’s gotten involved volunteering for the stampede. “It was time to get back to doing some things,” she said, adding “cowgirl up.”
Stop Four: Elgin Electric
Elgin is home to a large appliance store called Elgin Electric, which has managed to stay in business despite competition from big box stores and online retail. Kathy Rysdom runs the business with her brother, after inheriting the business from her dad.
“We stay really busy — busier than people think,” Rysdom told us.
There’s a number of reasons for the business’s success. “We deliver — we don’t charge for that; we’ve been here forever — people trust us and we do keep our prices down. We’ve got to give them a reason to come here.” Plus, it helps there’s no Home Depot or Lowes in town.
Will it stay in the family for another generation?
“Nope,” she said. “My brother’s kids aren’t interested in it. My kids aren’t. So, we’ll have to sell it. Unless one of the grandkids want to, but I’m not working here until they get old enough!”
Stop Five: Minam Hotel and Store
There’s only three buildings in Minam, so the Minam Hotel and Store serves a lot of purposes. It’s a hotel and general store, as the name implies, but it’s also an equipment shop, a rafting and fishing trip guide company and home to an impressive vegetable garden. Lottie Richie and her husband have owned the business for six years.
She says the Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers are a “hidden jewel of Oregon that most people don’t get to see or experience … it gives me chills just thinking about it.”
Richie guides rafting trips and says “Just getting away from the highway and people is my favorite part … as soon as my boat pushes out, I’m ecstatic. That’s where my heart lies.”
Stop Six: W 5th Street, Wallowa
In Wallowa, we ran into Jim Reese, who was getting ready to drive to Colorado with his wife to trade horses with one of her friends there.
Reese is a transplant from Portland — or as he calls himself “an escapee.”
“The Portland I knew from thirty years ago is just not there anymore,” he said. “I don’t know, I guess they just made Portland too weird for me. They ‘Keep Portland Weird’ and they do a good job of it.”
He likes his new life. Just seven miles from his house is a trailhead: “Either horseback or on foot — no mechanized vehicles — you can go forever. You can walk ten miles, you can walk five miles, you can walk a hundred and twenty miles, if you want to, and just go. And everywhere up here is like this.”
Stop Seven: Wallowa School
We passed by Wallowa School at recess time, and the recess lady Audra Allen was watching over the kids playing in the school yard.
Allen grew up in Wallowa, and all three of her kids have gone through the school. Her youngest child is now a senior, and she keeps a close eye on him. If she wanted to get his attention, she wouldn’t even need to use her recess lady whistle.
“My voice carries, and he knows his mother’s voice, so that’s all it would take,” Allen said.
Stop Eight: Funk and Junk
Just down the road from Wallowa is the town of Lostine, where Jeff Nehls runs the Funk and Junk thrift store.
“A little bit of everything. It’s kind of eclectic. We’ve got vintage jewelry, military stuff, antlers, you know, just clothing,” he said.
Nehls is most proud of the 80,000 pieces of militaria he owns. He’s hoping to open up a military museum in Joseph featuring the collection.
“I think it’s important to remember the veterans who’ve sacrificed their lives over the years,” he said. Nehls didn’t serve in the military, but a lot of his family did, and he sees the museum as a way to try to remember them.
Stop Nine: Norton Welding
Clarence Norton named his son Krag after a gun.
“It was the first gun I ever owned,” Norton said. “My dad bought it for me — .30-40 Krag, and then I’ve collected them ever since.”
When we talked to him, he was bringing in an AR-15 to his family’s welding shop to do some repair work.
Krag — pronounced “Craig” — Norton has taken over the business from his dad, and he also serves as the mayor in Lostine. Clarence Norton is happy to see his business carry on in a second generation.
“It makes me proud, very proud of him … he’s smart, and he works like a dog,” Clarence Norton explained. And he does everything it takes to succeed in business in a small town: “offer honest service, and be good to people, and never cheat or lie.”
Stop Ten: Terminal Gravity Brewery
Before he ran Terminal Gravity, Ed Millar worked in insurance and banking in San Francisco.
“Normally I wore a lot of three piece suits,” he said. He got tired of that job and moved to the Wallowas, where he found a new career — and a new dress code.
“I normally wear Carhartts in the winter and shorts in the summertime,” Millar explained. He’ll surprise his staff if he wears something even as formal as jeans.
“I haven’t put a tie on for years. I don’t think I even know how to tie them anymore,” he said.
While we were at Terminal Gravity, Emily Meier walked in. She was nearing the end of a 10-day bike tour around the Wallowas.
“I passed more cows today than cars,” she says happily. She’s loved the trip, and now she’s coming to terms with reaching the end of it and returning to normal life.
“Just coming back into even a town like Enterprise, which is pretty small, it can just feel overwhelming, you know?” she said.
She just went through a hard break-up. Going back home to Portland was intimidating. “I’ll just miss the freedom. I love riding my bike. I can’t even imagine anything more fun than biking out here. And just being back in Portland seems,” she took a deep breath, “so depressing.”
Stop Eleven: Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center
Gwendolyn Trice grew up in La Grande in one of the very few black families in town.
“Most of the time we weren’t allowed to go into the homes of the kids we went to school with,” she explained. “I always tried to seek out the new kids that came to school, it’s like ‘Ooh great! Someone new that maybe doesn’t know what’s going on here.’”
Trice left La Grande when she graduated high school and never really wanted to come back. She lived in Seattle for decades, but on a trip home to visit her family, she was told about a logging community called Maxville, where African-Americans and other racial minorities worked in the early 20th century. She did some digging and discovered that her dad had worked as a logger in Maxville, which was how he ended up in the area in the first place.
Trice took it on herself to document and preserve the history of Maxville. She moved back to the area and opened the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center in Joseph.
Uncovering the history of Maxville was personal for her.
“I could give my son a legacy and my grandson a legacy,” she said. “I could root them to a place that I was rooted in and didn’t know.”
Trice is contributing to a future exhibit at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. To hear more of her story, watch the Oregon Experience documentary “The Logger’s Daughter.”
Stop Twelve: Imnaha Store and Tavern
Thirty miles east of Joseph and 2,000 feet lower in elevation lies Imnaha. Wallowa County is already remote, but this town at the bottom of a canyon is even more removed than the rest of the region.
We ran into Mellica McIntire at the Imnaha Store and Tavern. She’s from Maine originally but has lived here since 2007.
“It’s the first place I’ve ever stayed for longer than six months,” she said.
But McIntire didn’t have to leave all of her Maine life behind. Her parents mail her ten live lobsters every Christmas to share with her neighbors. She and her dad coordinate with the local UPS guy to make sure they come quickly and don’t sit out too long.
“Everyone works together to make sure that we get them the freshest,” she said.
Stop Thirteen: Wallowa County Ranches
Janie Tippett is 83 years old and still runs a ranch.
“I can’t give up ranching yet,” she said. “It’s all I’ve ever known, and it keeps you young, and I love cows.”
She says it’s not uncommon in Eastern Oregon.
“I could name 30 women right now that would put me to shame and some of them are in their nineties,” she said. Men don’t necessarily last as long.
“The old cowboys’ bones give out on them,” Tippett explained.
She said there’s an old phrase about Eastern Oregon women that rings true: “They reach 60 and they just stay there.”
Tippett lives just a few miles down the road from Skip and Pam Royes. They have a team of work horses and mules, which they take into remote areas where motor vehicles can’t reach to do things like weed control.
Skip and Pam met 40 years ago on the Snake River and spent the first four years of their lives together working and wandering through the canyons and mountains of Oregon and Idaho on horseback.
They both remembered their first impression of each other.
“Long-legged and feisty,” said Skip of Pam.
“An unusual man,” Pam thought about Skip.
“He was in his element and I didn’t know a lot of people in my twenties that seemed satisfied with where their lives were at,” Pam elaborated. “So when I witnessed that, I just said, ‘You know, I’d kind of like to spend some time around somebody who wasn’t searching for answers but seemed to have found them.’”
Pamela Royes documented their time together in the wilderness in her book “Temperance Creek.” OPB’s State of Wonder talked to her about the memoir.
For more stories from Oregon’s highways and back roads, check out the rest of our On The Road series.