We expected significant potential for curve balls as we planned our final trip of 2016. Impending holidays, winter storms, and end-of-year work checklists challenged the aligning of schedules, but with a mix of determination and stubbornness we decided to throw a bit of caution into the winter winds. And looking back now, it may have been our best trip yet.
The journey began in Portland, where we loaded up the vehicles and left behind rain in exchange for the expected snow and sub-freezing temperatures of Sisters, Oregon, the home for our short but sweet three-day winter adventure. The driving conditions of the requisite pass crossing were somewhat uncertain, and we questioned our decision several times to press on with a final winter trip. As we descended the eastern side of the mountains, however, conditions improved, and by the following morning we awoke to sunshine and a beautiful sunrise.
Sisters is rich with Native American history, dating back some 7,000+ years. More recently, it served as a short-lived military camp (Camp Polk: September 1865-May 1866), and was homesteaded in 1870. By 1888, the Three Sisters – later shortened to Sisters post office – was opened, the name a tribute to the majestic beauty of the 3 peaks south of town. The town was formally established in 1901 and, when standing in downtown Sisters today, it's still hard not to feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the surrounding mountains.
Located at the foothills of the eastern Cascades and surrounded by an abundance of trails, gravel roads, crystal clear rivers, and incredible mountain peaks, Sisters has exploration written all over it.
With sunshine and temps in the mid-20’s, any hesitations from the drive the previous evening had been replaced by an increasingly eager anticipation to explore. Although the forecast called for snow by mid-day, we dressed quickly and, after a quick stop at a bakery downtown (our late arrival the prior evening didn't allow a proper trip to the grocery to stock up on supplies for breakfast), we headed out with cautious optimism.
After a brief ride through town and on paved roads exiting town to the south, we reached the gravel roads on which we planned to spend the rest of the day.
SANTIAM WAGON ROAD
Offering winding and desolate gravel roads, and a complete void of other human activity (at least in December), the Santiam wagon road was ultimately the reason we chose Sisters to be our base. Built in the 1860’s, the Santiam Wagon ‘Road’ served as a livestock trail and the only freight route over this section of the Cascade mountains, until the completion of US Highway 20 in 1939. Although the label 'road' may seem a bit misleading today, a combination of gravel roads, paths, and trails still remain intact from the road's more eventful beginnings.
With gradually worsening conditions, we forged on in an attempt to see how far up the mountain we could make it, and for the first 3 hours we rolled along gravel roads and trails dusted with snow but offering adequate traction.
Just after 1pm, the skies darkened, the snow began in earnest, and hightail it home we did. When you’re not especially close to anything in particular, it’s usually a decent enough idea to have a modicum of respect for mother nature. A little over 2 hours later we rolled back into town and to the welcome warmth of our rental home.
We'd only been gone five hours, but as our bodies and gear began to thaw, we were reminded of how difficult and harsh this climate would have been on its original settlers. We like to believe ourselves a hearty crew, but as we prepared dinner and watched the accumulating snowfall from our house, it was difficult to not be appreciative of modern comforts. Tomorrow would prove to be considerably colder and with a lot more snow, and give us plenty of opportunity to prove our fortitude.
We went to sleep that night, as we usually do during these adventures, excited by our experiences of the day and eager to see what the following day would bring. Carl Sagan once said that “if the constellations had been named in the twentieth century, I suppose we would see bicycles.” It may not have been clear enough to see the constellations that evening, but they were on our minds, and we all welcomed the adventure we were certain tomorrow would bring.