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Airstream road trip: Steens Mountain, Frenchglen, Round Barn, Harney County Oregon


What happened to Frenchglen? I recall passing through fifteen years ago to find an oasis in the desert: enchantingly upscale accommodations; a country store tastefully merchandised with fine handmade gifts and locally grown produce and cheeses; espresso. Now, the Mercantile, once beamed directly from Marin County, squats forlornly behind the Iron Curtain with its half-empty shelves of dirty gourds and stale-looking cracker boxes. And the hotel? No longer on my short list of places to honeymoon.


What goggles was I wearing? Was I infatuated at the time, with either someone or my new Oregon home? Was I parched from the cultural drought that is the drive from Reno through Winnemucca? Or has Frenchglen, like everywhere, fallen on hard times? (Why am I writing like Carrie Bradshaw?)


While the town of Frenchglen no longer holds any magic, the surrounding area still does. Returning to southeastern Oregon years later with a different rig and crew would have been a harsh letdown except for the enduring beauty of the untouched landscape…which never changes.


I’ll go out on a limb: the campground at Page Springs Recreation Site—a BLM property on the Steens Mountain Loop—is possibly the most beautiful we’ve overnighted in. (Ralph: “You’re not going to blog and tell everyone about this, are you?”) (Oops.) It has no hookups, (water and johns, though), feels remote yet is exquisitely groomed, and the flora and fauna are among the Creator’s finest work. Near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the area draws hawks, herons, magpies and binocular-toting birdwatchers; the Donner and Blitzen rivers (guess what? not named for the reindeer) attract wading flyfishermen. Deer and coyote roam freely, like pets. The surrounding Steens aren’t actually black but dramatic lighting makes them appear so. 


On the way down from Bend I misunderstood the checker at the Safeway in Burns who asked if we were headed to the Round Barn, a Harney County hotspot. “What? Oh, definitely,” I replied. (I thought she said “Round Bar”.) Of course we detoured anyway, past the Diamond Craters (which look like a failed batch of devilsfood crinkle cookies) to take in the cultural significance of said barn. The mildly interesting structure is as advertised: a barn, that is round, with a complex interior structure of juniper beams. Nearby, a testy man who won’t tell you all about it presides over a crap n’ trinket store with an odd attraction inside that serves as another class reminder: when one is poor and surrounded by junk, they’re a hoarder. Rubbish of the wealthy is considered an eccentric collection, and transferred to frontier museums.


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