By Jeff Petersen
I thought I’d be in for serious sensory deprivation with the Holdman Loop Tour.
After all, I was raised around Eugene, Oregon, with Lane County’s “sea level to ski level” motto and waterfalls as common as fiddles at a hoedown.
However, on the first warm day of meteorological spring (March 1-May 31), I head out with fingers crossed. After leaving the Highway 11 rat race at Athena and escaping to Highway 334, where traffic is a rumor, I get a pleasant surprise. A roller-coaster ride ensues through the kingdom of wheat, with sightings of kestrels perched on power lines and magpies practicing aerobatic maneuvers.
A red-winged blackbird cavorts in a cattail swamp, most of the time cleverly keeping out of camera range. When he does come into range, he hides the red.
Sky hovers, haze doing hop-scotch with patches of robin’s-egg blue. Winter wheat is shooting up. Patterns of Scottish plaid (in honor of nearby Athena, home of the local Caledonian Games) lead the eye to the snow-covered Blue Mountains, which anxiously await the big thaw.
Soon I reach the highest hill in the area, the Helix Ground Pile — wheat awaiting transport. Trucks are being loaded with frantic intensity, while crows fly in to get their share. The wind whips out of the south, punishment left over as winter slowly exits stage left.
I turn south for a couple miles on the Helix highway and then head west toward Holdman. A pheasant darts across the road, as much good luck as a black cat is bad luck. Lone trees, bare branches reaching skyward, surrendering to Mother Nature’s whims, are roadside landmarks in an otherwise treeless landscape. Winter wheat draws artful lines to a hazy horizon.
Soon Highway 334 merges into Highway 37. Turning left would take me to Pendleton. I turn right, opting for the lesser-traveled path.
Presently I reach a farm where birds looking for a handout mob silos. A windmill in the background provides testimony to the power of the wind.
Farther on, an old barn sits in disrepair. Its tin roof is partly blown off. A weather vane spins in the wind. Surrounding hardwood trees stand naked, eager for spring to provide the latest leaf fashions.
Eventually I reach the “ghost town” of Holdman and take a break. A windmill does double time in front of an old, abandoned school surrounded by modern John Deere farm equipment, the splash of green paint brightening an otherwise drab scene.
The wide spot in the road features a tidy working farm and towering grain elevators. A little more than a century ago, the Main Street featured a dance hall, blacksmith shop, stores and a United Brethren church. Only memories remain.
The road is quiet except when wheat trucks, professional drivers at the wheel, bomb down the familiar-to-them S curves toward the Columbia River.
I look both ways, then rejoin the highway. Soon I come to one “road narrows” sign, then another, then yet another. The road is still imminently drivable, although if you believed signs you’d think by now it would be a goat path.
The road twists downhill toward the sage-covered Columbia River plain for a rendezvous with U.S. Highway 730. I turn back toward Walla Walla and rejoin the rat race, mostly truck traffic here. The busy-ness does not prevent me from gawking at the Wallula Gap basalt pinnacles or at a lone boat that plies the Columbia River, tanglers dwarfed by north shore ramparts.
I cross the Washington state line and increase my speed from 55 to 60 mph. OK, 63.
Looking in my rearview mirror to be sure I won’t be rear-ended, I slam on the brakes and skid into the modest Twin Sisters turnout, where twin basalt pillars provided a landmark for early river sojourners. The spring wildflowers, tiny yellow starbursts, are in bloom. I hop out, shielding my eyes from the low-angle sun, eager to get a view of the river wearing a necklace of diamonds.
The uphill trail is short and steep. I clamber up the sand to earn a million-dollar view downriver. Trucks roar by far below. Here a warm wind blows, and I have the bluff to myself. I am at peace.