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CO3 — a Bike Tour With an Economic-development Twist

image 6I’m smiling. I’m reflecting on CO3 and hearing peals of laughter as strangers become friends, seeing plump strawberries plunked in a pile of whipped cream, smelling sage and pine from canyon depths, and feeling hope for our collective future together in this special place called Oregon.

CO3 was designed to combine epic riding with quality time over fresh-from-the-farm dinners discussing community and economic development. These conversations are intended to help us allocate up to $30,000 in grant funding raised through the event. They will also add perspective for future strategic planning and partnerships.

We want to thank everyone who made this event happen: the community hosts and presenters, every one of the riders who joined us on this great adventure, and businesses including Airstream Adventures NW and Rogue Creamery. You all made this event incredibly special, with the promise of a new way for Cycle Oregon to promote a healthy and connected Oregon.

We’re on to something. The rides were, indeed, epic – as our legs and lungs will attest. Those 330 miles and 25,000 feet of elevation were stunning, grueling and amazing. The locals we met and the riders who joined us were informative and inspiring.

Agriculture-based Economic Development

Our first evening was spent outside Walla Walla in the wine and cheese region of southeastern Washington. We rolled out from Walla Walla past wheat fields to the edge of Waitsburg, where Izzy the camel welcomed us. Pedaling into the heart of Waitsburg, we turned toward the jimgermanbar, where the warm, sun-dappled room was full of life and delicious aromas.

We met local artisan farmers including Christopher Galasso of Stone’s Throw Farm and Blue Valley Meats, Liz Phillips from Welcome Table Farm and Pierre Monteillet of Monteillet Fromagerie. Our group of 20 bellied up to the long farm table to learn about the shifting agricultural landscape, where large-scale farming practices create both challenge and opportunity (as an example, Monsanto’s GMO practices are a threat to specialty crops, but they also have the most advanced non-invasive pest management programs available). The three speakers explained how they’re growing their market and helping provide fresh and healthy food options for locals while also raising awareness among consumers about humane practices and quality. This tiny town has a huge vision, and any trip in its direction merits a stopover for some social and gustatory inspiration.

Natural Resources-based Economic Development

We pushed off from Clarkston bright and early with visions of paella still dancing in our heads. We climbed steeply past the village of Anatone and dropped giddily to the bottom of Rattlesnake Grade. Then we climbed again – before still more climbing. Finally we reached the crest at the Chief Joseph Overlook before making our way into the wide Wallowa Valley and the town of Enterprise, where more than a few folks felt the pull of Terminal Gravity, an oasis of beer amid the cattle ranches.

As the mountains of the Eagle Cap Wilderness grew radiant in the evening sun, we headed over to the Arrowhead Ranch for dinner. We arrived to a hearty welcome from our local hosts and a scene of billowing tablecloths and straw-bale benches. Mike Hayward, Wallowa County commissioner for 18 years, explained that “we have natural resources, and our goal is to have both economic sustainability and community vitality.” That was the perfect introduction for Nils Christofferson, executive director of Wallowa Resources, a nonprofit organization founded 17 years ago when Wallowa lost all its sawmills. The organization is committed to maintaining and improving the natural-resource economy in ways that adapt and improve practices while staying competitive and creating opportunities for the next generation. Amy Busch, the education coordinator for Wallowa Resources, described the need to focus on the next generation by highlighting the fact that only 20 percent of kids play outside every day, which results in losing a sense of connection and place. When the majority of jobs in an area are based on knowledge of the land, this becomes a vital economic link.

The evening was best summed up by Liza Jane Nichols, a fifth-generation rancher at Six Ranch (any trip to Wallowa County must include a stop by Six Ranch’s farm stand for some of their local veggies, fresh eggs and specialty grass-fed beef). She summed up our experience with words shared over a special meal: “We have met, and we are friends. Now we have eaten, and we are family.”

Planting Seeds of a Rural Economy

We departed Enterprise, traveling along Wallowa Valley with the Eagle Cap at our backs and the Wallowa Mountains ahead of us. We delighted in the shady slope of Forest Road 39 winding along the Imnaha River up to the Hells Canyon Overlook before dropping toward the Snake River and into the hamlet of Halfway.

Our evening conversation took place in the gorgeous gardens of Wallowa Llamas, where our table stretched along the fence with llamas in the foreground and mountains in the distance.

The discussion was kicked off by Coco Forte, who described Halfway as a place where, when the community needs something, whether social or cultural, someone local leads the charge to create it. She explained that the town’s remote location and small population make it difficult to support much, including basic services like a doctor or dentist. So they have to get very creative, which they have done. Their supervising physician, located in Baker City, was named the Oregon Physician of the Year! Other neighbors have contributed to the fabric that makes Halfway such a special place, including Steve Baxter, the publisher and editor of the local newspaper, who founded the Cornucopia Arts Council and its various arts and music programs. We heard Linda Collier describe the library beautification project, and from Liz McClellan, who supports all sorts of projects with fundraising and capacity building through United Community Partners.

Tourism- and Bicycle-based Economic Development

imageThe ride from Halfway to Baker was dominated by a few distinct features: rolling hills, sage, cattle, wind and heat. This would be our “shortest” ride of the week at only 55 miles, though it felt much longer as we spread out and pedaled those hot, hilly miles. By the time we reached our lunch stop at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, we were hot, thirsty and hungry. Then we went inside and learned about what thousands of pioneers endured as they pursued their fortunes by wagon and horse.

Our discomfort was temporary. Theirs was anything but, so we counted our blessings and pedaled the final five miles into Baker and rejoiced as the Geiser Grand Hotel came into view. Baker City is a majestic old city, with more than 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The Geiser is the crown jewel. The building was restored completely by Barbara Sidway, who singlehandedly saved it from demolition. That act was one of many that improved the downtown core and focused on increasing tourism as one avenue toward economic prosperity. One aspect of that is bicycles, which includes being on the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway and promoting bike friendliness (as the Geiser Grand does).

Baker’s bicycle epicenter is Baker Loves Bikes, a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate and support greater access and safe opportunities for all cyclists in Baker County.Baker Loves Bikes is connected to many exciting projects in the area, including the Baker City Cycling Classic, which was held the weekend after our stay. Organized by artist and bike enthusiast Brian Vegter, the Classic is a professional race that emphasizes equal purses between men’s and women’s races. This was something I learned during Inga Thompson’s presentation. Inga and Brian showed a film called “Half the Road” that explained the challenges women riders face in light of restrictive UCI rules ranging from restrictions on race distances to smaller purse prizes.

Baker Loves Bikes is also involved with promoting the area as a major mountain biking destination, and they’re creating the maps to prove it! We also heard from long-time Cycle Oregon rider and supporter Jerry Peacock, who shared exciting news about a new educational program for youth, the Baker Technical Institute. His goal is to create a job-ready workforce that can work in and build Baker’s future. With the new institute’s focus on engineering, architectural design, plant and animal science, and manufacturing technologies (bike frames, anyone?), Jerry hopes to keep more local kids local and continue to build a community with a healthy future. As one of the best-kept secrets in Oregon, the city’s future will surely be bright.

Building a Healthy Future, Together

One of the common themes throughout the week was the interdependent nature of the relationship between rural and urban Oregonians. In some ways it’s a false distinction. Many of our riders had lived in one of the state’s larger cities and now live in small towns. Or they grew up on rural farms and now live in Portland or Salem. One thing we all shared was a deep belief that we can’t exist without each other.

Cycle Oregon believes the future of our state is dependent on healthy communities from border to border. With the economic changes since the 1980s there is still a lot of work to do to maintain and develop new economies based on current realities. This is no small task. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that amazing things can happen one pedal stroke at a time.

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