If You Sign it, Will They Come? (The Old West Scenic Bikeway a year later…)
We just got back from about a week in Eastern Oregon filming and photographing the Blue Mountain Century Scenic Bikeway. While we were filming in that part of Oregon we were reminded of just how awesome it is for bicycling. The vistas go on forever, the people are friendly and the traffic is low. The Blue Mountain Century Scenic Bikeway is also in very close proximity to the Old West Scenic Bikeway which we filmed almost exactly a year ago. Since we were in the area, we decided to drive the Old West Scenic bikeway (it wasn’t as fun in a car FWIW) and check in on the small towns and businesses along the route.
We have to admit, we have a special affinity for the OWSB. Not only was it the first one we filmed, but we also managed to sit in on a county-wide Bicycle Tourism Studio that TravelOregon put on to educate and bring support around the Scenic Bikeway in the area. For us, it was an amazing meeting to witness. We met and chatted people that drove hours and shuttered their businesses to attend. There was so much enthusiasm and hope around the bikeway and the opportunities it would bring. How has it worked out a year later?
We first stopped at Long Creek, where a year ago we had stumbled into the Stampede Restaurant after the longest stretch of the OWSB and just about ate our body weight in hamburgers and bacon. Tammy, the woman who was running it at the time had great hopes for the bikeway. We were a little sad to hear that she had left, but one of her relatives was now operating the place. When we told the current owner that we had filmed there a year ago for the Scenic Bikeway program she said, “Oh, so you’re the ones to blame for all the cyclists.”
Apparently, they have had a steady stream of cyclists coming through the last few months. “They eat a lot of ice cream and we can’t keep enough in stock.” Although they didn’t keep an exact account, it was noticeable for a small town of less than 200. The cyclists often came in pairs or in groups and would sometimes fill the only motel in town. She told us that some community members had even opened up their backyards and bathrooms to cyclists when the motel was full. They had even seen a family with a young child come through to ride the OWSB. Although the current owner seemed a little flustered at the unexpected businesses when she took over for Tammy, she did seem glad to have customers.
From Long Creek, we made our way through Monument. Right as we entered town, we noticed that the motel on the edge of town had an old bicycle right next to its roadside sign. I was hoping to run into the Philip, the nut farmer that was in our video but he was out of town. It was heartening however to see that a year later he not only had one but TWO bicycles in front of his building to attract cyclists.
We went to the small market in Monument and picked up some food. I noticed that the Scenic Bikeway pamphlets at the entrance of the door. Just as we were leaving town, we noticed two loaded tourists at the town park. I jumped out of the car, perhaps a little too quickly, to ask them about their ride. They were a couple from Chicago who had originally planned to ride the coast, but had heard it was too busy and decided to ride the Old West Scenic Bikeway instead. They said that they were enjoying the ride immensely. When I told them we had made the video a year ago, she recognized us and thanked us for helping promote the ride.
From Monument, we drove out and decided to camp out at Bates State Park because we knew that there would be a good chance of touring cyclists there. When we arrived, we spotted them with all their tents pitched under the outdoor gazebo to avoid the rain. There were two women from Alaska, a guy from Los Angeles, another from Michigan and a Brit. Although they were riding the TransAm they had noticed the Scenic Bikeway signs and were absolutely loving the riding in Oregon so far. Laura and I made a campfire and invited them over and chatted about their trips.
Later that evening we saw a van pull up with a trailer that had two Bike Fridays on the back. Literally every person at the campsite that night (camp host excluded) had a bike and was a cyclist! In the morning we said goodbye to the bike tourists and took our Vayas out on some gravel forest roads in the area. We noticed that the couple with the Bike Fridays were gearing up for their own day ride too. My guess, though I didn’t get to ask them directly, was that they were going to ride some signed portion of the Old West Scenic Bikeway.
After our gravel ramble in the forests we drove up to Austin House Cafe, one of our favorite stops along the OWSB and TransAM route. There we shot an interview with the owners Christy and Jeff to see how things have been since we last saw them. They have operated Austin House Cafe and have been providing awesome service to cyclists for the last 13 years. We’ve heard numerous stories of them opening up when they are closed (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) to cyclists that they see huddled under their porch.
They have a guestbook and encourage cyclists to sign it and are becoming a bit of a destination for bike tourists. In talking to them it was interesting to hear that they have noticed a fair amount of people who are riding the Old West Scenic Bikeway specifically. Another interesting observation was that those that were on the OWSB were more likely to stop and eat than just cross-country tourists. For us, this makes perfect sense having been both cross-country riders and more recreational bike travelers. When you are riding cross-country you have to economize and are probably more likely to pass on certain experiences because of time/budget constraints. When you are doing a shorter loop or more vacation-oriented tour, you are more likely to be leisurely and stop along the way. After some awesome hamburgers and great conversation at Austin House Cafe we pushed off and promised to come visit when we were in the area again.
Our next stop was Prairie City. Last year, we had met Rhianna who was operating Roan Coffee Company. She told us about some plans to have a repair station in the shop. It was awesome to see that she had followed through in a big way! Right outside her shop is a big banner that advertises a free repair stand for bicyclists.
Not only does she have a repair stand and a pump, but a set of tools, miscellaneous small parts, tubes and tires. She told me that she worked with Sellwood Cycles to help assemble their repair kit. If you’re going through Prairie City on the TransAm or OWSB route, be sure to stop by and grab some pastries and espresso at Roan!
This summer marks the first full year that the Old West Scenic Bikeway has been designated and advertised. When we first rode it to film and photograph it, we loved it and knew it was special but wondered if others would make the journey as well. Talking to businesses and people in the small towns along the route it is obvious that it is making a difference. Cyclists are coming out to some of the most remote parts of Oregon to ride their bike and they are spending money buying food and staying in accommodations.
Now, no one is making money hand over fist and retiring in a year just yet, but cyclists are starting to discover Eastern Oregon, ride their bikes there and contribute to those local economies. Just as heartening it is to see cyclists in tiny towns like Monument, OR is to see businesses along the way (who aren’t cyclists themselves) put up a bike banner on their wall or leave a bike by their roadside sign. The Scenic Bikeway program is about bridging that urban/rural divide as much as it is an economic development tool through bicycling. The most gratifying moment for us was to run into the couple from Chicago at the town park. It was great to know that the photos and video we created made them want to take the journey out to Eastern Oregon, that they were having an amazing time and were helping some of the small rural businesses along the way. It’s those moments that give us hope that bicycles can indeed save small town America.