Travelogue: Baker City, Oregon, March ’09

Ever since our friend Kina and her husband moved to Baker City to open a pizza restaurant a few years back, we’d been saying, "We’ll come for a visit" every so often, but there never seemed the time for it. Distance was a major culprit; Baker City is about 230 miles from Bend, a good hour farther than we’re used to traveling for a weekend.

But we kept hearing about Kina’s amazing pizza, and we’ve been especially curious about that section of Oregon, so over spring break we made definitive plans to visit.

The drive turned out to be not as bad as we’d feared it could be; we made it in about four and a quarter hours, if memory serves, and that was with a few stops. The weather was nice on the drive over, and that section of Eastern Oregon through the Ochocos and Wallowas is extraordinarily scenic—arguably one of the prettiest routes in Oregon.

Passing through Mitchell (48 miles east of Prineville), we stopped to see the only thing of any note in the town: Henry the Bear. Yes, right there in the middle of nowhere, there is a bear in a cage.

Henry the Bear, Michell, Oregon

According to the (worn and peeling) sign, Henry is an American Black Bear who was born on a bear farm in Iowa. His owner, Hugh Reed, will also apparently wrestle the bear on occasion.

No, I am not making this up, nor will I debate the ethics of, well, any of it. It’s small town Americana, what are you gonna do?

Are next stop was in John Day, where we were planning on having lunch. It had been awhile since I’d been to John Day, so I wasn’t sure what was there that would be convenient—the GPS listed a Dairy Queen and a Subway, but you can never be sure: when you’re visiting towns in Eastern Oregon with fewer than 2000 people, it’s like the land that time forgot. You might be lucky to find an Arctic Circle or a Kentucky Fried Chicken that didn’t get the "KFC" name memo.

I needn’t have worried. Right at the western edge of town is a shiny big McDonald’s.

John Day and Prairie City (both just over 1000 people and only about 12 miles apart) are the last "major" towns before you hit Baker City. By contrast, when you roll into Baker, you hit a relative metropolis: 10,000 people and Interstate 84. (Not even Bend has an Interstate!)

We checked into our motel (by the Interstate on the east side of town) and then set off to find Paizano’s Pizza (in the northwest part of town). Turns out it was very easy to find—but then I’m guessing most places in Baker City are easy to find. Rolling up north on 10th Street, the restaurant stands out really well—bright, maroon with green trim, and a big sign with lights.

Unfortunately, I for some reason never took a picture of the building itself. Suffice to say, it looks like what an old-school pizza parlor should look like, both inside and out: lots of seating, TVs on the walls with sports on, an arcade game and a pinball machine in the corner, counter service, and people having a good time. You can get a good sense of the place from their Flickr photo stream, but here’s a picture that was too good not to take:

Paizano's Pizza - the men's room toilet

Yes, I took a picture of a toilet. I’m classy like that. That’s what’s staring at you in the men’s room when you walk in. Think you can use the bathroom with that guy giving you the eye?

It’s the little things like this that makes these trips worthwhile. And for the record, Kina wins. Her restaurant with its creepy toilet man restroom is awesome.

Paizano's pint glass

Dinner was at Paizano’s, of course. I had to take a picture of the pint glass (with beer in it, naturally) because of the logo, but what I actually ate for dinner was the barbecue chicken stromboli.

How was it? Let’s just say I would use the letters O, M, and G to describe it. Seriously, it was so good that I literally could not stop eating it. I blame the barbecue sauce. All of us had similar sentiments about our dinners.

The next day was lunch: giant slices of pizza with drink combos. Maybe a salad. But their single slices are cut from their 24-inch pizzas, so are freaking huge. One’ll do ya. I had a slice with the can of PBR (one of the lunch deals). You can’t go wrong with pizza and PBR.

Of course, when we left Sunday we bought a giant 24-inch pizza to take home for dinner:

Paizano's giant 24-inch pizza

We were eating for days.

The rest of Baker City, you ask? Oh yeah, we did do more than just eat Kina’s food…

Downtown Baker is picturesque and charming. The central feature of downtown is the historic Geiser Grand Hotel, which at one time was considered the finest hotel between Salt Lake City and Portland (back when Baker was a booming mining and agricultural center of the Pacific Northwest).

Geiser Grand Hotel, Baker City, Oregon

Over 100 years old, and renovated and re-opened in the mid-90s, the Geiser Grand is famously reputed to be haunted. Visitors can check out the lobby and the basement area, where they have meeting areas along with bits and pieces of Baker City history on display. We looked around but didn’t see (or hear) any ghosts.

Old bottles on display at the Geiser Grand

Baker City has a microbrewery, too: Barley Brown’s Brewpub, and you just know we went there. Twice. I wrote up both visits on The Brew Site here and here, so I won’t reiterate my review here, other than to say, it was good. One of the best dining options in town (besides pizza, of course).

We wandered the downtown a bit, doing some browsing and shopping, and I have to mention Bella Main Street Market: a boutique kitchen-gift-food-wine store that is definitely one of the star attractions downtown. They have kitchen items, knick-knacks, gourmet foods, a decent wine selection, a decent beer selection, gifts of both a serious and silly nature, candy, and much more.

On Saturday we visited the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, located 10 or so miles outside of town. Their description says they offer "living history demonstrations, interpretive programs, exhibits, multi-media presentations, special events, and more than four miles of interpretive trails." The day was chilly and windy, so we didn’t walk the trails, but the Center is still an enormously fascinating place to visit, especially if you’re a history buff or have any interest in the frontier lifestyle and/or the Oregon Trail. It’s full of exhibits like this:

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center exhibit

There is also a bunch of hands-on activities (especially appealing for kids) and a special kids area. The people there were very helpful and gracious, and I highly recommend visiting.

But the truly amazing aspect to the Center is this:

Oregon Trail marker

That is a marker for the Oregon Trail. Not just your typical "Something Was Here" touristy signpost planted in a general area of interest, this is a marker for the actual Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail

The passage of tens of thousands of wagons over many years’ time had worn near-permanent ruts into the land itself, still present over a hundred years later: hardpacked earth that leaves a clear, easily-followed path whereupon many, many people made the passage West. This portion is accessible from the highway just below the entrance to the Interpretive Center.

I’m not sure it’s possible to convey how amazing it is to be able to engage such a real, visceral chunk of history without having done it in person.

That’s right: I walked the Oregon Trail. And I didn’t die from dysentery.

That largely sums up our trip to Baker City, though I will note that one drive home, we ran into snow in the Wallowa Mountains going over the pass: almost enough so that you would need chains. Not quite, but almost.

2 thoughts on “Travelogue: Baker City, Oregon, March ’09”

  1. Glad you had a good time. How did you cook your par-baked pie? I hope you had a pizza stone.

    AND – I didn’t know about the bear in Mitchell. Is it hard to find? I’ll have to stop next time I’m going through there.

    See you again soon!

  2. In the shot you took of the bottles, apparently on glass, the spoon appears to be levitating — could represent the apparition you were looking for in the GG…

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