Traveling along Oregon State Highway 19 — the John Day Highway in Eastern Oregon — can be like traveling back in time.
We took the highway south from the town of Arlington. Rolling hills, wind farms and the occasional vehicle. You won’t make great time on this stretch of asphalt. But that really isn’t the point.
Thirty-eight miles south of Arlington sits the county seat of Gillam County. This is Condon, a farming and ranching community of about 700.
“There’s great downtown shopping. There’s history here. There’s culture. There’s beautiful scenic drives, curvy, winding roads,” said K’Lynn Lane with the Condon Chamber of Commerce.
A few years back, Condon took part in a program that spruced up the storefronts along Main Street.
“You’re going to see historic buildings. You’re going to see beautifully decorated facades. You’re going to see character that represents back to the early 1900s. You’re going to see business owners that have been here for 30-plus years and really care about offering you the services that you hope to get,” Lane said.
“People here really care about the town. They care about the community. And I think that it shows in our main street I think it shows just in the communities that are intertwined throughout this region.”
Condon has a golf course, a swimming pool, lodging and an RV park.
It has also produced two Nobel Prize winners: Linus Pauling for Chemistry and a Nobel Peace Prize, and William Murphy for creating a treatment for anemia.
But that’s not all.
“There’s Powells Bookstore in Portland, Condon and Chicago,” Lane said.
Mike Powell of Powell’s Books in Portland built a vacation home nearby, and he visited the Country Flowers store on Main Street.
The Country Flowers store is kind of the community center in Condon. Knickknacks, gifts, flowers and a restaurant.
If you’re interested in a small town 4th of July celebration, you should consider a trip to Condon.
“The town triples in size for the day. It kicks off with a flag raising ceremony. A huge parade. We had nearly 60 floats this last year. Soapbox derby, tricycle races, kids games down at the park. It’s just as old fashioned as you can get,” Lane said. “It takes it back to the days of Norman Rockwell.”
Continuing south on Highway 19, after about 12 miles, you’ll come upon what is left of the town of Mayville.
In about seven miles, you’ll hit the town of Fossil. The county seat of Wheeler County.
Joe McNeil operates the Fossil Mercantile, the social and retail center of town.
“It’s the community center. Everybody comes here. Gets their milk. See somebody they haven’t seen in a few weeks and sits in the aisle and talks for sometimes hours,” McNeil said.
McNeil grew up in Fossil. He moved to Portland and he came back home.
“You get just the small town feel that you probably don’t feel in Bend anymore,” McNeil said. “You can go right above the high school and there’s a public fossil beds where you can, I think, just pay a little fee, $5, I think, and collect fossils. It’s one of the only places in the country that they allow you to keep the fossils.”
Fossil offers easy access to fishing, hunting, hiking and the John Day Fossil Beds Clonal Unit.
From Fossil Highway 218 will take you to Highway 97.
Our trip along State Highway 19 revealed a recurring theme — perhaps the most attractive feature of this alternate route.
“People are friendly. They want you to come back. They want to, you know, make you feel welcome,” said Darla Seale at Country Flowers.
“Everybody is so friendly,” said McNeil.
“Condon is friendly. It’s the people,” Lane said.