US Highway 26 starts near Astoria, Oregon, and wanders through both countryside and cities, including Portland and Boise. The route traverses a historic native trail through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, as well as parts of the Oregon Trail, finally reaching Interstate 80 in Nebraska.
Somewhere in the middle of Oregon, Route 26 passes through the tiny town of Mitchell, Oregon. The population is only 142 souls, in a surprisingly empty Wheeler County, where the entire citizen base is 1,500.
I discovered Mitchell on my recent visit to the spectacular Painted Hills, one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. I was so inspired by my visit in April, that I planned another itinerary that included all three units of the Monument, and my friend Dave flew with me to the Redmond/Bend Airport to begin the adventure.
We found ourselves taking a break from Route 26 in Mitchell one evening, in an Airbnb a block away from an establishment called Tiger Town Brewing. “Tiger Town” was the nickname the teetotalers on the hill above called this rough and tumble street, historically full of bars and brothels. It’s much quieter there these days, with a Mercantile, Feed and Seed, and curio store anchoring the only major intersection — this is a no stoplight town.
The two of us were weary from a long day of exploring every color of rock imaginable, and moseyed on down to check out the brewpub self-described as “refined” on the website. Outside Tiger Town Brewing, four road workers, their reflective vests hanging over the backs of the metal chairs, were sipping martinis with an elegant twist of lemon, while a man and woman decked out in high-end biking gear enjoyed a hummus plate and pints of beer.
We took a table inside the small establishment, formerly a 1950’s-era service station. Eric, one of the owners, got us set up with menus, and offered a few specialty cocktail selections — a boulevardier (whisky negroni) and wood smoked manhattan. Although the food quality in these parts, when restaurants are actually open, is remarkably excellent, this dining experience was next level.
Next level because over the course of enjoying delicious food, including the best potato salad I’ve ever eaten, we got to know an entire village of people. Eric clearly fosters a joint where everyone can feel welcome and enjoy quality without pretense.
Cheryl, the potato salad maker, ran in to pick up a to-go order and sat at a high-top table waiting for the food. She barked at someone to get her a beer and gave the impression she wasn’t gonna take any shit from anyone. Eric yelled from across the bar, pointing to me, “He loves your potato salad!”.
We proceeded to enjoy a conversation with Cheryl about the San Juan Islands (where Dave lives) and Seattle. Her face scrunched up a bit when she asked about all the strife impacting the Emerald City these days. I responded back that despite the problems, Seattle is my home and I love it there. Her face lit up when she responded, “I get it. People wonder why we live out here in the boondocks… but I love it and it’s home.”
As the craft cocktails kept coming, we discussed The Plague, as Eric called it, in a uniquely non-political manner that welcomed space for different points of view. Although Covid took him down for two weeks, his approach was very relaxed, as he explained, “People around here are always just a little closer to death, being 100 miles from a hospital, so we get used to taking care of each other and remaining open to the outcome of the risks present in rural life…”
The topic pivoted to rattlesnakes, and Dave’s fear of them. This time, Olivia, the 20-something server, chimed in, sharing that the reptiles prefer to stay away from humans, and anyway, they rarely actually inject venom into humans. Dave asked, “Then, how can you live in a place with so many of them?” Olivia and Eric just shrugged.
Enter Dan, coming in after a long drive from Portland in his newly refurbished 1967 Toyota camper van. Initially it seemed as if he was a local — Eric and Olivia didn’t skip a beat welcoming him and getting him set up with refreshments — and our tables were situated in such a way that conversation flowed easily between us.
Dan was taking a quick road trip to see the Painted Hills before starting a job creating huge windmills designed to exist 100 miles off the Oregon and California shores. The conversation shifted to the environment and I chuckled out loud.
Never once did we discuss the weather.
The capstone of the evening was a discussion around LGBTQ+ people and comfortability traveling in rural parts of the country — like many of the small towns along Route 26. I noted I saw the LGBTQ+ friendly icon on the Google description of the place, which made the whole scenario seem much more inviting and Eric replied, “We just try to treat everyone here like humans.”
In fact, this experience, for two gay guys, was entirely human. No pretense or judgement, except for comparing the outstanding fare to some of the best restaurants in Portland or Seattle.
Just as our dinner conversation — a meaningful connection — meandered through diverse terrain, Route 26 weaves through the fabric of our country. It passes through cities, rises high upon mountains, and travels over bridges that span deep canyons.
Our delightful evening at a special watering hole reminded me that, beyond all of today’s divisive energy demanding we take sides, human connection can still be authentic and meaningful — especially when breaking bread together.
I entered Mitchell, Oregon with some stereotypical bias, and it was extremely refreshing to be taken on a winding route through an evening that pushed no agenda. My travels all over the world have taught me that being different is not bad. But perhaps the most important lesson was a reminder this concept lives and breathes in our own beautiful part of the Route.
To Eric and his fabulous staff at Tiger Town Brewing. Thank you. I’ll be back. And if you want, we can just talk about the weather.
What would be your Route 26?