It is close on forty years since I first read "The Oregon Trail", a vivid account by Francis Parkman of how that northern route was opened up by the pioneers heading for the Pacific coast of the USA - the folk whose fortitude and courage and sheer dogged determination created a nation.
It's true that Parkman concentrated on the early stages of the route and had personal experience of only a small part of it. But, being published in 1847, it has the merit of authenticity, giving first-hand accounts from the pioneers, the guides and trappers and hunters. Long before the legends and myths of "The Wild West" were spun. Long before Hollywood manufactured history, this account is the real thing.
And the reason I dwell on it here is that, to appreciate fully states such as Oregon, you need to know about that past and be aware of how the Oregon of today was created.
It is so easy to fly into Portland - as visitors from Britain inevitably do - and travel around the state on its wide, well engineered and well maintained roads without a thought to how those roads were originally carved through an alien landscape. Having said that, however, I must acknowledge that great swathes of Oregon remain pretty much as they were when those first pioneers from the east gazed upon them. There are mighty forests which serve to show how puny humans are. Mountains and lakes and landscapes to take your breath away.
Given a dozen days - or less, which is often the case nowadays - what would I want to see in Oregon?
The starting point would have to be Portland which is Oregon's largest city, though - to the surprise of most visitors - not its capital. That is Salem, some miles to the south along Interstate 5, beyond the Willamette Valley and, along with Newburg and Eugene, at the heart of the state's wine growing region.
You should give Portland as much time as your schedule allows, for it has fine parks and museums, in particular the Oregon Historical Center
and the Portland Art Museum, as well as a fine selection of shops and restaurants. After that, my choice would be to travel south on the Interstate, then head west to the coast.
Arguably, highway 101, which runs along America's Pacific Coast, is one of the most spectacular "corniche" roads in the world. It is certainly spectacular in Oregon, running in sight of the ocean for close on 400 miles, skirting wilderness areas and tracts of National Forest. Of its many excellent seaside resorts, I would certainly recommend Florence. To the south of the resort, mile after mile of wide, high sands form the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Other sights you shouldn't miss in the area include Haceta Head Lighthouse and the natural grotto of Sea Lion Caves.
Head south along highway 101, past North Bend, Coos Bay, Cape Blanco and Nesika Beach, and you'll reach Brookings, virtually on the state's border with California. This is a good place to end a day's journey along the coast, and pause before heading inland.
And it's at this point that you begin to appreciate what those early settlers had to contend with as they made their way west. You may be in a comfortable car or touring coach speeding along a well-maintained road, but you are passing through forest and wilderness areas to a region of lakes and rivers. My choice for an overnight stay would have to be Kiamath Falls, which is a hub for all kinds of water sports, fishing and hunting. The Favell Museum of Western Art and Indian Artifacts is a "must see" if you want to know more about the early history of this, the "Beaver State".
After that, the whole of Oregon beckons. However, the region to the east of Kiamath Falls and Altamont, beyond the Fremont National Forest, is something of an "Empty Quarter". It is vast and imposing with lakes, rivers and mountains, but very few inhabitants. My choice would be, instead, to head north east on route 97, with the intention of overnighting at Bend. The road has been christened the Volcanic Legacy All American Highway, which is something of a mouthful, but reflects local pride in its natural beauties.
Oregon's largest ski area, around Mount Bachelor, lies to the west of Bend in Deschutes National Forest. If you've time to do so when in Bend, go to the Lava Lands Visitor Center which will give you an insight into the creation of a lava forest - formed as lava cooled around fallen trees. It is an unforgettable sight in the area now designated the Newberry National Volcanic Monument.
From Bend I would head north east through more extensive forests, making for places like Baker City and La Grande, both of which are on Interstate 84. Bearing in mind my comments at the beginning of this article, you should make a note to visit the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City as well as its historic area.
The route is taking us back to Portland. If time allows, you could visit the "Cowboys Now and Then" museum in Union, a small country town a few miles from La Grande, and also stop off at Pendleton, where the Umatilla Reservation and Tamastslikt Cultural Institute are located.
There is so much to see in Oregon that a single visit couldn't do more than scratch the surface of this splendid state. It is not well known to visitors from Britain, but certainly well worth exploring.
America As You Like It offer a 9 night fly drive to Oregon from £1097 per person including flights, car hire and 9 nights accommodation. Price based on 2 people sharing. For more information contact 020 8742 8299, [email protected] or visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com
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THE OREGON TRAIL
John Carter, former presenter of television's Wish You Were Here programme and avid globetrotter dips into the many delights of Oregon - one of America's most tantalising states.