First Stop: Chemult

My dad wasn’t a “father-son” type of man—I can count the things we did as a twosome on one hand. And because hunting mule deer in the sagebrush country of eastern Oregon was one of those, I have strong memories of Chemult. That was the mid-1960s. Logging primed the town’s economic pump. Gas stations lined both sides of Highway 97, which split the unincorporated populace neatly in two. The Wagon Wheel, with its big neon sign, was our usual stop for bacon ‘n eggs, a place where you could sense camaraderie at the counter in the pre-dawn darkness of a freezing Saturday morning. Other times we’d pull into the Chalet, across the highway, but the magic was the same.

Nearly everything I remember from that time is gone. Both The Wheel (they lost the Wagon when the sign was modernized) and the Chalet survive, but they’re lean shadows of their former selves, like old boxers who won’t admit it’s well past time to quit. I’ve stopped in both, and the spirit is gone. Along with the gas stations, Chevron the sole remaining Name Brand. After the State widened the highway several years ago the town’s decline became even more obvious. The For Sale sign in the window of the once-bustling A-frame drive-in on the north end of Chemult has been a permanent fixture ever since.

I changed along with the town, trading my hunting rifle for a camera forty years ago, shortly after my father died. My hunter’s heart, it turned out, required lenses instead of firearms.

And so I planted my tripod in front of the peeling paint on an abandoned garage building when I passed through at the end of September, and remembered how Chemult has always been a good place to start a trip.


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