Progress, as the concept is usually defined, implies that society is constantly advancing, in the sense that we have more and better things.

We expect all this improved stuff to make our lives easier, if not better — the two adjectives are not synonyms, although we often confuse them.

Sometimes progress truly does equate to improvement, of a sort.

Phones lost their cords and now we can talk to our friends wherever we go and find out that they’re doing nothing except talking to us.

(And watching videos of people riding bicycles off roofs and landing in swimming pools, which certain people find endlessly entertaining. Me, for instance.)

Cars swapped carburetors for computers, and now they hardly ever leave us stranded. Besides which they will warn us when we drift into the wrong lane, and even apply the brakes if we are distracted by watching videos of people riding bicycles off roofs and landing in swimming pools.

But I had occasion this past summer to consider that there are exceptions to the irresistible tide of progress, and that some of these exceptions would, I’ll wager, surprise most people.

I was walking with my daughter, Olivia, on a rock-strewn path beside the west fork of Pine Creek, in the Wallowa Mountains near Cornucopia.

This in itself was not particularly unusual, to be sure.

I enjoy hiking in the Wallowas, and trails in the mountains tend to be strewn with rocks, what with the mountains being made of rocks and all.

What struck me as passing strange is that, had we come to this place half a century ago, we could have driven rather than walked.

We were, in effect, regressing — walking backward, as it were, along one of those series of pictures depicting the evolution of humanity, from a hirsute Neanderthal brandishing a crude spear on the far left, to a man wearing a business suit on the far right.

Olivia and I were walking to meet her mom, Lisa, who was finishing a backpack trip with her friend, Meggan Hills.

The trail to Pine Lakes starts near the Cornucopia Lodge, about 11 miles north of Halfway. The distance to the lakes is about 7 miles.

But I have a hiking guidebook, published in 1969, that tells quite a different tale about this place, and trail.

“100 Oregon Hiking Trails” by Don and Roberta Lowe is a classic, and probably the first example, at least from Oregon, of the type of hiking guide that has become ubiquitous in the decades since we decided as a society that walking in the woods, depriving ourselves of central heating and become quite smelly besides, constituted a vacation rather than a disaster likely to involve cannibalism.

The Lowes included the Pine Lakes trail among their 100, the key difference being that in the late 1960s the trailhead was not at Cornucopia but rather 2 miles farther up Pine Creek, at the Queen of the West Mine.

In the normal sequence of events we would expect the opposite. We would expect that over half a century the road would have been bulldozed deeper into the mountains, making for a shorter hike — which is to say an easier one.

Indeed, something very much like that happened around here, and involving a much more prominent road than the one along Pine Creek.

In the late 1960s Highway 30, a two-lane route, was the thoroughfare through Northeastern Oregon. But over the next decade or so the highway was supplanted by Interstate 84, which was officially completed on July 3, 1980.

This is the familiar trajectory of 20th century America — if two lanes are good then surely four lanes are better.

(And considering the increase in traffic volumes, the doubling of lanes, if not trebling, in most cases is warranted.)

The transition along Pine Creek from road to footpath is of course a minor episode by comparison — a road to an abandoned gold mine hardly rates with a freeway that’s part of the great network of auto arterials that carry the lifeblood of America’s economy hither and yon.

Yet it occurred to me, as Olivia and I trudged up the path, that the fate of the Queen of the West road is not unique in Baker County.

There are a few roads on the east side of the Elkhorns, northwest of Baker City, that have degraded so severely over the past several decades that they’re impassable to most vehicles.

The roads along the North Powder River, Rock Creek and Pine Creek are still officially roads rather than trails. But each one more resembles a dry stream bed than a road at various places (except when it’s raining — then they resemble active stream beds rather than dry ones).

But this hasn’t always been the case.

I’ve talked with longtime local residents who remember riding in low-slung station wagons to the Red Mountain and Summit Lake trailheads, both along the North Powder River Road.

The only way a station wagon is making that trip today is dangling from a helicopter, or possibly by way of a very large slingshot or trebuchet.

I think that on balance these changes are for the good.

There’s no shortage of roads, certainly. And most of us would benefit from walking a couple of extra miles now and again. If nothing else it’s pleasant to get around without worrying about smashing a shock absorber or denting a rocker panel.

Anyway it strikes me as an interesting counterpoint to the prevailing trends, these isolated cases, and places, where we’ve become more primitive rather than more advanced since 1969.

In most respects that year seems distant and even quaint in its sheer analog simplicity — vinyl records and 8-track tapes rather than CDs and mp3s, three TV channels instead of 300, “large” fountain drinks that would hardly slake the thirst of a sugar-dependent child in the era of the Big Gulp.

Although we did get to the moon that year.

And we haven’t been back since 1972.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.