Sometimes you have to head east to feel like you’re in the Old West. Just 12 miles from the Idaho border, the humble town of Vale offers a big slice of centuries-old Oregon heritage. It’s served against a classic frontier landscape of sagebrush, dusty roads and an old-timey downtown. Located along the Malheur River, Vale was the first stop in Oregon for settlers on the Oregon Trail. Today, you can still walk along the original wagon ruts at Keeney Pass and reflect on the famous journey.
But what drew us into Vale was a scavenger hunt of sorts. Scattered around the small town are detailed, colorful murals depicting Vale’s vibrant history. In all, there are 30 murals, each one telling an unique story of Vale. Some are easy to find, painted onto prominent buildings, while others require some extra sleuthing (or taking advantage of one of the handy free maps).
Vale’s Outdoor Art Gallery launched in 1992 as a way to boost tourism and revitalize the town’s economy. Every year, the Mural Society paints a new piece — which means my scavenger hunt could never end — and preserves the existing ones. All of this is done through donations from the community and events like an annual live auction and street sale.
You can start your scavenger hunt anywhere in Vale — some may even count the metal signs at the town’s borders as part of the search. Each artwork signifies a piece of history. Next to the Wadleigh Park swimming pool on Main Street is a mural of the footbridge to the Natatorium, one of Vale’s two naturally hot wells built in the late 1800’s. Still today, the hot water is used to heat homes and the swimming pool. This mural is a particularly fun stop due to the old U.S. Air Force jet parked on the grounds.
Newcomers to Vale might be surprised by the rich cultural diversity in the town’s heritage. The murals on Court Street show some of the different ethnic groups that contributed to Vale: Basque sheepherders, Japanese-Americans sent to work on farms during World War II, Mexican migrant workers and the native tribes who first cultivated this land.
You’ll be hard-pressed to pick a favorite; there’s a mural for every mood. Giggle at the castor oil painting outside the Valley Family Medical Center, feel solemn staring at “Death on the Oregon Trail” on Washington Street, or do a double-take at “The New Arrivals,” which looks different depending on where you stand. True fans can even become a permanent fixture of the Outdoor Art Gallery. For a pretty penny, you can be painted into the “Patriots on Parade” scene on B Street.