This is where I go to be free. It’s also where I go to remember. As I drive over the one-lane bridge that crosses the creek, I see that Tumalo Reservoir has magically filled since my run here last month, and the beauty of it startles me. I park my car and stash the key in the pocket of my running shorts as I walk along the dirt road I will soon be running. Peeking through the Douglas fir to glimpse views of the birds nesting along the water, I think about the way places have their own storyline, even as you are going about living your own.
This is my 12th year in Oregon — my 12th spring fading into my 12th summer. Water levels rise and disappear, and with them the wildlife. The butterflies are out; the vibrations from my footsteps encourage them to rise. The dirt roads have been free from snow long enough to be sandy underfoot in parts. I come upon the first wide-angle view westward unobstructed by trees, and there they are in the distance: the Cascade Mountains. There are many beautiful places to run in Oregon, but out here I can run 8 miles on smooth dirt roads and always feel their presence. With all that open space, it’s only a few short miles before my mind opens too, and my first trip to Oregon comes back to me.
Origins: “Welcome to Oregon”
The compact Ford Ranger truck was a snug choice for a 1,000-mile road trip for our family of four. My sister and I had grown enough since our last road trip that there was no way to avoid our knees touching as we faced one another in our fold-down back seats — bad news for two tweens looking for any excuse to start a fight.
After the 12-lane freeways of Los Angeles gave way to more wide-open roads and we ran out of things to fight about, we took turns craning our head between the two front seats to catch a glimpse of the changing landscape. It was during my turn when the “Welcome to Oregon” sign came into view. My mom, not one to leave any landmark unexplored, demanded a family stop and was pleasantly surprised not to be met with the customary family groan. Unfolding ourselves from the minicab, I felt my shoes crunch into the gravel shoulder as I squinted into the glare beyond the Oregon border, looking for signs of what might be different.
Lake Billy Chinook, specifically, was the pull for the Fleshman family into the great state of Oregon. My great-grandpa and his wife, both WWII veterans in the U.S. Air Force, purchased a bunch of remote land in the ’60s, before the lake was dammed for recreation, and settled there with big plans. He created a grass airstrip, sold off lots alongside it to aviation lovers and built a general store. Together they lived in a mobile home called the Olympian, right off the back of the store, while they got to work on the rest of the dream, which diabetes would eventually cut short. He died before completing his plans for a hotel, campground or residential communities, which left a vacuum where the local economy could have been — but a family legacy remained. When his wife’s passing required someone to come and spread her ashes on the land, it was our Ford Ranger that hit the road.
Training: Open Dirt Roads
Lake Chinook Village may have looked much different than my great-grandfather’s vision, but it called to us just the same, a family seeking connection with the land and with one another. With two small children of my own now, I can understand why my parents jumped at the chance to spend 15 hours in a cramped pickup to settle the affairs of a virtual stranger. We were running away from the organized sports and the slumber parties and the endless number of things that spread a family thin.
The land called us in with its ranches, wildlife and a general store decorated with taxidermy that still provides ice, gas, and snacks to a slow and steady drip of interesting folks coming through the doors.
For my working-class family, this land in Oregon was an escape but also a symbol of bold risk-taking and vision, something none of my great-grandfather’s descendants could afford to do on that scale. But all the same, it served as proof that it wasn’t beyond us to attempt something bold. With a post-run popsicle dripping in one hand and the other tracing the Olympian emblem on the side of the mobile home, I could feel that legacy. Perhaps that boldness could find its way to a young runner like me who was just beginning to wonder if she could one day race with the best in the world.
Summer vacations spent training for high school cross-country season on the open dirt roads of Central Oregon felt like freedom. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the snowcapped Cascades, crisp enough to reach for. They spread out behind the juniper-peppered horizon like cutouts in a diorama.
I will never forget the feeling of being eyed by a cougar, miles from home at dusk. I froze and felt it disappear above lichen-covered boulders once piled by volcanoes and carved by glaciers. The full-body goosebumps erased any imagined barrier between me and wild things; it was the moment I knew I was an animal.
I’ll never forget losing track of time in the lava rock with my sister, dusting off imaginations that were on the verge of disappearing.
I’ll never forget running down the grass airstrip at full speed while shaking a box of ashes overhead into the wind, looking over my shoulder to see them trailing behind me in the air like smoke. I’ll never forget the lid popping off mid-shake, and my mother picking death out of my eyelashes and scalp for days.
Dreams: As Big As the Sky
Oregon gave my family a different set of values for what to hang on to and what was worth letting go of, and we took them home with us. I took them with me to Stanford, where I raced on the cross-country and track teams. When an Oregon boy showed up offering to drive us to beautiful trails to run on the weekends, in his green van that was growing mushrooms on the floor mats, a group of us always said yes. On my adventures with Jesse, I felt transported to the girl I was that summer in Central Oregon: at ease, playful, free and wild. We became a couple, and our relationship always involved a future fantasy of returning to Central Oregon, not only to live but to contribute. But until we could, we brought Oregon with us wherever we went and visited whenever we could.
As a pro athlete, I traveled the world racing the fastest runners on the planet. I’ve raced on the track, roads and trails, and of all the beautiful places on earth, no place pulled me closer than Oregon, with its mixture of freedom and connection. Oregon is where I moved a dozen years ago to spend the best years of my professional racing career before retiring in 2016. It is where we started our business, Picky Bars, almost 10 years ago. It is the community we create jobs in, and the state whose manufacturers and suppliers we seek out as partners as we grow. Oregon is where we are raising our kids, and is the community we heavily rely on. And it is the place where I continue to grow up on the run, on the wide-open dirt roads with the Cascades always just there, rising above the juniper, or on the single-track trails bristling with sagebrush and manzanita, winding between rows of conifers, climbing alongside streams and lava flows to mountain lakes that I plunge into.
When I head out the door to coach the next generation of elite runners and Olympic hopefuls who train with me, I am aware of legacy. I stand before them with my goals incomplete, like my great-grandfather’s, but as a living example that coming up just short doesn’t take anything away from the value of a bold attempt. As a teen, I ran my fingers across “the Olympian” logo; though injuries kept me from becoming an Olympian athlete, one of them may become one. In me, they put their hopes for what is possible, and I send them into the mountains, and into the open spaces, and into the community, where they are building their own love affair with Oregon.
5 Favorite Central Oregon Trails
The openness of Tumalo Reservoir immediately makes you breathe easier. Within the first mile, you take a turn westward and there are the Cascades, one after the other, as though a cake maker dolloped frosting playfully along the tree line. After several miles in the trees, you wrap back around along the top of the dam to see the mountains exposed once again, only bigger, with a gentle, sweeping downhill gravel road back to where you started.
Tumalo Falls, North Fork to Happy Valley
Single-track trails climb and wind through thick forest, following alongside a stream that delivers cool air and waterfall after waterfall to stop and admire. The trail levels off after 4 miles at Happy Valley, at which point you will want to stay forever, but instead you’ll eventually turn back for home the same way or tack on a loop through Bridge Creek for a change of scenery.
Deschutes River Trail, from Meadow Camp to Benham Falls
This gently rolling, mostly smooth single-track trail follows the Deschutes River and has a little bit of everything. Peaceful stretches of glassy water are punctuated by roaring rapids; a huge lava flow gives way to groves of aspen; the terrain changes often enough to keep you excited for what awaits around the next bend. Turn around and head back the way you came whenever you can manage to tear yourself away.
Smith Rock State Park
One of the most beautiful (and popular) sites in the state of Oregon, here you can run a nice smooth trail with the Crooked River on one side and a towering wall of rock peppered with climbers on the other. Runners who crave vert can run up and over Misery Ridge for fantastic views and an up-close-and-personal visit with Monkey Face, and there are plenty of additional trails to make your run as long as you’d like.
Lemish and Charlton Lakes Loop
The farther out you go on the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway, the fewer people you will find on your runs, and this is the trail I seek out when I crave solitude and desire a little bit of everything from nature. The part where Charlton Lake reveals itself after miles of anticipation gives me chills every time.