On our first night in Oregon we were greeted by a young maÎtre d’ at the Bridgewater Fish House, in Florence — a converted mercantile store reminiscent of the Oleson’s in Little House on the Prairie.
“So, where are you folks from?” he asks, showing us to our table.
“Really? You’re welcome…” He scratches his head and thinks about it a moment.
“Hey, we haven’t had anyone from there before.”
“Not that I know.”
As if to compensate, he adds: “But we did have a couple from Canada last week.”
“Ireland is a lot further away than that,” we offer.
Everywhere we go in Oregon, our presence baffles.
Most people think we are Scottish.
When we correct them they smile infectiously, then their eyes narrow.
“So how did you end up here?!”
Although bordering California, Oregon is a secret state.
Locals bemoan the fact it is ignored in the national weather forecast.
“The presenter’s head always gets in the way.”
Inconspicuous it may be, but it is a state rich in landscape and physical attractions — from the Pacific coast to the Alvord Desert, with towering volcanoes and forests teeming with rivers and gorges.
Oregon is also fast developing a growing reputation for viticulture and alternative living.
We undertook a clockwise journey, crossing the state border via the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway.
We stopped first in Florence, with its charming, old-style ‘western’ town.
And huge sand dunes lie on the bank opposite, across a spectacular Art Deco bridge.
Travelling north, we stayed two nights at Cape Kiwanda, in Pacific City, where a dramatic haystack rock sits out to sea.
Breakfast at Lori’s Village Coffee Shoppe, down the road, offers customer favourites: ‘Don’ likes two ‘softies’ (poached eggs) with his English muffin; ‘Chuck’ opts for ‘Biscuit & Gravy with two eggs on top’; and, in memory of ‘Jake the Dog’, all dog owners get toast scraps for free.
Inland, temperatures rise a whopping 15 degrees. We spent two nights in ‘The Vintages’, a trailer park located in the wine-growing heart of Willamette Valley.
“Fifty years ago, before the first Pinot Noir vines were planted, it used to be wheat fields and nut trees here,” says Bill Baines, a sculptor who worked in counter-intelligence during the Vietnam War.
Bill was walking his Old English Bulldog, ‘Lady Gwyneth’, around the chrome-plated trailers that date back to the 1950s.
The Vintages is the only RV resort of its kind in Oregon.
Seufert winery, in Dayton, is a 10-minute walk. And in the Dundee Hills nearby, Susan Sokol and Bill Blosser produced their first Sokol Blosser vintage in 1977.
Emily, the chef, showed us around the attractive new tasting room; we sampled Estate Rosé, Evolution sparkling wine, and several Pinot Noirs.
“The grapes just want what the people want: cool nights, warm days.”
She shook her head – outside temperatures had reached 38°C.
What we did next was a complete contrast to wine-tasting: we attended an elite rodeo in neighbouring St Paul, on July 4!
“On the count of three, we want all you folks to give us your best yee-haw,” urged the announcer.
“We celebrate freedom, Americana, and of course our country’s birthday…”
Contestants competed in bronco riding, calf roping, bull riding, and steer wrestling. The women (‘Rodeo Queens’) had to be content with barrel racing.
In the state capital, however, people are surprised when we tell them that we attended the rodeo – Portland, you see, is a city on the move: diverse and progressive.
When you arrive there, you are confronted by a multitude of bridges which present a bewildering and beautiful sense of movement.
The moniker ‘Bridgetown’ is apt, so too ‘Beervana’, owing to a slew of craft breweries.
Food is also a speciality. Food & Wine Magazine has named Portland one of the ‘best places to eat’ in North America, and www.Time.com called the city ‘America’s new food Eden’.
We found excellent restaurants, all promoting local produce.
Portlanders also love books.
A wonderful representation is Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookstore, which occupies an entire city block.
Literal connections exist for fans of The Simpsons too.
Matt Groening, the series creator, grew up in Portland and he used the city as inspiration. We smiled when we turned a corner onto a street called ‘NE Flanders’.
If you have time, visit Washington Park. A free shuttle takes you from the Japanese Gardens to Oregon Zoo, which makes clever use of its forest location.
Next door is the World Forestry Center; almost 50 percent of Oregon lies under forest cover, so its inventive exhibits were a great discovery.
We then drove the stunning Columbia River Scenic Byway to reach the state’s tallest mountain, Mt Hood, which stands at over 3,400m.
We hiked as far as McNeil Point, although the majestic, snow-capped summit is reachable during summer months by less experienced climbers.
A six-hour drive further east will take you to Wallowa Valley, the treasured home of the Nez Perce tribe, who were once led by the formidable Chief Joseph (after whom the town Joseph takes its name). A humiliating treaty, signed in 1863, compelled the Nez Perce to flee their lands.
Blessed with abundant wildlife and natural beauty, the much overused ‘awesome’ is apposite here.
An eyrie next to our lodge was home to golden eagles, and many wonderful trails weave through the alpine terrain.
Hurricane Creek caught our fancy, and a trek to a confluence of rivers called Slick Rock.
At Wallowology, on Joseph’s main street, you can sign up for a free ‘discovery walk’ with the retired Forest Service biologist, Ralph Anderson.
Brimming with boyish zeal, the smiling 60-year-old has oodles of information about the locality (“there are lots of cool little critters”) and the Nez Perce tribe’s place in it.
As he chews on Tumble Mustard, then Sweet Sage and Cleavers, a volunteer asks: “Do you ever go grocery shopping, Ralph?”
Our visit to the region coincided with the Fishtrap writing festival.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Timothy Egan, discussed his non-fiction work, including a new book on Irish revolutionary and Civil War general, Thomas Francis Meagher.
We met Timothy afterwards; he was dumbfounded to find “real Irish people” in this remote part of the States.
Finally, we travelled south towards California, to an even more isolated area.
Frenchglen is a tiny settlement named after Peter French, a notorious rancher from the late 1800s.
To get there, you drive empty patches of desert road, passing Jackass Mountain and dirt tracks with names like Calamity Lane.
“We have a population of seven ‘real people’,” declares John Ross, the owner of the eponymous coach-inn.
A signpost indicates that the nearest towns are Burns (60 miles) and Fields (53 miles, in the opposite direction).
John recommends we hike Little Blitzen Gorge, a 6.5km stretch that rises steeply near the source.
You cross Blitzen River at a point that merits the removal of your boots.
My girlfriend rubbed her cold feet afterwards.
“No wonder it was chilly,” she says, “it’s a river named after a reindeer.”
Steen is a fault-block mountain that stretches for 80 kilometres.
A bizarre and otherworldly place, a gravel road brings you right up to the summit — before you realise it you stand at almost 3,000m.
If you are fortunate, the thickets of cloud dissipate to allow a view of the basalt chasms and a distant hollow basin, the Alvord Desert,
We reach it the following day, stopping off first at the Hot Springs and then driving out on to the cracked sandy earth.
The desert is in fact a 19km by 11km dry-lake.
Clouds hover over the beast that is the Steen Mountain, but then stop.
Our experience is made all the more eerie by a swirl of dust devils and a congregation of glider pilots that had gathered there.
After three nights in this strange and beautiful outpost, we sign the address book.
John Ross chuckles: “You folks are the first Irish ever to stay here.”
We drove from San Francisco. However, Aer Lingus offers flights to Portland International Airport, with a stop off at New York’s JFK Airport.
See www.aerlingus.com for details.
Travel Oregon provided Geoff with accommodation at: The Riverhouse Inn, in Florence ( www.riverhouseflorence.com ); the Inn at Cape Kiwanda, in Pacific City ( www.yourlittlebeachtown.com/inn ); and Wallowa Lake Lodge, in Joseph ( www.wallowalakelodge.com )
1. Ned Ludd ( www.nedluddpdx.com )
2. Blossoming Lotus ( www.blpdx.com )
3. Crema Coffee & Bakery ( www.cremabakery.com )
In Pacific City:
1. Pelican Pub & Brewery ( www.yourlittlebeachtown.com/pelican )
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