Saturday, June 18, 2016

Travels with Chili: Mountains of Fun, Part One

When I heard about a conference in Eastern Oregon that was going to be discussing the food system—meaning how people get food to put on their tables—in that rural region of the state, I knew I had to go. You see, I've been wanting to get up to speed on the issues faced by people living in our farther-flung communities, so different from the you-want-it-you-got-it life many of us live in Portland with Whole Foods, New Seasons and even Fred Meyer stores within a few minutes of our homes. (Read my report here.)

The one-day conference was in La Grande, about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Portland, and I decided to take a couple of days to explore the area and talk with a few producers if I could. When I contacted the visitors' association about who I should talk to, they generously offered to host a portion of my lodging for the trip but let me pick the places—perfect since I'm not a big chain hotel type traveler.

On Chappy at my grandfather's ranch.

Now, you have to remember that Eastern Oregon, particularly the triangle defined by La Grande, Baker and Enterprise with their beautiful valleys, gorgeous mountains and miles of grain fields and grazing cattle, are an intimate part of my history. My mother's family had a cattle ranch in North Powder, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, where we would spend vacations. As a young "horse crazy" girl, I would ride with my grandfather to the ranch in the mornings in the hope of getting in a ride on the quarter horses they used for working cattle. My aunt taught swimming at Radium Hot Springs (sadly now closed), one of the many geothermally heated pools in the area, and another aunt had a rustic log cabin at one of the smaller lakes in the Anthony Lakes system, with a huge woodburning cookstove that looked more like a 30s-era American car with its chrome curliques blackened with smoke and age.

Yes, I do go back a ways in this country.

Ordnance Brewing in Boardman.

So we hopped in Chili, our faithful Mini Clubman, and headed down the highway. Once you're through the Gorge, always a stunning drive, and past The Dalles, there's never been much reason to stop—other than for gas or to use the rest stops—on the straight shot of I-84 to Pendleton. But I'd heard of a new brewery that had opened in Boardman with the amusing-yet-slightly-horrifying name of Ordnance Brewing, being as it sits on the western edge of the equally adorably named Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot, the spot the government stored the nerve agents and other fun weapons they had prepared for WWII. You can still see the hummocks of the storage bunkers dotting the tumbleweed-strewn landscape between the freeway and the Columbia River.

A stop at The Prodigal Son Brewery in Pendleton.

Anyway, back to the brewery: we stopped on the way east but arrived slightly before it opened and so decided to hit it on the way back, taking our hunger and thirst a few more miles to Pendleton and The Prodigal Son Brewery. I'd written about it on a previous trip, and we again found it to be an easy stop to make, with the same great beer and hearty food, as good or better than that served at most pubs in Portland. Refueled, we were ready for the climb up Cabbage Hill's 6% grade and into the Blue Mountains, which would then take us down into the Grande Ronde Valley a little over an hour away.

The Historic Union Hotel.

The freeway over the mountains follows a series of streams, tributaries of the Grande Ronde River that will eventually flow into the Snake River, itself a tributary of the Columbia. We were headed to the tiny town of Union for the night, ten miles outside of La Grande. I'd booked a room at the 1920s-era Historic Union Hotel, refurbished in a comfortably charming, unfussy style by owners Charlie Morden and Ruth Rush.

Charming touches in each room.

Charlie, a keen collector of antique cars, has a classic Rolls Royce parked out front and is the hotel restaurant's chef. Ruth, who greets guests and sees to the gardens and upkeep of the building, showed us to the Davis Brothers' Room, one of the hotel's 15 themed rooms. It's a tribute to Union-area ranchers Pete and R.B. Davis, who lived in the hotel for many years. An interesting historical note: a stipulation of the brothers' inheritance from their family was that they would lose the entire fortune if either one ever married; they remained bachelors the rest of their lives.

Hot Lake Springs near Union.

Another option for lodging is Hot Lake Springs, once a derelict turn-of-the-century health spa near Union that was purchased in 2003 by Joseph-area bronze sculptor David Manuel and his family. Seven years and $10 million in upgrades later, it reopened as a bed-and-breakfast inn featuring massage and mineral springs spa packages, and has many of Manuel's sculptures dotting the grounds.

This area's hotbed of hot springs also includes the municipal pool at nearby Cove, a tiny town nestled against the hills ringing the valley. The pool is located directly over a natural hot spring, and is constantly refreshed by the flow of mineral water at a rate of 110 gallons per minute, keeping the pool at a constant and comfortable 86 degrees. Kids particularly love it because the bottom of the deep end of the pool is made up of the rocks lining the spring, fun for diving.

There's a nearby golf course, a wilderness excursion train and a tram at Wallowa Lake, but what draws folks to this valley—some fall in love with it and move permanently—is the plethora of year-round outdoor activities like hiking, camping, skiing and biking in the Wallowa Mountains, Hells Canyon and Anthony Lakes areas. Check back for more installments in this series, coming soon!

Read Part 2 about Baker City, plus murder and mayhem on a bison ranch! You can also read about my camping trip to the Imnaha River near Joseph, Oregon.

No comments: