Why would a man holler "I love Hood River!" in a crowded movie theater?
The answer begins 25 years ago, when this town was in trouble deeper than the river that flows past it.
To visualize those bad old days, you need to look beyond the brightly colored grown-up toys bobbing in the water, ignore the escalating home prices, pay no mind to those funky business nameplates--Shred Threads, for instance, or Hypnotherapy of Hood River--along Oak Street.
By the mid-1970s, state and federal agencies had begun to tighten limits on logging in the forests of the Northwest. This was good for the animals, the trees and all who embrace them, but after decades of dominating life along the Columbia River, the timber trade began to decline, hobbling local economies along the river and beyond. For Hood River, about 60 miles east of Portland, this bad news was coupled with the decline of the local fruit industry.
When the Diamond Fruit Cannery closed in 1982, taking with it more than 140 jobs, Hood River was left with an empty hulk of a building in the heart of its downtown. That was just a few blocks from the boarded-up Hood River Hotel on Oak Street, formerly the second-fanciest lodging in town. Meanwhile, the former fanciest lodging in town was limping along as a retirement home.
What, people wondered, would keep Hood River alive?
The answer blew in on a gust from the Columbia Gorge. In the early 1980s, a handful of pioneers imported windsurfing, a sport that thrives on the 50 mph winds that routinely rake the dam-tamed waters of the gorge. These winds, devotees say, make Hood River the most exciting place in the continental U.S. to sail a board on inland waters. From Portland and far beyond, thrill-seekers came for the big fun of dancing on the Columbia in these winds.
Soon, in the same sort of ideology-free revolution that transformed Moab, Utah, from a dwindling uranium mining town to a mountain-biking mecca around the same time, Hood River reinvented itself.
The populations of Hood River city and county are still a modest 5,000 and 20,000, respectively. But the summer tourist season hums, several equipment manufacturers have set up shop, and the average home price--$174,384--has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
"We came here for one summer and never left," Karl Mikkelson, the store manager for Mountain View Cycles, told me. He and his wife, Carol, have been here 10 years.
The new Hood Riverites, not always admired by the old Hood Riverites, are easy enough to spot: Their cars are laden with roof racks, and they wear fleece sweaters the way lumberjacks wear stubble.
So on a morning in the spring of this year, as I came rolling off Interstate 84 onto Hood River's tiny main drag, a local might presume I was here to hitch up a board and join all those damp daredevils out there in the 50-degree water.
But no, not me, not this trip. I was here because there's more than one way to play in Hood River. In recent years, locals and visitors have awakened to a variety of outdoor options.
In the wildflower-strewn hills that loom over the gorge, there's enough mountain-biking on forest trails and country roads to keep three bicycle shops busy, peddling bikes at prices that can top $5,000.
Along the Hood, White Salmon, Klickitat and Deschutes rivers, all of which flow into or out of the Columbia within 30 miles of here, you'll find kayaking, canoeing and rafting. At least four outfitters run daily trips in the summer through waters that range from placid to Class IV rapids. There's fishing too.
Less than an hour away on 11,235-foot Mt. Hood, the Timberline Lodge's lift facilities were upgraded in 1996 to improve virtually year-round skiing and snow-boarding slopes. The slopes, part of the 8,500-foot Palmer Snowfield, usually close for maintenance the first two weeks of September but otherwise remain open through the seasons.
Automobiles have been banned on a 4.6-mile stretch of the historic Columbia River Highway that reopened last fall between Hood River and Mosier to the east, leaving a spectacular car-free path for runners, hikers and road-bikers, complete with twin tunnels.
And down on the Columbia itself, the barge pilots who still work this river now have more to worry about than miscreant windsurfers. These days kite boarders share the whitecaps.
Like the windsurfers, the kite boarders carve through river waters on boards with fins. The new rigs, which started showing up on the river about three years ago, catch wind in "kites" that are really more like parachutes. With wind power so efficiently harnessed, kite boarders can leap 10 or 20 feet out of the water, even on days when relatively dead air leaves windsurfers river-bound.
Several kite boarders told me that learning kite boarding is a matter of weeks or months, not the months or years that it can take to master windsurfing. I spent more than an hour one afternoon just watching them.
"Kite boarding is to windsurfing what snow boarding is to skiing," said Paul Burton, chief financial officer of the 4-year-old kayak retailer Outdoorplay, at the east end of Oak Street.
Meanwhile, word of Hood River's versatility is traveling fast. From July 14 to 22, the city will be invaded by the Subaru Gorge Games, a multi-sport competition that is to be televised in two one-hour shows on Aug. 26 and Sept. 2 on NBC. Events include 24-hour mountain-bike racing, small-boat sailing, climbing, kayaking, kite boarding, outrigger canoeing, trail running, windsurfing and "adventure racing," a sort of pentathlon-plus that combines mountaineering, trekking, mountain biking, paddling, climbing, rappelling and navigation.
To start, I took a walk. About 15 miles up the gorge from Hood River, just south of the Dalles, the Tom McCall Preserve at Rowena Plateau offers an easy 2.2-mile trail. (The McCall preserve is named for the Oregon governor who, in 1971, suggested publicly that out-of-state travelers should visit Oregon often but should not move here.) Following the path, I crossed meadows brilliant with purple and yellow flowers (lupine and balsamroot, I later learned), drawing near to a ledge looking west up the gorge.
Across the river on the Washington side, the Klickitat River slipped into the Columbia, and eight layers of basalt lay visibly stacked in the cliff face, like a cutaway diagram for beginning geologists, beneath the town of Lyle. As I stood on this plateau, I admired the evidence of the repeated lava floods that helped create the gorge and the plateau more than 10 million years ago. Ice floods helped too.
Next came biking. For $6 an hour, I rented a mountain bike from Discover Bicycles and dropped into low gear to slowly climb the winding road to the old highway.
Once you reach the hikers-and-bikers-only part of the road (formally, the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail) it's a fairly flat path. The smooth blacktop, lined by thick forest, follows the ridge line, occasionally opening to broad views of the gorge.
About a mile into the path, I realized that I was clinging, for no reason but habit, to a 2-foot-wide channel at the right edge of the pavement. After that, I began hogging the highway. It's liberating to ride a bike with impunity down the dead middle of a gorgeous road. Pedaling in late afternoon, I crossed paths with just a couple of runners and no other bikers.
One factor in Hood River's unique status is its geography. The city is poised between climatic extremes. Cascade Locks, about 20 miles downriver to the west, is like a rainforest, getting about 75 inches of rain yearly. Hood River gets about 30. Go upriver 20 miles and you're in the Dalles, a prairie city that gets just 12 inches of rain in an average year.
In my meandering I kept crossing from sun to drizzle, then drizzle to sun, glimpsing rainbows then losing them. (Rain is rarer in summer.) I spent most of a day wandering the Hood River Valley, where pear orchards blanket the hills, interrupted here and there by apples and cherries. At a point on the road between the town and the orchards, the temperature drops and Mt. Hood juts into the sky.
I spent most of another day investigating the Washington side of the river, where similar foothills lead up to similarly scenic Mt. Adams. Washington Scenic Route 14 runs alongside the river, a terrific road with water on one side and the great green and stony slopes of the gorge on the other.
It's a strange exercise, spending your days marveling at the wildness of the wind and immensity of the gorge, then curling up in a hotel room to read in Blaine Harden's "A River Lost" about harnessing the Columbia. The wind may be wild, but as Harden makes clear, the waters of the Columbia have been not just tamed but in many ways denatured by the series of hydroelectric dams that give the Northwest much of its electricity.
That's not the only strange thing about wandering the gorge. About 20 miles east of Hood River, on the Washington side off Route 14, a full-size copy of Stonehenge stands on an otherwise bare bluff. It looks like a hallucination. But it's really more of a misunderstanding.
The replica was bankrolled by Sam Hill, an entrepreneur who in 1914 built a grand chateau, Maryhill, just up the road. When his wife rejected it, he turned it into an art museum, eventually endowing it with Rodin sculptures and artifacts from his good friend Queen Marie of Romania.
Why the stone tableau? The Web site, http://www.maryhillmuseum.org/about.htm#ston, says that Hill, a Quaker pacifist, was "mistakenly informed" that the original Stonehenge was a sacrificial site. With that in mind, Hill conceived the replica as a memorial to local soldiers fallen in World War I, to illustrate that "humanity is still being sacrificed to the god of war." The point was too subtle for me. Hill's landmark just made me smile, in the same goofball way I smile whenever I think of the reconstituted London Bridge at Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
Hood River itself has its share of quirks too. On my first stroll around, I found that the Trillium Cafe was closed in observance of the owner's daughter's third birthday. A few blocks up, a former bank building houses the International Museum of Carousel Art, a collection of carousel horses, pigs, ostriches, tigers, steers and roosters amassed by county residents Duane and Carol Perron.
The Columbia Gorge Hotel, which has recovered its status as the fanciest lodging in town ($159 per night and up) boasts a flower-filled garden, its own 200-foot waterfall and waitresses who salute the waterfall symbolically each morning by pouring "honey from the sky" onto biscuits, raising the ladle high overhead. I had this four-course breakfast one morning. It was entertaining and plenty filling, but not worth the $27.50. (Hotel guests get the breakfast as part of their room rate.)
The Hood River Hotel, reopened in 1988, is once again the second-fanciest lodging in town. I spent two nights there, paying just under $100 nightly. I was satisfied with my room and entertained by the vintage elevator but annoyed by the absence of off-street parking. Guests park on the street and in many cases must feed meters.
I spent another night at the Panorama Lodge, a log-cabin bed-and-breakfast about four miles outside of town with a priceless view across the orchards toward Mt. Hood. Innkeeper Lee Foster, who charges $65 to $80 nightly for six rooms that share two baths, fed me a hearty breakfast that included salmon, bought for $3 a pound from a Native American capitalizing on his fishing rights.
Travelers who want to combine striking views with privacy and low prices should think hard about the Meredith Gorge Motel, which sits just down the road from the Columbia Gorge Hotel, treating its guests to tremendous gorge views, rooms done in low-key '50s kitsch (and still fresh from a major 1998 renovation) and prices less than $80 per night.
Meanwhile, the new Hood River keeps overtaking the old Hood River. Hanel Lumber, the last lumber mill in the Hood River Valley, closed last September. In the old cannery building that closed in 1982, tenants include the Fullsail Brewery and Da Kine sports equipment.
About 20 miles east in the Dalles, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Wasco County Historical Museum has been open since 1997, providing interactive displays and an engaging overview of local natural and human history, including a windsurfing display that allows you to stand on a board and see yourself projected onto the Columbia.
Just across the river in Bingen on the Washington side, a 1938 elementary school has been converted into the Bingen School Inn and Columbia Gorge Outdoor Center (a hostel with gym and climbing wall). And just up the hill in White Salmon, Wash., craftsman Ray Klebba has set up the White Salmon Boat Works, producing custom canoes, sea kayaks and rowboats in a workshop on Jewett Boulevard, the main drag.
For visitors more interested in passive locomotion, the Mt. Hood Railroad's antique cars roll Tuesdays through Sundays in July and August and Wednesdays through Sundays in May and September along a 22-mile route through the Hood River Valley to tiny Parkdale, then back to the old depot in Hood River. (The four-hour round-trip costs $22.95 for adults.) From June 19 to Sept. 29, the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler leaves daily for two-hour excursions on the Columbia (adults $14.95) from Cascade Locks, 20 miles west of Hood River.
But if passive pastimes are a priority, Hood River may not be your place. This point was underlined for me the second night I was in town.
The Skylight Theatre and Pub, across the street from my hotel, had no first-run movie to show that night. Instead, the boss had given over the evening to Richard Hallman, an emergency-room nurse at the local hospital who recently returned from a climbing trip to Nepal. Hallman wanted to give the community a show of his vacation slides. In Hood River, this was an entirely sensible idea.
The community not only turned out but also paid $4 a head and filled the theater for one show at 6:30 and another at 8:15. Hallman handed out raffle prizes, donated a part of revenues to one of his hospital's outreach programs, and told us about his three weeks of climbing and trekking. Nobody much cared about the door prizes. They came for the pictures of the Himalayas and details of the climbs.
Hallman closed the show with dramatic pictures of sunbeams spilling into the Columbia Gorge and offered some dedications. One was to fellow Hood River resident and well-known windsurfer Mark Williamson, who had recently died of complications after a snow-boarding accident. When the image of the 31-year-old windsurfer flashed on the screen, the theater grew quiet.
"I'm not sure a night like this would work in Iowa," said Hallman, who came to Hood River from the Midwest. "But you know there's a reason we all choose to live here."
About then, somebody in the audience hollered "I love Hood River!" In a few moments, the lights came up, and everyone headed home to rest. Tomorrow, surely, would be another day of big play.
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Guidebook: Playing on the Hood
* Getting there: From LAX to Portland, Ore., nonstop service is available on United and Alaska. Direct service (with one stop but no change of plane) is available on Southwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $204. Hood River is about 60 miles east of Portland on Interstate 84.
* Where to stay: Daily rates below may change with availability and season. Rooms include private bath unless otherwise noted.
Hood River Hotel, 102 Oak Ave., Hood River; telephone (800) 386-1859 or (541) 386-1900, fax (541) 386-6090, Internet http://www.hoodriverhotel.com. Forty-one rooms, beginning at $49.
Columbia Gorge Hotel, 4000 Westcliff Drive, Hood River; tel. (800) 345-1921 or (541) 386-5566, fax (541) 387-5414, http://www.columbiagorgehotel.com. Forty rooms, beginning at $159.
Panorama Lodge Bed & Breakfast, 2290 Old Dalles Drive, Hood River; tel. (888) 403-2687 or (541) 387-2687, http://www.panoramalodge.com. Five rooms sharing two bathrooms, beginning at $65.
Meredith Gorge Motel, 4300 Westcliff Drive, Hood River; tel. (541) 386-1515, fax (541) 386-3968; http://lodging.gorge.net/meredith/. Twenty-one rooms, $49 to $79.
* Where to eat: Stonehedge Gardens, 3405 Cascade Drive, Hood River; local tel. 386-3940. Romantic setting and best meal I had in town. Dinner entrees $14.95 to $24.95.
Brian's Pourhouse, 606 Oak St., Hood River; tel. 387-4344. From burgers and pizza to spring rolls. Dinner $7.50 to $20.
6th Street Bistro & Loft, 509 Cascade Ave., tel. 386-5737. Northwest and Asian cuisine in a pleasant upstairs-downstairs setting. Dinner $10.95 to $19.95.
* For more information: Hood River County Chamber of Commerce, 405 Portway Ave.; tel. (800) 366-3530 or (541) 386-2000, http://www.hoodriver.org. Also, try http://www.gorge.net/recrate.html or http://www.traveloregon.com.
Also, Oregon Tourism Commission, 775 Summer St. N.E., Salem, OR 97301-1282; tel. (800) 547-7842 or (503) 986-0000, fax (503) 986-0001, http://www.traveloregon.com.