My rearview mirror revealed spidery snowdrifts peeking through the afternoon fog. Ahead, cows grazed on a wide prairie under a big, sunny sky. Soon, the road I was on twisted into a canyon made of rubbly, reddish bluffs and dropped 2,200 feet.
My ears had popped by the time I reached the tiny creek-side town of Imnaha, just shy of 11/2-mile-deep Hells Canyon. It felt like the edge of Oregon.
“The only people coming here are either planning on it or lost.”
That was Sallie Tanzey, owner of the Imnaha Tavern, a 111-year-old saloon and store at the end of the paved road. Inside, I found a cooler full of freshly caught rattlesnakes for an upcoming feed, chicken gizzards on special for $5, and, at the bar, cowboy-hatted locals.
I was here, as was everyone on this May afternoon, for the beer and conversation.
“We have the coldest beer in the county,” Tanzey said while pouring a local IPA into a vintage stainless steel pitcher. She has run the place with her husband for a few decades. “Yeah, these pitchers look the part, and they keep the beer colder.”
Oregon beer, it should be noted, is very good. And not just microbrews from Portland, a six-hour drive west.
A handful of recent eastern Oregon brews, including Baker City’s award-winning Barley Brown’s, have prompted two new regional beer festivals (the Eastern Oregon Beer Festival in La Grande and the Brews by the Blues Festival in Milton-Freewater). Distribution for most beers, however, sticks close to home.
So my friend Kirk Jones, a photographer from Portland, and I decided on a road trip to sample eastern Oregon’s best pints while taking in the alluring mountain life wedged between Interstate 84 and the Idaho and Washington lines.
In a few days, we spied Oregon Trail ruts in hills of sage, listened to outlaw country bands play for locals in Pendleton and grabbed lunch in Lostine, where two Portland foodies recently refashioned a century-old tavern into a farm-to-table restaurant with local beef and chickpea-brown rice burgers.
It was too early in the season to ride the tram up Mt. Howard, so we hiked Hurricane Creek Trail. As we reached a waterfall spilling down a mountainside, a stray golden Lab darted by us. Then I realized it was a cougar.
Beer, of course, anchored the trip. We made about a dozen pit stops, at Main Street breweries with more than 20 pours, horse-farm tasting rooms and brewpub gardens facing granite peaks.
At Terminal Gravity, a buzzing brewpub in Enterprise, we bumped into Kari Gjerdingen, an Indiana-expat brewmaster sipping an ale at the bar. She runs Mutiny Brewing, six miles away in the tourist hub of Joseph, and is a regular at TG. Yet she insisted that neither is the area’s best drinking hole.
“You have to go to the Imnaha Tavern,” she told us. “It’s like a town meeting when you walk in.”
So we were in Imnaha. Sitting, drinking, eating and chatting away the afternoon. Taking our time while wishing for more.
Beer may break barriers in most places, but out here, it’s instant community. Even if you don’t get the gizzards.
Where to hoist a beer in northeastern Oregon
Barley Brown’s is one of Oregon’s most celebrated beers, with a brewpub and taproom off Interstate 84 in Baker City. Most of its 80 medals hang above the taps for its couple of dozen brews, including the Pallet Jack, gold medal winner for best American-style IPA in 2013. 2190 Main St., Baker City;  523-4266, www.barleybrownsbeer.com
Here are a few other breweries in northeastern Oregon:
Terminal Gravity: TG is in third place “after home and work,” as one regular put it. Families eat burgers at tables on the lawn; inside, you’ll meet bearded brewers drinking off-hours and writing groups discussing serious matters over pints of IPA. 803 S.E. School St., Enterprise;  426-0158, www.terminalgravitybrewing.com
Mutiny Brewing Co.: Mutiny, a onetime bakery on Joseph’s Main Street, is an enviable place to sit outside, drink, eat pub fare and gaze at the Wallowa Mountains. Try its winter seasonal Haze Maze, an excellent IPA named for a run on Joseph’s community-run ski slope. 600 N. Main St., Joseph;  432-5274, www.mutinybrewing.com
Dragon’s Gate: The Belgian-style brewery offers tastings, winery-style. It’s set in a barn on a farm south of the flourishing wine scene in Walla Walla, Wash. You’ll spy Valiant and Anne, two Dutch Friesians that partake in beer parades. (“Knights rode these kinds of horses into battle,” said Jennifer Gregory, who runs the brewery with her husband, Adam.) It’s open 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays, when you can sip on the lawn while horses frolic. 52288 Sunquist Road, Milton-Freewater;  215-2621, www.dragonsgatebrewery.com