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Bend Oregon described in 1997 by writer Christine Barnes


Lattes meet lumberjacks in Oregon. Move over lumberjacks, it’s time for tourism
July 1, 1997
By Christine Barnes

It is summer in the mountains. I know this because the guys in ponytails are wearing short-sleeved T-shirts to work. Construction is booming in Bend, Oregon, on the eastern side of the Cascade Range, and the hunks with hammers are strutting their stuff by day and hanging out at the micro-breweries at night. They are building because people are coming. Lots of people. The population of Bend went from around 18,000 in the late 1980s, when my husband and I mulled over the idea of joining the migration north from California, to more than 32,000 today.

The draw of a town that has been written up in Sunset magazine and called the "Aspen of the Northwest" by Newsweek magazine is simple enough -- it's beautiful. Sunrises push a flush of pink over the high, dry landscape and then bounce off the snow-covered volcanic peaks to the west. Lava flows cut through nature's canvas like a brush stroke only Munch could execute. Clean air just that much thinner at 3,200 feet to make the heart pulse a bit harder and the adrenaline pump with more passion. There are springs releasing the icy aftermath of winter into rivers and lakes. And there's Bend, a nice, small town with good schools, safe streets and even a river running
through it.

And hiking trails wind out of Bend along the river and into the Deschutes National Forest. Rail lines built to carry 100-year-old trees to the two once-buzzing mills in Bend are now cleared of tracks and used by mountain bikers, hikers or firefighting teams. The Cascade Lakes Highway (a scenic byway), just west of Bend, opens in late spring or early summer when the plows can clear the road and offers access to dozens of lakes, the Sisters Wilderness Area, campgrounds, fishing and a fascinating ecosystem. Recreation and tourism have replaced timber, and the flow of tourists and transplants sometimes overburden the resources, much like the felled trees once clogged the Deschutes River while on their way to be processed at the mills.

At first glance, the estimated 5 million tourists who visit annually may be unimpressed by the town. Highway 97, the north/south corridor that divides Bend, is an all-American strip of motels and commercial property generously dotted with fly fishing shops and big box discount houses. Flowering berms with plants spelling out BEND are at each end of the strip -- small buffers to the onslaught of commercialism. They have always held a special spot in my heart; they are the town's living signature and the place where I did a cartwheel when we decided to move here, the place where I threw out my 40-something-year-old back.

Turn west off the strip to get to the heart of Bend. There lies the original downtown and park area, where a thriving business community with shops, brew-pubs, coffeehouses and restaurants backs against Mirror Pond, a dammed portion of the Deschutes River. The backdrop is the snow-capped Cascade Range.

I live on Bend's West Side, a few blocks from the park. Those who call this neighborhood home believe it's the "cool" side of town. It is an odd assortment of tiny mill shacks from the town's lumber days, now being renovated or torn down, and lovely original and new knock-off Craftsmen-style homes with a smattering of apartments next to newer ranch houses.

Almost every morning I walk down to Royal Blend Coffee shop, get my cup of brew and continue with my dog, Shelby, for our morning wake up. Across from Royal Blend is Newport Market, a supermarket turned high-end specialty food store with wine tasting in the afternoon. A stop here between 4 and 6 p.m. any evening will give you the perfect cross section of Bend: "boarders" (a term used for anyone under 30 with tattoos, body piercing, baggy clothes, questionable employability and big, fat eat-shit grins), women from the new exclusive neighborhoods picking out Portobello mushrooms and polenta for the evening fare and "Westsiders" who shop here and then begrudgingly sneak into Costco for bulk, low-priced items. The construction and landscape workers come in later as the summer sun finally drops behind the Cascades.

High-priced homes are affixed to Awbrey Butte, which rises to the north and around exclusive golf-course communities (prices are all relative; you can still find a nice house on a big lot with a view for around $250,000). The push and pull of money and what it can and cannot change is the undercurrent that is forming the town's new psyche. New money wants to be welcome and projects like the Boys and Girls Club building rehabilitation is flush with funding. Goodwill and skepticism abound in almost equal portions. The Rotary, Kiwanis and other service organizations are much like in other small towns, and volunteerism is not just a White House slogan.

It is almost always sunny on the eastern side of the Cascade Range. At 7 a.m. on a June morning, my husband and I are going skiing at Mount Bachelor, 25 minutes away, a pastime we can enjoy through July 2, when the Pine Marten chair will close for skiers and open to sightseers. While it is a typical summer day, snow still covers the slopes. That snow will get mushy by 10 or 11 a.m., when we'll head back to town. We can still get in half a day's work at our home office. It is the kind of jump-start to a morning that is the luxury of living here. I order my Obsidian Dark (named after the black lava that once oozed through the region) at Royal Blend and I'm ready to observe
the beginning of a typical Bend day.

While I do the usual doctoring of my coffee, I look around. The only fat in the entire shop is found in the pastries tucked behind glass. Calf muscles twitch and pairs of Nikes, Tevas and hiking boots move through the coffee line in an un-choreographed warm-up. Bodies stretch and flex and eyes blink from the already bright sunshine. The surrounding mountains, lakes, rivers and cliffs have created the stage for outdoor enthusiasts worthy of an Oscar for set design. And the locals' passion for partaking is as focused as Tom Hanks' Forest Gump running across America. This passion for participation is driven by bodies toned and taut from either working out at places like the Athletic Club of Bend or simply working. Unlike their city counterparts, who are ready to conquer the Stairmaster and corporate structure, they are tuned to conquer the great outdoors. The implements are skis for snow and asphalt, bicycles, climbing ropes and crampons, kayaks and canoes. While some get defensive at the notion that much of the population lives to play, it is clear by the number of utility vehicles with sport racks that it is so.

I am beyond the age to take this sort of thing seriously, but I enjoy being on the fringe. These are not the "outdoorsmen" of my childhood. To begin with, there are women, too. You see them in Outside and Backpacking magazine, not in Field & Stream. They drink lattes and microbrews, not Bud and whiskey chasers. They're no longer armed with hunting rifles. The only politically correct fishing pole is a fly rod. They wear blue jeans or flashy, skin-hugging running tights, fleece vests and hiking boots or running shoes. Forget that neon orange hunting vest. If you're planning on visiting here, drop by one of two Columbia Outfitters outlet stores in town and buy the same
androgynous ensemble.

That morning, my new friend Jordan is working his final shift at Royal Blend before joining the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger for the summer. His goal is to hike all the visible peaks on the Central Oregon skyline: North Sister (10,085 feet), Middle Sister (10,047 feet), South Sister (10,358 feet), Broken Top (9,175 feet), Mount Bachelor (9,075 feet). Between the two last peaks, there's a 10-mile stretch. He and two friends will not attempt this over the summer season. Not in a month. Not in a week, but in one 24-hour period. But because Jordan will hike South Sister regularly as part of his job, he's in training and getting paid. "I'm just lucky to have work that feeds my passion," he explains as he fixes a double, short, nonfat, extra-dry espresso. Only four others have attempted and been successful at this particular feat. (That feat being the hike, but Jordan does make a mean espresso.)

I hiked South Sister -- it took all day. It is not a technical climb, but a tough one. The peak is covered with cinders spewed by the eruption and eroded by ice and snow. Glaciers or simply tenacious snow fields fill the crevices. You slip and slide straight up or straight down on the rust-colored and razor-sharp cinders. The payoff is spectacular -- a snow-filled caldera whose lip was once a snarling volcano. Surrounding you are the Sisters Wilderness and Deschutes and Willamette National Forests, and milk-blue glacial lakes and mountains dotted by man's timber harvest.

Jordan is just one example. The lure to participate brings out a kind of craving. Who can resist an area where you can ski in the morning and play golf in the afternoon? Where else can you hike to the rim of a volcano by day and hear classical music in the park by night? Why not scale the pinnacles of Smith Rock State Park and then attend a Sports Injury Clinic that evening? Or go river rafting and then cap off the day at Vince Genna Stadium, where you can watch the Bend Bandits play baseball.

You are probably asking yourself, how do these people support themselves? Well, Bend is the region's commercial and medical center for everything east of the Cascades. There are doctors (many orthopedic surgeons), physical therapists, lawyers, accountants, bankers and lots of real estate agents. The Central Oregon Community College is a big employer. Tech firms sprout up as the lumber jobs dry up. There are start-up companies, and a regional airport transports the dozens of people who live in Bend but make a living elsewhere. However, the king of the job market is tourism. And there are hundreds of "early" retirees with money to fund their fun.

For those who visit as a respite from city life, there are half a dozen resorts. Bed-and-breakfast homes like Sather House and Lara House are in the heart of town, and the Bend Riverside Motel (ask for a unit with a river view) and dozens of locally owned or chain motels offer something for everyone.

The goal of many visitors is to mingle with the locals. Munch and music, the free outdoor concert in Bend's Drake Park, July 10, 17, 24 and 31, is the perfect place to meet the townies, and the Cascade Festival of Music featuring everything from Vivaldi to Copland, Aug. 23-30, is its more refined Drake Park counterpart.

But it is the Fourth of July weekend, which kicks off with a pancake breakfast in Drake Park, that is true Americana without some of the overly sentimental trappings. After breaking the cardinal "low-fat rule" and gorging on pancakes and pig parts, everyone strolls downtown to stake a curbside claim to observe one of the best parades in the country.

Bend's under-12 population is out in force with their four-legged friends in tow for the Fourth of July Pet Parade. Now, there have been some fish bowls mounted on red wagons spotted in the mass of kids and pets, and while ponies, llamas and even camels partake, mostly mutts and their masters steal the show. If you get tired of the parade, check out the crowd. Two years ago a couple next to us pulled a sofa out of their van, plunked it on the curb and enjoyed the spectacle, barely acknowledging that they had become part of it.

Come nightfall -- and that's pretty late in these parts, the local newspaper sponsors a substantial fireworks display off the peak of Pilot Butte, one of the hundreds of cinder cones that look like blisters on the landscape. This year will be particularly colorful: There are lots of leftover fireworks not ignited from last July's festivities. The sparks caught the Butte on fire, the show was halted and the firefighters went to work. Locals looked on in amusement as flames roared around the Butte, and visitors stood by both mystified and horrified. "Why do they light fireworks on a tinder-dry desert volcano?" was the question of the night.

Well, because. Because it's Bend and because we like it. And that's about that. Maybe it's something about freedom of expression. July 1, 1997.

Christine Barnes is the author of "Central Oregon: View from the Middle" and "Great Lodges of the West." In her former life as a daily newspaper editor, she worked at the San Francisco Examiner and the Oakland Tribune.


Note: We moved to Bend in 1993 when the population was about 23,000. More than 60,000 people live in Bend today, July 19, 2005! --Webmeister




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