This installment in my series of insider guides to great places to visit in the United States focuses on the State of Oregon, a natural wonderland just north of California in America’s Pacific Northwest. The author is my public affairs officer David Edginton, who himself hails from the Beaver State (a nickname adopted by Oregonians because of the admirable qualities of intelligence, industry, and ingenuity demonstrated by the State’s ubiquitous beavers).
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ALONG THE OREGON TRAIL, by David Edginton
Abundant vineyards, apple and pear trees, wind-swept beaches, a burgeoning craft brewery industry, intense physical beauty, an overriding green ethic, and a nearby neighbour intent on dominating the regional economy. No, I’m not talking about New Zealand but about my home State of Oregon.
When I first arrived in Wellington over a year ago I turned to my wife and remarked how amazing similar New Zealand was to my home state. Located in the scenic Pacific Northwest, Oregon is a place of snow-capped mountains, crystal-blue skies, pristine sea coasts, raging rivers, and dense forests. It’s a very special place.
In fact, Oregon is home to a large number of Kiwis who feel right at home in a State that boasts interesting and engaging people, fabulous restaurants, a dynamic arts and cultural scene, and a love for the outdoors that transcends almost all other things. It probably was no accident that the last two American Ambassadors to New Zealand prior to Ambassador Huebner both came from Oregon.
Oregon was originally home to a number of Native American groups including the Chinook, Klamath, Molalla, and Umpqua tribes. You can find their influence in place names and cultural sites and practices around the State. There is evidence that the first inhabitants of Oregon arrived 13,2000 years ago, with numerous settlements throughout the state by 8,000 BC.
The first Europeans to visit the territory were Spaniards, starting with Juan Rodriquez Cabrilla in 1543 AD. Other Spanish explorers followed throughout the 1500s and 1600s, and later British navigator James Cook charted the Oregon Coast in 1778 while searching for the elusive Northwest Passage. French trappers and missionaries began arriving shortly thereafter.
The 1805-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, launched by President Thomas Jefferson, was the first major American exploration into what was at the time called Oregon Country. Later trips, including the famous Astor Expedition, served to firmly establish the overland route from Missouri to Oregon that would become known as the Oregon Trail.
From 1830 to 1870, more than 400,000 settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, businessmen, and their families traveled westward long the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots, a migration that profoundly shaped the development of the western United States. Historical sites from that era remain throughout the State.
I grew up in Eugene, a city of approximately 160,000 people in the western part of the State. Known as the Emerald City because of the beautiful evergreen forests that dot the landscape in and around the city, Eugene was built for those who love the outdoors. Two rivers — the Willamette and McKenzie – intersect the town and offer abundant fishing and kayaking opportunities.
Bounded by Spencer Butte on the south edge of town and Skinner Butte to the north, the town is also great for running and hiking (tramping to my Kiwi friends). On a clear day, which is most days, you can see the mountains of the volcanic, glaciated Cascade Range in central Oregon, the most prominent being the Three Sisters.
Eugene isn’t just about outdoor recreation. There is a dynamic arts scene, great nightlife, and a busy festival calendar, all imprinted with Eugene’s unique character. A particularly good example of what I mean — and one of my favorite annual events growing up — is the Eugene Celebration, a three-day festival held in late summer each year that celebrates the city’s eclectic, funky cultural vibe.
During the Celebration’s long weekend, downtown Eugene is abuzz with music, art, and food, all from local sources. There’s a parade, concerts, and all kinds of great street theater and people-watching. If you have flexibility in planning your visit to Oregon, I would recommend scheduling so that you can attend the Eugene Celebration. It’s a wonderful event that accurately conveys what makes Eugene so special.
This year’s celebration included the Sustainability Village, a series of pavilions designed to highlight businesses, NGOs, and innovations that actively promote sustainable lifestyles in the region and promote choices that reduce the impact of climate change.
The theme is a natural fit, as “Green Eugene” has always been at the forefront of the environmental movement in the United States. In fact, Eugene is known in certain circles as the greenist city in the United States.
One of the highlights of the Eugene Celebration is the selection and coronation of the Slug Queen, who presides over the festival and serves throughout the subsequent year as an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the city.
The Slug Queen competition – the antithesis of a traditional beauty pageant – is a symbol of the open, tolerant, and distinctly non-conformist tendencies of the city and its denizens. The Slug Queen website explains the origins and zen of the pageant quite well:
“The year was 1983. More than 25,000 people had converged downtown for a public celebration of the new Hult Center in 1982, and city officials were trying to launch an annual festival that would similarly bring the community together. The Eugene City Council decided to revive an old celebration, popular in the first part of the century, called the ‘Trail to Rail Celebration’ … but the best name they could muster was the mundane sounding ‘Eugene Celebration’.
“In a tongue-in-cheek protest over the blandness of the name, local popular cartoonist, Paul Ollswang, suggested that the festivities instead be called the more colorful Slugfest … in honor of Eugene’s most indigenous fauna.”
A majority of city leaders ignored the suggestion, however, so a band of civic rebels held a unisex Slug Queen Pageant in protest.
After a couple years of insider selections, the increasingly popular competition was opened to entrants of any gender from the general public. The rules stipulate that entrants should be …
“… tastefully tacky, but not gross or disgusting. Gaudy is good. Slime green is a favorite color. Pretty much anything with a PG rating goes—the wilder, bigger, tackier, sluggier—the better.”
But that’s enough about slugs. A good bit of Eugene’s special vibe comes from its status as a university town.
The city is home to my alma mater, the University of Oregon (UO), home of the Fighting Ducks (our mascot). The university opened its doors in 1876 with five faculty members teaching 155 students. The first graduating class, with a total of five students in all, received diplomas in 1878. From those modest beginnings, UO has grown into one of the premier academic institutions on the America’s west coast with more than 22,000 students from all over the U.S. and 85 different countries.
Seven Oregon governors are UO alumni, as are two Nobel laureates and nine Pulitzer Prize winners. Other famous alumni include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, Nike co-founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, NBC’s Ann Curry, and track star Steve Prefonatine. Today, the UO is also known for its championship athletics programs including its nationally competitive American football team.
No conversation about Eugene would be complete without talking about running. Also known as “Track Town USA,” Eugene holds a passion for the sport that is unparalleled. Considered by many to be the running capital of America, it is common to see people of all ages jogging throughout the year, come rain or shine.
Complimenting the town’s love of the sport, the University of Oregon boasts one of the most successful track and field athletics programs in the country. Oregon track and field alumni have won 18 Olympic medals, including two gold medals and one silver medal in the recent 2012 London games.
Given that culture, it should be no surprise that some of the greatest distance runners in history have called Eugene home, including Mary Decker-Slaney, Alberto Salazar, and, as I mentioned earlier, Steve Prefontaine.
Prefontaine – or “Pre” as he was known to the running world – is considered by many to be the greatest U.S. long distance runner, having never lost a race at Hayward Field, his home collegiate track. “Pre” died tragically in a car accident in 1975 while training for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Many people are unaware of the important connection between New Zealand and the popularization of jogging in America in the 1960s and 1970s. During a trip to New Zealand, Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman was introduced to the activity by legendary Kiwi track coach Arthur Lydiard, and Bowerman subsequently brought it back to America.
The trip inspired Bowerman’s 1966 book, titled simply Jogging, which ignited the running movement in the United States. Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight later went on to co-found the athletic shoe company Nike, which has become an iconic part of the American athletic scene. Nike’s global headquarters remains in Beaverton, on the outskirts of Portland.
Nestled in the shadow of beautiful Mount Hood, Portland is Oregon’s largest city (with approximately 600,000 people) and is widely considered to be one of the most livable cities in America. A vibrant hub for food, music, and art, it boasts world-class cultural institutions including the Oregon Ballet Theatre, Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera and the Portland Youth Philharmonic.
For sports fanatics, the city is also home to the Portland Trail Blazers, one of the premier-level professional basketball teams in the United States. I’ll be honest, though … the “Blazers,” as they are known locally, have broken my heart more than a couple of times over the years.
A required stop when you are in Portland is Powell’s City of Books. Claiming to be the largest independent new-and-used book store in the world, Powell’s has been an iconic part of the Portland intellectual scene since it opened in 1971.
The number and variety of volumes available at Powell’s will boggle your mind. With more than 4 million new, used, rare, and out-of-print books in stock, you are sure to find an interesting volume (or more) for the plane trip back to New Zealand.
Portland is also well known for its microbrew beer, known in New Zealand as craft beer. Portland has more breweries than any other city in the world, more than 40 in total. In fact, we Oregonians believe that Portland is the microbrew / craft beer capital of the world, and there’s more than ample evidence to support our claim.
Some of the more famous local brewers include the McMenamin Brothers, Widmer Brothers, Bridgeport, and Hair of the Dog. You can get my favorite tasty beverage, Widmer Hefeweizen, locally here in Wellington. I highly recommend it with a slice of lemon and a gourmet burger.
At the end of July each summer, Portland hosts the Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF), a craft beer event held at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The Festival features 85 craft beers from 14 U.S. states and draws more than 80,000 beer lovers from around the world. With live music, great brewpub food, and cheap craft beer (US$ 1 for a beer sampler), OBF is a must stop for any Kiwi craft beer connoisseur traveling to the United States that time of year.
Portland, of course, is more than beer. Citizens of Portland have great civic pride and support a wide array of cultural activities and events. Each year in June, for example, the city puts on a month-long annual civic festival – the Portland Rose Festival – that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to parades, an air show, fireworks, carnival rides, and dragon boat races. The Festival’s annual Junior Parade takes place in the city’s Hollywood district. With approximately 10,000 participating children, it is the world’s largest parade for kids.
In terms of numbers, Oregon is approximately 100,000 square miles (260,000 sq. km.) in size, just very slightly smaller than New Zealand. With just over 3.8 million residents, Oregon has one of the lowest population densities in the United States. The highest point in the State is Mt. Hood which stands at 11,250 feet (3,430 m.).
The capital is Salem, the third largest city in the State (after Portland and Eugene) with 155,000 residents. The Capitol Building is an Art Deco gem largely constructed of marble, inside and out.
Oregon’s cities are awesome, but Oregonians – like Kiwis – are all about being outdoors and active. With eleven National parks, forests, and monuments along with numerous State parks and a particularly beautiful section of the Pacific Coast Trail (which runs from the Canadian border to the Mexican border across Washington, Oregon, and California), Oregon is an outdoor paradise.
Around every turn you’ll find stunning vistas and all the recreational activities you could imagine – camping, hiking, sailing, rafting, windsurfing, cycling, fishing, hunting, skiing, rock-climbing, and more, all at world-class levels. You’ll also find spots so unspoiled, solitary, and quiet that you’ll feel like the only person on the planet.
There isn’t room in just one blog post to share all of Oregon’s great scenic destinations, so I’ll highlight just three more of my favorite spots. In some respects these are the triple crown of Oregon’s natural beauty, and I would recommend that you visit each of them when you come to the Beaver State … Mount Hood, Crater Lake, and the Oregon Coast.
Towering over nearby Portland, Mt. Hood is the State’s tallest mountain, a dormant stratovolcano, and part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc. Called Wy’east by the Multnomah Native American tribe, Mt. Hood contains twelve glaciers and permanent snow fields. It boasts a variety of summer and winter activities including the only year-around ski-lift in North America. The scenic Timberline Trail circumnavigates the mountain and links into the Pacific Crest Trail.
Perhaps the most iconic natural feature in Oregon is Crater Lake, a caldera lake approximately 2,000 feet (more than 600 m.) deep. Created by an eruption (and collapse) witnessed by indigenous peoples and embedded in their legends, Crater Lake is reputed to be the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere and the third deepest on Earth.
The water is known for its clarity and stunning blue color. Sheer cliffs rise up from the shore to a height of more than 600 meters and tower over Wizard island, a volcanic cinder cone at the west end of the lake. Crater Lake is to Oregon as Milford Sound is to New Zealand. You simply have to see it to appreciate its awesome beauty.
Then there’s the Oregan coast, approximately 400 miles (640 km) of long, wide sandy beaches interspersed among rugged cliffs and headlands, with large outcroppings of rocks offshore. It’s a stunning land- and seascape.
I have a particular fondness for this part of Oregon. Most of my summer vacations growing up were spent on the coast, either at Florence or Newport, two coastal towns within driving distance of home in Eugene.
After a full day of flying kites and sledding down massive sand dunes, we would stop off in town for salt water taffy and a bowl of clam chowder. Take it from me, there was — and is — only one place to go for great chowder, and that’s Mo’s.
Mo’s is an iconic seafood restaurant that opened originally in Newport in 1946 and then expanded to other towns up and down the Oregon Coast. The owner, Mohava Niemi (or Mo for short), became famous for serving up a delicious New England-style clam chowder that featured locally raised Yaquina Bay oysters. To this day, every time I am back in Eugene, I’ll make the 2-hour round trip to the coast just to get a bowl of that tasty chowder.
Another amazing spot on the Oregon Coast is the Sea Lion Caves, regular home to a herd of approximateyl 200 sea lions. The largest sea cave in the world, it’s as high as a 12-story building and as long as a rugby field.
Sea lions shelter in the natural amphitheater, usually during the fall and winter. In the spring and summer they breed and have their young on rock ledges just outside the cave. Discovered in 1880 by William Cox, elevator access was installed in 1961 so that visitors could enjoy the cave and view the sea lions without disturbing them.
And we have more than sea lions and beavers. The forests are filled with all kinds of interesting wildlife including elk and bear. And there is excellent whale watching along the coast, often readily visible from the shore.
Again, I could write a lot more, but I’ve already gone on a bit too long. Here are just a few final teasers …
For a fuller accounting of what you can see and do in Oregon, I highly suggest you browse Oregon’s official tourism website. For information about Ashland’s Shakespearean Festival, click here. I would also be happy to chat directly if you email me, stop by the Embassy, or say hello when you see me on the street. I’m always more than happy to point you in the right direction with respect to things Oregonian.
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I have a particular and very direct love of Oregon. For three months between my first and second years of law school I lived in Beaverton and worked as a summer clerk in the offices of a large law firm in downtown Portland. My brother crashed with me most of the summer, and we used weekends and the occasional time off to travel throughout the State. Therefore, instead of just seconding David’s review, I’ll mention three of my own favorite things about Oregon (besides, of course, the warm, interesting, funky, salt-of-the-earth good people).
First, I thoroughly enjoyed the city of Portland with its café culture, wonderful public spaces, extensive bike paths, summer skiing, and vibrant nightlife. I remember being particularly struck by the wide variety of iconic urban fountains. My favorite of the lot was Keller Park Fountain, a large installation that simulates cliffs, waterfalls, and caves. I spent a good bit of time on sunny days reading books from Powell’s while dangling my feet in the pools at the top or base of the falls.
Second, although David already mentioned it, I have to note again just how stunning Crater Lake is. When my brother and I drove to the National Park in early July there were still large snow drifts on the sides of the road. We hiked along the rim of the crater and then down to the edge of the lake, which was other-worldly. Never before or since have I seen such a deep, beautiful shade of blue as in those waters.
Finally, because I have Indiana Jones tendencies and an affinity for geology, my brother and I drove into the Cascades to dig for geodes. Formed in gas bubbles in igneous rock or sometimes in fissures in sedimentary rock, geodes are chalcedony shells with quartz or other mineral crystals inside. They look like ordinary rocks on the outside, but cutting them open reveals a glittering, unexpected interior world.
We ended up filling the trunk of our car with dozens of suspected geodes. We hauled them back to Portland and had them cut open at a shop in Portland. I carried my favorites with me for years, but ended up giving them away to family and friends who admired particular ones. I regret not keeping one for myself. I need to get back to Oregon to do some more digging.
Stay tuned for the next installment in my travel series a couple of weeks from now. I have not yet tapped an author, so I don’t know what that featured location will be (other than a surprise). For now, I’ll leave you with an apt summary of today’s topic that I’ve clipped and pasted from Oregon’s official tourism site:
Oregon isn’t a place you see as much as you do. You can sight-see our beautiful coast, volcanic mountains, crystal-clear lakes, and deserts that stretch as far as the eye can see. If you’re looking for world-class pinots, some of the best food and craft beer in the country, brilliant Shakespeare, fossil hunting, epic cycling, kayaking, windsurfing, or just about anything else-ing, look no further.
Better yet, don’t look, come out here and leap.