Driving homeward through Idaho last month, I realized that I was under a curse. No, not the Steamboat Springs curse, though I suffer from that one, too. This one is more specific to the trade in which I labor. After you have worked as a newspaper reporter for more than two decades, it becomes impossible to stop taking notes -- even when you are on vacation. Now that's a curse.
A week earlier, we had packed up the mini-van and pointed it toward the Pacific Northwest. Our ultimate destination was Hillsboro, Ore., just west of the Rose City of Portland.
Leaving home after work on a Friday, we made it to Ogden, Utah, the first night, and by 9:30 a.m. Saturday, we were rolling down Interstate 84, roughly following the Snake River on its winding path toward the Columbia River. As the potato fields rolled by, I found myself sifting through the many thoughts I've had this year about the future of Steamboat's downtown commercial district. However, I managed to stay away from my notebook until we crossed the state line and stopped in Ontario, Ore., to get gas. The outskirts of Ontario look like countless other American towns with a Staples office supply in close proximity to the Big K and the Wal-Mart Super Center. One big difference between Oregon and almost any other state you will visit, is that they have preserved the tradition of gas station attendants who actually pump your gas for you whether you like it or not. It's like a state law or something -- you're not allowed to pump your own gas. The guys at the gas station are no longer called pump jockeys. Our "sales associate" at the Chevron station was Kelsey, and we tipped him $2 for washing the splattered stoneflies off our windshield. My left index finger was beginning to twitch the way it does when it wants me to pick up a pen and begin taking notes, so I insisted the family accompany me on a little side trip to Ontario's historic downtown. We stopped into Jolts and Juice Smoothie Bar behind the bicycle shop, and I made an observation in my spiral notebook: "The door handles are made out of skateboard trucks and the crank set of a bicycle -- very cool." And so it went the entire trip. Driving along the Columbia River Historic Highway two days later, I noted the independent restaurants. There was "Tad's Chickn'n'Dumplings" right on the banks of the Sandy River. We sailed right past "Tippy Canoe Bar and Grill" and didn't even slow down for "Mom's Garden Bakery and Cafe."
If I had six weeks to drive around the Pacific Northwest, I'd eat at every little joint from Klamath Falls to Umatilla.
The big epiphany of the trip came when we spent an afternoon in Hood River, a historic fruit-processing town between the mighty Columbia and the orchards at the foot of awe-inspiring Mount Hood. People in Portland have long made the trek to Hood River for pears and apples in season, and the sightseeing boats on the river have called on the town throughout its history. But Hood River didn't really become an international tourist destination until board sailors discovered that the wind howls through the Columbia River Gorge on hot summer afternoons and the sailing is like no place else on Earth.
Now, the town is full of board sailing shops, fishing outfitters, galleries and groovy coffee shops whose names comprise a witty play on words. However, Hood River has done a remarkable job of preserving the integrity of its historic buildings on Cascade Avenue, Oak and State streets. All of the big-box retailers are down on I-84. The historic town is reserved for the 1906 building that housed the Odd Fellows Hall and the Paris Fair Department Store. There is the Union Building, the community's oldest fruit warehouse, the Mount Hood Hotel and the 1913 Hood River County Library.
Among the 42 buildings of historic significance in old Hood River is a handsome building on Oak Street -- the 1908 Franz Building. For 95 years, it housed a hardware store, but like Steamboat, Hood River is losing its downtown hardware store. Reporter Christian Knight of the Hood River News tells the story: The Jubitz family bought the hardware store from the Franz family in 1937, and after three generations, Pete Jubitz is retiring and Discover Bicycles is moving into the 4,800-square-foot space. Owners Shane and Julie Wilson will polish up the maple floors, and they'll keep the three sliding ladders that allow access to rows of tall wooden cabinets.
Most important, Knight reports, the mural of Mount Hood and the orchards that dominate the west wall of the building will be preserved.
The longer I live in Steamboat, the more I value brief trips to other communities, which, like ours, are striving to honor their pasts while coping with the inevitability of change. There is much to be learned from Hood River and other communities we have yet to discover. When you go, take a pad of paper and a pen. You'll want to take notes.