It seems absurd that with a year to travel we would need to make difficult choices between places we would very much like to visit. Yet there we were looking at Bend vs Hood River / Portland, knowing that with the commitments we had already booked, we would not be able to see both, at least this go around. Ultimately the wildfires made our decision for us, as the State Park near Hood River was still closed upon our departure from Park City. This was fortuitous – we would not have wanted to miss Bend, as we would soon find out.
First of all, getting there – not especially nice. No offense to Idaho, I’ve always liked it and still do, though when thinking of Idaho it’s always important to remember that there’s the mountains in the north and there’s the not-mountains in the south. The latter half of the state is pretty in its own flat, farmy, check out our potatoes sort of way, but we didn’t navigate it especially well.
That’s two days of driving, to be clear.
We wanted to get at least halfway to Bend on the first day, and so we skipped what were probably some of the nicer campgrounds and hot springs along the Snake River Gorge. Evel Knievel anyone? No? Never mind. Anyhow, my intended destination (pronoun intentional — I’m taking full responsibility for this) was Bruneau Dunes State Park, near Mountain Home. Dunes, mountains, state parks… win win win, right? Nope, not right at all. I was already well aware that “Mountain Home” is a gross misnomer, so that part wasn’t a disappointment. What was a disappointment was Bruneau Dunes State Park. This is more or less what we saw when we pulled up to our destination, after driving several miles down isolated 2 lane roads.
This is one of those times when the picture, rather than not conveying the grandeur, doesn’t convey the misery. The RV campground area looked similar, but with a smattering of gravel pads and electrical hookups, and a wayward outhouse or two. There were probably a hundred sites, and only 3 or 4 people staying there. Also no cell coverage. Again. “Sketchy” as a blanket adjective is a gross understatement, but it’s all we had to describe what we saw when we arrived. So for the first time this trip, we turned right around out of a place we’d planned to stay and moved on.
The next area we would hit would be Boise, and I’d heard good things about the town. Unfortunately, we chose poorly there too. Opted for the KOA rather than one of the several other campgrounds near downtown, and it turned out to be west of Boise in Meridian, and in what amounted to a busy parking lot surrounded by construction. Tightly packed, too. Ah well, it was only one night, right? At least we could dump our toilet tank.
Firebolt made friends with some girls there, as she’s wont to do, while out riding her bike around the lot with Woodsprite. That was cool right up to the point that their new friends gave our girls unfrozen Otter Pops from their trunk and then came back to our RV and practically forced themselves into it. I’m not necessarily anti-Otter Pop (though I kinda am — I just think it’s a little hypocritical since I had so many as a kid), but the “we’re coming into your house now” part was weird. I slowed things down to make sure the girls were ok with these new friends invading their living space (Firebolt yes… sorta, Woodsprite no), but had to draw the line when they came straight in, went into the girls’ beds, started opening compartments, and then resisted me a little when I told them that wasn’t ok. It was all a little funky yet at the time I couldn’t have told you how exactly. Boundaries were crossed but I couldn’t articulate which ones. Instead I just told the new friends that it was time for them to head back, which they did. Fortunately the whole episode was short-lived as well, and we were off in the morning.
The drive through Eastern Oregon was bleakly pretty. I imagine most people picture Oregon as green and wet, but of course that’s only the half on the west side of the Cascades. The other half, with the exception of the far northeast corner, could just as aptly be called Northern Nevada. Same dry, mountainous, and very sparsely populated terrain. We followed the Malheur river up to near its source then continued back down toward the heart of Central Oregon.
The closer we got to Bend, the more obvious it became that we were solidly in volcano country. The soil became deep reddish-brown with a generous smattering of pumice rock lying around. There are perfectly symmetrical cinder cones visible in most directions. What’s more, the pine trees started kicking in as well, likely due to the elevation gain as we approached the Cascades. It’s gorgeous.
Unfortunately there was still lingering hazy smoke, or we’d have seen the Three Sisters and Mt. Bachelor looming behind the city with their obviously volcanic shapes and year-round snow.
I’ll dispense with my only Bend complaint from this go-around now, because everything, and I do mean everything else about it was overwhelmingly positive: there are not many options for RVs. If I were to live there I’d probably like that fact about it, but in our current situation it was problematic. There are two places in town, neither of which looked appealing, and then another, which we opted for, south of Sunriver. Sunriver is basically a resort-town hybrid, though more resort than town, about 15 miles south and upriver from Bend. Both lie on the Deschutes river. The campground was well-wooded (though dusty), sprawling, and offered some decent privacy, but felt a bit isolated and with heavily dated facilities. That’s it though, done semi-griping, because Bend was… awesome.
So here we were, coming off of a long Park City stay that had us talking smack about how we could certainly live in Park City, and in strolls Bend to blow our minds.
First of all, the layout and size. It’s right about at 100K people, which is just small enough not to feel big, but just big enough to offer all of the cultural, food/drink, and retail options we appreciate. It’s, as previously mentioned, bisected by the Deschutes, which is a clear mountain river with rapids both north and south of town, and a slow-moving part through town that people float on all summer. It even has both a free shuttle to take you and your floating device of choice back upriver to meet your car or to float again, and a fairly new whitewater park right in the middle of town so that you can practice your river kayaking or even surfing moves. The climate is dry, hot, and sunny in the summer, and sunny and cold in the winter, with a good bit of snow. Mt. Bachelor’s lifts are about 20 minutes up from town. The whole place smells like pine trees. And there are trails EVERYWHERE. Bike trails, walking trails, water trails… To top it off, something like a dozen breweries and two cideries, plus a thriving food scene.
But OK, the truth is, we knew all this ahead of time and yet we were still blown away. I’ll try to flesh it out a bit.
On our first day there we opted for a fairly slow morning followed by an afternoon hike. Once we fought through the kid inertia (WHYYYY do we have to do a HIIIIIKE? We ALLLLLWAYS do hikes…) they found, as they normally do, that hiking is a great idea. In Bend it’s an especially great idea. We chose just a short section of the Deschutes River Trail, which follows the river all the way from Sunriver to Bend I’m pretty sure, and as far I can tell, is nothing special trail-wise by Bend standards. Yet I felt like we were hiking through a National Park. Clear, rushing river on one side, recently (geologically speaking) cooled lava flows on the other, with huge, vividly colored Ponderosa Pines everywhere. Everything seemed laid out just so, as if it were designed. But it wasn’t, it was just a trail – one of many in town. And that pine/river/clean smell! It permeates everything.
Afterwards we headed into town, stopped by the whitewater park and then checked out Crux Fermentation Project’s taproom / restaurant, which ups the brewpub ante by adding a sunset-behind-the-volcanoes view and a huge grass field full of cavorting kids and Portland-style food trucks. On the way back through town (in search of good gelato, which wasn’t at all tricky to locate), we found ourselves in the middle of a block-off-the-streets Oktoberfest celebration.
The next day we floated the Deschutes in Sunriver, which was just about everything the Snake River Float should have been (though without rapids). The kids made friends with a few ducks, who are evidently used to being fed by their human river-floating companions. Keeper got a little too up close and personal with the river when he got over-ambitious in a game of kayak tag. But all of them caught the river bug. We want more!
On the penultimate day, we took a drive up along the Cascade Lakes Loop road, which appeared to offer yet another cavalcade of trails, pristine mountain lakes, campgrounds, and the like. Once again the smoke obscured what would’ve undoubtedly been an incredible view, but also once again it didn’t really matter – we hiked around one of the many lakes and clambered all over the volcanic rocks. The kids said it was the best hike yet. That day we topped off with a dinner at 10 Barrel Brewing (sensing a theme?), where what appeared to be a small bluegrass band turned out to be playing ‘80s and ‘90s alternative standards on a fiddle, among other instruments.
And I haven’t even mentioned the mountain biking, which we didn’t have time to partake in, but is everywhere, world class, and easy to access.
Really though, it was more about the vibe there than anything else. Some places you just feel. We probably all experienced it in different ways, but everybody agreed that we could very easily live there, and that it just seemed right.
But ARGH, what to make of that, though?! All this talk about our desire for previously established connections where we move, and in Bend we really don’t have that. We do know two families there, but nothing resembling a support system. And the commute! Oh man, the commute. There’s just no getting around the fact that for me to get to work and back, I’d be flying two legs out of / into a small airport. There’s one flight per day to LAX (as of now) – all the rest would be connecting flights. Plus this would require me to transfer back to the Long Beach / LA domicile, where I would lose much of my relative seniority and consequently my ability to bid a desirable flight schedule. I’m pretty sure I’ve passed the age where a two leg, cross country commute to work would be something I could do reliably. Back in the day when I could be asleep within 15 minutes in any location and position, maybe. But now the idea of spending 8 hours in planes that I’m neither flying nor sleeping in, just to get to and from work… well that makes me shudder.
Recapping… we have, over the last 7 weeks, decided we could easily live in, and made compelling cases for, Anacortes, Seattle, Park City, and Bend. And we haven’t really even spent time in New England yet, which was arguably the front-runner before. Our goal was to narrow this choice down, and we seem to be expanding it instead. On top of that, we still have a house in Annapolis that evidently no one who can pay for it wants to buy, which may make the entire discussion moot. We’re clearly making progress, but toward what?
Back to enjoying the journey I suppose. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe?