Friday, August 18, 2006

The Trip: Green and Brown. And, the Mystery of Sisters

It's been almost two weeks since we got back from our Big Twinkie Vacation, and every one of those days I have wanted to blog about it. I even kept a journal on the trip, partly so I would have something to say when I got back. Because unlike, say, Jo(e), who (unbeknownst to me) went on almost exactly the same route we did and who writes about it beautifully in posts like this and this and this, I have a hard time remembering or writing about nature. I loved our trip, but even while we were still travelling, the places we'd been a day or two before became just a beautiful green-and-brown blur in my head.

Whereas Renaissance Woman would have no trouble--even now, or a year from now--detailing, say, each campground's strengths and weaknesses, the scenery, the specific site we stayed at, other and possibly better sites that we might try next time we go to that campground, the nearby bodies of water, the road we took to get there, and quite possibly the exact latitude and longitude.

We're different, that way.

An even bigger problem, that comes up all the time but especially when I get back from a vacation, is the Middle Ground of Detail issue. Somewhere between: "Yeah, great vacation, we camped in Twinkie and jumped in the water whenever we could, it was all green and brown and beautiful" and "Well, first we did this. Then we did that, and then we stayed there, and then the second night we ate at this great little place, and then we drove for a while, and then, oh! we saw this incredible sight. And then there was this really cool interpretive center, and I thought it would be boring but it wasn't. Then! We had lunch! Here's what we ate. And then..."

So for the next few posts, I'll just tell you a few specific things I remember. Because it was great, and I don't want to forget it, and there were some good stories. And I also don't want you to stop reading because your brain has gone numb from the sheer overwhelming amount of detail.

So, this is the story about Sisters, Oregon.

Our route took us down the Washington Coast, down the Oregon Coast to the very north end of Northern California, then back up into Oregon to Crater Lake and a hot spring and Portland, before heading home to Seattle.

Now, the Oregon Coast is gorgeous and rugged and wild, and it's all public beach. Almost every mile of the highway is right along the coast; you can see the ocean all the time and can pull over to beachcomb every few miles in some stretches. The State of Oregon has a good thing going, and they know it; they maintain and protect the coastline and put real money into the campgrounds. And the northern part of it is very touristy and cutesy, with little shops and restaurants and hotels and B&Bs.

Then, about halfway down the coast, it changed. The towns got further apart. The campgrounds were emptier. There were fewer cheery shops, and more "for sale" signs: on restaurants, on motels, on trailer parks. And when we headed inland, it was even more like that. You could just about see tumbleweeds rolling down the middle of the streets, or whatever the Pacific Northwestern version of tumbleweeds would be. It was obvious that this used to be a tourist area, but that the tourists just weren't coming in sufficient numbers any more, and there was little other industry. "Where did everyone go?" I kept asking, with the inexcusable morbid curiosity of a big-city visitor.

One night we pulled in late to a city-owned campground in Sisters, Oregon. Each of us had visited Sisters, separately, years ago; I'd been there on my first trip West with my friend Nora in 1989, and remembered it as a small but friendly place. Nothing special, but a good feeling about it, bright and hot and Western, almost more like Idaho or Wyoming than Oregon. I had a vague memory of going to the library there, a tiny shabby brown building with well-thumbed paperback romances lined up on the shelves.

It was dark by the time we got to Sisters this time, and we were tired and crabby from driving and driving and looking for a place to sleep. The campsite was sparsely populated, mostly by huge RVs. There had recently been a big forest fire nearby, and nobody had any campfires going. Nobody was out walking around. It was slightly creepy and lonely. We stumbled around in the dark with our flashlights and found the bathroom. To keep MG busy while RW set up the van, I read to her from a local newspaper I'd found at the payment station; a 21-year-old college student had been commissioned to paint a mural in the children's room of the new library; that kind of thing. And then we went to bed.

In the morning, we explored a little. The Sisters Mountains rose up on the horizon, and the campsite seemed more welcoming in daylight--there was a stream and a footbridge--but we needed to get going; we were heading to the hot springs that day, and we had a reservation there. And RW needed her coffee. So we buckled into the van and hit the streets. And blinked. And blinked. Because this was not the Sisters we remembered.

There were espresso stands, and wine shops, and charming bakeries. The no-frills rural Western buildings were gone, replaced by self-consciously "rustic" exteriors. Flyers advertised arts festivals. There was no money anywhere within a hundred miles, but somehow there was money in this town.

A few blocks from the campground we saw a house for sale, old woodwork, nice porch, corner lot. For a moment, RW and I were consumed by the Great Yuppie Fantasy: we could sell our overpriced Seattle crackerbox, buy a place like this outright, live a life of leisure and natural beauty...I took a real-estate flyer.

The house was selling for half a million dollars.

"This is Jackson," RW said. "It's turned into Jackson Hole."

We stopped at the new library on the way out; I was curious about the mural we'd read about. It was a gorgeous building, bright and airy, with thought put into it. The Children's Room setup and collection were as good as or better than what I've seen in Seattle and KCLS. There was lots of summer reading programming. The main room had new, hardcover books on display: chick lit, The Kite Runner, Blink, that kind of thing. It was all so snazzy my eyes hurt.

I buttonholed the checkout clerk and asked her about the old library. "The little brown one? Oh, we've moved two times since then," she said. "I've been here thirty years, and it's changed a lot. It is, it's amazing." She asked me about the new downtown Seattle library, told me she'd heard there were some problems with the layout. She was friendly and knowledgeable, but when I asked her, as politely as I could, where all the money was coming from, and why it was coming to Sisters and nowhere else nearby, she had no ideas.

We speculated about it for miles afterwards, driving past new subdivisions on the edge of town, then through trees and countryside and the return of "For Sale" signs. Software millionaires, retiring off the beaten track? But why there? "Skiing," someone suggested, when we told this story later. But then why didn't skiing make the other towns rich? It's too far away for easy weekend trips from Portland, and it's not near much else that would pull in tourists.

Did they market themselves? Was it developers? Or was it just that a lot of other people, enough to make the cash flow, got the sense that I did seventeen years ago, that this was a nice little town, pretty mountains in the distance, hot and bright and Western?


Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I don't know the answer about Sisters, but maybe Jennifer would?

8:23 PM  
Blogger Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Well in fact there's tons of money in Central Oregon. I'm not sure what towns you drove through that seemed to be collapsing. Sisters, Bend, Redmond, Prineville, Madras, La Pine, even Hood River and, because of Google, The Dalles -- they have all seen insane population growth and even insane-r housing price increases.

I understand that mountain towns across the West have exploded. They got discovered in a big way... Partly by investors (people looking for a place to put money when the stock market didn't seem like a good deal anymore) and partly by people with equity in a house in a city that's gotten too crowded/dangerous/boring or whatever.

Housing prices have only really gotten crazy w/in the last 5 years. Everyone has a story about it. Here's one: Five years ago my parents bought 40 acres outside of Sisters, with a fully furnished house (including deer and moose heads!) for $400,000. Last year a 40-acre parcel two down from theirs sold -- without a house or any furnishings -- for over $500,000. So my parents are stoked but also bewildered. They'd _never_ have bought at that price.

There's a new blog called the Bend Economy Blog (Bend being the biggest town around here) in which people speculate about how bad the crash will be when it comes. I just drove from the south end of town to my house near downtown, and it was like one giant construction zone. No kidding, there must be at least 1000 houses being built between here and there. So I'm thinking the crash is right about here.

That's a long response to your question, isn't it?

3:54 PM  
Blogger Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

This is the bubble blog:

3:58 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Wow, Jennifer, thanks so much for that informative and generous response!

It makes sense that the same thing is happening in other towns nearby. I think the contrast in Sisters might be particularly striking, especially since I had such a strong sense of it from 17 years ago. We didn't get the same boomtown feeling in Bend that we did in Sisters, but, come to think of it, we did notice (and enjoy) the beautiful new-looking outdoor swimming pool. So maybe it's just taking a less showy form?

It was really nice of you to stop by and to lay things out so patiently. Now I'm going to go look at that bubble blog!

4:40 PM  

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