Technically, this part of our Left Coast Mosey is about traveling in Oregon from Portland to Ashland, but it sounded better to use two words starting with an S. I guess I could have called it Salem to Shakespeare, since Salem was our first stop, but the drive started at the Columbia River. As the skies cleared for a brief spot in the morning, we were finally able to take that river picture from our Portland-area hotel before setting out on this five-hour drive.
Also, in the interests of fair disclosure, Shakespeare represents the site of our destination, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, at the southern border of the state, but there will be no other mention of Shakespeare in this post. That may frustrate some, but will probably relieve many. Hash tag Not About Shakespeare.
Drive Time History
We have driven before from Seattle to northern California six or seven times, usually taking three days: Seattle to Portland, Portland to Medford, Medford to the Bay Area. It’s a twelve-hour drive in total, so it could be done in two long days, with a stop somewhere near Corvallis in Oregon, though that’s the perhaps the least interesting place to stop. Or the most picturesque, since it’s slightly more remote.
In the early nineteenth century, the Oregon Trail was forged by so many pioneers, who labored for six months to schlepp their household from Kansas or the Missouri River, over the Rockies, then north through the Cascades or south through the Sierras. Most of the historical records talk about moving from the east to the western horizon, while few discuss the north-south corridor.
Still, that secondary route trailing north/south must have sprung up. Thousands of people were expanding into the Oregon Territory, from the “Spanish” lands of California, all the way to Alaska (the 54th parallel) in the 1820-1840s. Once gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in the California Valley, which gave birth to Sacramento where I spent my formative years, millions of “forty-niners” were drawn from around the world. Apparently, many even made their way cross-ocean, going through Panama or even around Cape Horn. It must have taken at least a few weeks to walk and lead a team of horses with the furniture and seeds if you were migrating down from Puget Sound. I-5 today makes that much easier.
A flight also takes only an hour and a half from Seattle to Oakland, but then you would miss Rainier and Mt. St. Helens (didn’t even have time to stop this trip), not to mention Portland. And anyway, what comes after Portland?
Crème Brûlée French Toast Time (Salem)
For one thing, Word of Mouth Bistro in Salem. Now, there’s been feedback that I have made more than a few of you hungry in previous posts, and not knowing whether that was criticism or praise, I have tried to refrain in the last few days. But I came across this place (as with others) quite by accident, and I suspect it will now be The Reason to Stop in Salem.
Filet mignon benedict. Chicken-friend pork chops drenched with a mushroom gravy. A southern style biscuit, tall as a fist, with fresh berry jam. My vegetarian burrito had five vegetables–broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, zucchini, and artichoke–in addition to the green pepper and onions that diners often define as “vegetables.” Also, the burrito had been pan-sauteed, not just microwaved. I search for vegetarian-friendly, not low calorie, eateries. Yes, there was also the creme brulee french toast, taller than a stack of pancakes, with a lattice of lightly burnt sugar on the outside and a tender inside more custard than bread.
This bistro is a hole-in-the-wall nestled in a ramshackle house buried in the Salem neighborhoods, between a smoke store and a dry cleaners. The wait was 45 minutes at lunch on a weekday, so I can just imagine the weekends. On the other hand, Oh. My Lord. It was a good day to make sure the hotel room had a microwave because our to-go boxes were plenty full for a post-drive meal.
I insisted on the next stop :Tracktown USA in Eugene, Oregon.
Hayward is to American track what Green Bay’s Lambeau Field is to the NFL, what Notre Dame Stadium is to college football. It is a place where track and field is revered and legends are made.“Traditions are time-tested at Hayward Field,” Denver Post, June 2008
Where Track and Field Will Begin Again (Eugene)
Aside from writing blogs about travels, space octopuses, and turkey cooking flow charts, I happen to be passionate about the Olympics, so much so that I wrote a book about the “little sports” at the 2016 Games. Two of those sports were the shot put and middle distance running–track and field sports–which means I really can’t travel down I-5 in central Oregon without being compelled to drive over to Hayward Field. Because Hayward Field is where track and field begins in the USA.
I didn’t make that up; that’s the slogan of Hayward Field, which is named after the University of Oregon’s legendary track coach of 43 years, Bill Hayward. The U.S. Olympic Trials have been set here five times, and a sixth is planned for next summer, in advance of Tokyo. Dozens of world records have been set on the field–nine alone in one meet from 2014.
Central Oregon was where Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight met before they went on to create Nike. Nike principles were formed on the university fields where Knight started as a runner, and Nike money is present all over the campus and town, including in support of the brand new stadium going up at Hayward Field. The last time I stopped here, in 2016 (see above picture), the giant metal stands were still looming over the track. Currently, a new edifice is racing toward completion next year, under busy construction even in the rain that passed over while I snapped photos.
As the bones of the stadium are still going up, I looked at the finished plans, and they give me goosebumps. Those arches are made from local wood, so they are more natural than the picture shows, whie the outer shell will be transparent, allowing unobstructed views of the greenery. Meanwhile, more seats, more track lanes, and more infrastructure for international guests and media to handle the tsunami that comes in when the Olympic Trials begin next July. That tall orange tower will be shaped like a torch upon completion. I can hardly wait!
As we passed out of Eugene and headed further south, the highway started to climb through the Siskyou Mountains which separate the Rogue Valley from the coast. To the east, Crater Lake is nestled somewhere in the next set of mountains. Worth seeing, though a might brisk in October. The “other” university town of Corvallis is the turnoff for a tree-lined road winding back out to the coast; I recommend that way if you haven’t been. At the end of that road lies Newport and Coos Bay, where we traversed two few weeks ago.
Cycle Wander (Medford)
You can drive on into California if you start in Portland, but Medford, Ashland, and the Rogue River Valley are a lot more interesting than the tiny towns of Yreka or Weed which lie closer to midway. Medford, in addition to Shakespeare paraphernalia, the Harry and David flagship store, and the gateway to Crater Lake, has several sport options, from good hiking trails to one of the nicest bike paths I’ve ridden.
The Bear Creek Greenway is 18 miles long and runs parallel to the highway (along the creek) from Ashland to Central Point. If you don’t bring your own bike, you can rent one at the Bear Creek Cyclery off Exit 19 and pick up the path only 100 yards away. It is great mountain biking country, too, but while I am a frequent cyclist, I am a tame one, preferring a nice scenic paved FLAT path to rocks and mud and deathtrap plunges down mystery hills.
The Greenway has been significantly upgraded since my last ride a few years back. I seem to recall detours, constructions, gravel connectors, and the lack of signposts which led to a long, confusing ride. Here, I spun along past the highway, trailer parks with ivy-covered mobile homes and cats curled on plastic chairs, picturesque wooden bridges, and benches overlooking the creek. Vistas of the mountains to the west showed clouds still lingering like tendrils among the trees. I passed one long field of hemp, which smelled like strong lavender and warned about 24 HR SURVEILLANCE.
Local Food is Half the Reason We Go
Medford, like Salem, also boasts its own homegrown foodie places. The word-of-mouth local joint we found is Jasper’s burgers.
My companion tried to talk me into the October burger of the month, with German sausage, sauerkraut, and beer infused cream cheese. Grumpy when I said no, she ordered it herself. I chose a Wild Bleu Yonder with huckleberry marinated onions, a hash brown patty, and a grilled parmesan blue cheese lattice. They have Pittsburgh style (fries and slaw on the burger). A lot of BBQ sauce as well as pulled pork, chicken and turkey patties, plus two vegetarian options. Curly fries, tater tots, blueberry milk shakes. Plus a waitress who knows all the words to the country songs. Food does taste better when the waitresses sing.
If I’ve made you hungry, then mea culpa, but maybe this is your day to go off to your local bistro for that burger, that BBQ, that favorite sandwich. You don’t have to come up to Oregon for it. As the Oregon-inspired Nike slogan says: Just Do It!