2017-07-20 06:58:03
Next Stop: Where the Wallowa Mountains Begin

Hours in any direction from the nearest decent-size city, Wallowa County, Ore., is remote even by the standards of the rural Northwest. To get there, my husband, our daughter and I drove along the straw-colored cliffs of the Columbia River, through Pendleton, home of the sturdy woolen blanket, and La Grande, a college town with a quiet core, before climbing onto dry high desert plateaus, winding along wild rivers, passing through pine forests and descending again into a valley of cattle and wheat.

We were passing through far east Oregon on a late-summer road trip between California and Montana. The Wallowa Valley, at the tristate border with Idaho and Washington, was out of the way. But I’d heard about Joseph — a town of just over 1,000 people with an outsize reputation for bronze sculptures and unrestrained natural beauty — from a photographer friend in Portland. Despite its remote location, the region had been attracting young Portlanders, who brought the city’s design sensibility to tiny Joseph, which is named for the Nez Percé chief who fought his tribe’s relocation from their ancestral home in the 1870s.

Until recently, the town’s biggest claim to fame — beyond its significant Native American history — was a Swiss-made tram that is said to have the steepest vertical lift for a four-passenger gondola in North America. But the Wallowa Valley is now also home to unexpected businesses like Arrowhead Chocolates, which serves Stumptown Coffee and produces 40-some varieties of small-batch, Fair Trade Certified chocolates in regionally inspired flavors like huckleberry and blended whiskey. (The latter is made from Stein Distillery’s whiskey, also made in Joseph.) We were staying above Arrowhead Chocolates at the Kickstarter-funded Jennings Hotel, which is part Northern European-style sauna, part artist residency.

As soon as I saw the Wallowa Valley, with the wind quivering through golden fields, wide-open skies and big red barns — barns of exceptional character, barns I wanted to move into and make my home — I understood how someone might get hooked. It reminded me of the placid beauty of the Great Plains. But unlike those sweeping, uninterrupted prairies, the valley is surrounded by the Wallowa Mountains and has 31 peaks over 8,000 feet as its dramatic backdrop.

We arrived on a Sunday, when many small towns virtually shut down. But when we pulled up at Terminal Gravity Brew Pub in Enterprise, the next town north of Joseph, at 8:30 — hungry after a long day and hoping for a no-fuss pub dinner — the place was overflowing with people. A yellow Craftsman house in a residential neighborhood (with a warehouse in the back), the brewery describes itself as “the Middle of Nowhere/Center of the Universe,” which had seemed like tongue-in-cheek bravado until we witnessed the Sunday night scene.

A narrow creek ran through the front yard, where barefoot children leapt back and forth, chasing one another and shrieking; picnic tables were crowded with groups of friends, eating dinner and making conversation above the music. A band played fast, upbeat folk-country-bluegrass with an upright bass, a banjo and a washboard, as couples swung each other around in the warm summer air. I felt as if I’d crashed the most uninhibited, un-self-conscious party I’d been to in years. It wasn’t what I’d imagined when, the day before, we’d passed a sign that declared another neighboring town, Lostine, “A Little Piece of God’s Country.” Even the food — a mix of vegetarian options like a beet Rueben on German rye ($9) or a buffalo burger made with meat from a local ranch, Stangels Livestock, and served on a ciabatta roll ($11.50) — was a surprise.

BEING FROM A SMALL, rural Western town myself, I know better than to see someplace like Joseph as two-dimensional. But even I was surprised, again and again, by the idiosyncrasies of the Wallowa region. On our first full day in town, we stopped at the Red Rooster Cafe, also in Enterprise, for breakfast. The place looked like a lot of farm country diners: vinyl booths, Formica tables, homey rooster décor and a counter where locals greet one another over bottomless cups of coffee. With its lovingly preserved interior mural of Wallowa Lake — painted by a local artist, Gene Hayes — it could have been a relic of the 1960s.

But when I spotted the organic ketchup on the tables and the cage-free eggs on the menu, I knew this country diner was different. The Red Rooster, it turns out, is just a few years old and owned by a mother and daughter, Annie and Kim Gardner Moore, and operated by four generations of women. They do everything from smoking their own pork and beef to roasting their own turkey and making their own triple berry jelly and pie crusts from scratch. If the Red Rooster hadn’t been closed the next morning, I would have eaten organic cornmeal Johnny cakes (with crisp honey-cured bacon, sharp Cheddar and clover honey butter; $3.50 for one) two days in a row.

We spent two nights at the Jennings Hotel, where my husband, Tim, and I swapped visits to the sauna while our daughter, Roxie, slept. Then we headed to Montana. But we’d been so charmed by the area we decided to circle back through on our return to California. This time we were coming from the north, where wildfires were raging in the Bitterroot National Forest near Missoula. There was smoke in the air when we arrived at RimRock Inn, a onetime stagecoach stop recently transformed into a trendy retreat with a wine bar-restaurant, a collection of “glamping” tepees and vintage trailer accommodations out back on the edge of Joseph Canyon, a deep, jagged rut through the earth.

A long-held fantasy of Cabot and Kim Carlston, RimRock opened last spring. Kim grew up in Enterprise before going away to college, meeting Cabot and moving to Salt Lake City, where Cabot worked as an eighth-grade science teacher. Now he’s the cook in the inn’s kitchen, where he wears a white chef’s hat over his long black ponytail and prepares “cowboy cuisine” (burgers and fries, rib-eyes and baked potatoes).

That night, the wind whipped through the gorge. Though it was early August, when much of Oregon is baking, the air was chilly. We ordered a s’mores kit ($5), which was delivered by Cabot and Kim’s son, a sullen pre-teenager who seemed displeased with having been relocated to the edge of the world but who nonetheless lit a small fire for us as the wind fought against him. Awed by our surroundings, Tim and I huddled in blankets designated for the fireside (to prevent guests, presumably, from using the beautiful — and expensive — Pendleton wool blankets that topped each tepee bed). The marshmallows were stale, but for me s’mores have always been about the process — the almost meditative act of slowly, carefully turning a puff of sugar over licking flames, trying to imbue just the right amount of char. Roxie slept in the tepee as Tim and I drank beer and watched the sky turn from a pale blue to a sherbet orange to an inky expanse of night.

The next day was bright and clear. The wind from the previous evening had cleared the smoke, and as we drove down from RimRock’s ridge, the air grew warm — too warm not to take advantage of it. We cut straight through town — down cobblestone streets past the bronze sculptures made at Valley Bronze of Oregon, a local foundry that’s the pride of the region — and directly for Wallowa Lake.

The arrowheadlike tips of the surrounding mountains were still topped with dull white summer snow, but the lakeshore was crowded with families who swam, splashed and sunbathed on its three beaches. Fishermen in waders stalked its rocky periphery, hunting for 10-pound kokanee salmon and huge, 30-pound lake trout. The water was as clear as any I’d ever seen. Near a tidy campground at the south end of the lake, I waded up to my knees and snapped a photo. Were it not for a few, barely visible ripples, you wouldn’t have known that my sandaled feet were submerged at all. Tim called from shore and pointed to the sky, where bald eagles were circling.

On our final day in Joseph, I realized I’d been dragging my feet. My distaste for heights had kept me from the Wallowa Lake Tramway. Built in 1970 and open May through September, the 15-minute gondola ride is a 3,700-foot vertical lift from the lake to the 8,150-foot summit of Mount Howard. For me, the tram was less of a draw than a dare — one that I was determined to accept.

We paid our $31 each and climbed aboard the compact, four-person gondola. With a squeak and a clank, the car (which had a placard warning passengers not to “shake or rock”) swung away from the landing and began climbing alongside the face of the mountain, several stories above the ground. I focused on the deep, glassy blue of the lake, where water-skiers cut white pathways across the surface and kayakers looked like water-skimming insects. At the top, we caught our breath at the Summit Grill, where obese squirrels circled at our feet, begging for fries and delighting Roxie, who caught the eye of the table next to us.

With a laugh, one of the men said, “Yup, yokel locals.” A ranch owner, he was straight out of central casting, with a walrus mustache, a bandanna around his neck and a black hat. Up here, his wife explained, they “get to feel like tourists.” In the months since, I’ve caught myself looking at Wallowa real estate with unreasonable frequency, apparently not entirely content to be merely a tourist in Joseph myself.

Where to Eat and Drink

Red Rooster Cafe, 309 West Main Street, Enterprise; 541-426-2233; red-rooster-cafe.com.

Red Horse Coffee Traders, 306 North Main Street, Joseph; 541-432-3784; redhorsecoffee.com.

Terminal Gravity, 803 School Street, Enterprise; 541-426-0158; terminalgravitybrewing.com.

Arrowhead Chocolates, 100 North Main Street, Joseph; 541-432-2871; arrowheadchocolates.com.

What to Do

Josephy Center for Arts and Culture, 403 North Main Street, Joseph; josephy.org.

Wallowa Lake Marina, 72214 Marina Lane, Joseph; wallowalakemarina.com. Paddleboard, paddleboat, kayak and canoe rentals start at $15 an hour.

Wallowa Lake Tramway, 59919 Wallowa Lake Highway, Joseph; wallowalaketramway.com. Round-trip ticket, $31.

Where to Stay

RimRock Inn, 83471 Lewiston Highway, Enterprise; 541-828-7769; rimrockinnor.com. Luxurious tepees and retro trailers from $150.

The Jennings Hotel, 100 North Main Street, Second Floor, Joseph; jenningshotel.com. Rooms from $95.