Central Oregon is what happens when desert meets forest. A sea of Ponderosa pines stand like quiet soldiers from Portland to Sisters, and beyond. The pines stop as dramatically as they began making way for a golden blanket of high desert. Only to make their stand yet again when the valley turns to mountain. The occasional hawk and falcon man the sky as chipmunks run like mad in every direction.
The towns between Portland and Sunriver are the saddest expression of Middle America. Traditional cowboy life has made way for concrete and box store, after box store, after box store. What was once a sleepy ski town, Bend is now Home Depot, Wal-mart, Barnes and Noble over and over again. I suggest driving through until you get to the mountains. Close your eyes until you hit desert again or until you look up and see Mt. Bachelor.
Don’t get me wrong. There are treasures in these towns. Madras, well, is a great place to stop for gas and the toilet. Sisters, which looks and feels like a pop-up country village in Disneyland inhabited by rich, white retirees saturated in perfume and make-up shopping for cowboy knickknacks, has the clockmaker who is in possession of an antique clock made in 1871 for King Frederick lll of Prussia. Sisters also has Lonesome Water Books where I found the Larousse Gastronomique for 12 bucks. And that’s about it. It’s worth it to go to Sisters, though, for the surrounding landscape glows with the yellow brilliance of country sunshine. The fields dotted with trees, cows and horses. Just drive through and don’t look back.
I am sure there is more to Bend than what we experienced, but upon first impression, Bend is an explosion of suburbia, only 15 years in the making. The jewel in Bend was recommended by Lauren Brooks and we will definitely go back. Joolz is a diamond in the rough. Owned by Ramsey Hamden and his wife Juli, whom the restaurant is named for, Joolz is a tiny bustling restaurant saturated in the colorful vibrance of the Middle East. We were hungry and we ordered several mezze plates to share. The lamb and beef meatballs were gently placed in a creamy pool of Romesco style sauce, spiked with a surprising hint of cinnamon. Fresh, crisp tabbouleh served pleasantly heavy on the mint went deliciously on a bit of pita smeared with Hummus on the Range-hummus with bits of elk sprinkled on top. We chatted with Ramsey, born in Beirut, for a minute as he was gathering our dishes. He told us that all of the meat he serves, including the elk, was raised and slaughtered within 30 miles of Joolz. His personal relationship with the ranchers extends all the way down to their ranch dogs. Go to Joolz and don’t forget to order the roasted cauliflower.
We stayed in the tiniest condo ever in Sunriver. During the summer Sunriver is packed with wall-to-wall families and golfers. Off-season, however, it’s a sleepy resort village with abandoned summer homes and meandering bike paths throughout the community.
We rented bikes and went on what I call the “Epic Bike Ride”. Adams brother, upon hearing about it, called it the Tour du Sunriver. What was suppose to be an hour or so of casual riding turned into a four-hour and 17 mile journey. We came across an unpaved path (feeling adventurous we followed it) that ran along the Deschutes River and led to Benham Falls, which really were not falls but were actually rapids. Beautiful nonetheless. The Deschutes has that classic river beauty. It’s everything you would expect in a river, glassy surface, rambling curves, vivid greens and blues, trees meeting its shores for a drink.
After off-roading for seven miles we headed in the direction of the Marina. By this time I was spent and my butt was starting to feel bruised. But I persevered with only minor whining, I think. Adam said it would be worth it, and it was. The ride to the marina strolled through open yellow meadows and wild marshland. Gorgeous and peaceful.
The next day was our last, and after an early check-out we headed towards the scenic Cascade Lakes Highway. Picking us up right outside of Sunriver, the road led us through the lakes and mountains of the Cascades. There are eleven lakes along this byway. We stopped at Devils Lake, not for the name, but because it was an amazing shade of neon green. As I snapped a few pictures near the shore, tiny black frogs hopped around at my feet. Yes, I did try to capture one or two with my camera, but they were so small that it just looks like black dirt, on brown dirt.
The road takes you through Mt. Bachelor, the Three Sisters, and my favorite, Three Fingered Jack-one of the oldest volcanoes in Oregon. Trailheads dotted this drive like Easter eggs laid out for a three-year old, they’re everywhere and are easy to find.
We are already anticipating our next trip down there. Next time hiking along the Cascade Lakes Byway is at the top of our list and dinner at Joolz, of course.