Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Pendleton, Oregon

Don’t make the mistake that I did and assume the little eastern Oregon town of Pendleton is known for just one thing…the famous woolen mill that bears the name.  After three days in the town, we learned there is much more that defines Pendleton than cozy blankets and attractive plaid shirts.

The town also has the Pendleton Round-Up which is the largest four-day rodeo in the U.S. and dates back to 1910.  And there is the seedy underworld of downtown known as the Pendleton Underground which literally was a subterranean culture of Chinese laundry shops, whiskey bars, meat markets, and brothels.  Pendleton is rich in Native American Indian culture and history that is celebrated at the Tam├ístslikt Cultural Institute.  So before you come to this town thinking you are going for a quick shopping trip at the Pendleton Woolen Mill, you better think twice. 

We set up “camp” at the RV park at the Wildhorse Casino.  (For all you non-RV’ers - you might be surprised that a number of casinos allow us wandering vagabonds to spend the night on their grounds.  Some casinos have full-blown RV parks and others just let you stay overnight in their parking lot.  Either way, it’s like parking at Wal-mart, they know we will come in and spend money.)  The next morning we were up early and en route to the Pendleton Woolen Mill to peruse their famous blankets and tour the factory.  Our eyes widened when we walked into the retail store and saw just how many colors, styles, sizes, and patterns there were.  The family-owned business started in 1909 and their blankets have grown to symbolize the rustic American west that kept early explorers and cowboys warm under the star-lit skies for over a 100 years. 

Pendleton has two mill locations - the one in Pendleton, Oregon and a larger one in Washougal, Washington that dies the fleece and weaves fabrics for clothing and other items.  The free Pendleton factory tour is fascinating as you walk amongst the punching looms, spinning fibers and spools of yarn, you are immersed in the blankets making progress from start to finish.

Raw, dyed fleece goes through several cleaning processes. 
The cleaned fleece is laid into sheets.
The sheets of fleece are spun and distributed to spools.   The thread then gets twisted for strength and steamed so that it does not kink.
Yarn is moved to the computerized loom where it will be woven into a blanket in approximately 20 minutes.
This picture shows the computers for the looms which are housed on a floor above the weaving part of the looms.  
Completed blankets are rolled onto sheets so they can be inspected before being cut and finished.  These looms are jacquard looms that interlace several hundred threads to create an intricate double sided pattern which you can see on the top and bottom rolls in this picture.
Finished blankets are hand inspected before being cut and finished.  
Buying a Pendleton blanket from the Pendleton Woolen Mill in Pendleton was on Betsy’s “must do” list.  It’s like eating Peking duck in Peking…or Hershey’s chocolate in Hershey…or fried artichokes in the artichoke capitol.  So buy we did!  Adjacent to the retail store is their outlet where you can find great deals on slightly defected items and where we found two blankets that are sure to give the motorhome a bit of flair and lasting culture of the American west. 
Our jacquard Indian blanket
After our factory tour and blanket shopping we were ready for lunch at the Prodigal Son Brewery and some more shopping downtown.  When visiting downtown Pendleton, I sensed a warm vibe from this wholesome western American town that idolizes the cowboy and appreciates the hard-working farmer.  Buildings are well kept, the streets are clean, and people are friendly.  The many saddleries, custom hat shops, and western apparel made my inner cowgirl want to come out.  

Hamley and Co. is a 100-year tradition in
Pendleton and houses 10,000 square feet of
western apparel, horse tack, saddles, and other
custom items.

What you don’t see on the downtown streets of Pendleton is the “city beneath a city” that lurks in the bowels of Pendleton.  In the late 1800’s, Pendleton was reported to have 18 brothels and 32 saloons that entertained the many wandering cowboys and travelers of the Oregon Trail.  Since the city was only so big, many of these “less desirable” businesses moved underground and what was happening on the surface streets of Pendleton was not exactly what was happening in the underground world.   

Many Chinese lived and worked underground to escape prejudice.   
Fascinated by the idea that people lived and worked underneath the city streets in dark and damp basements and tunnels, we decided to plop down the $15 for the 90-minute Pendleton Underground Tour.  The tour guides you through a remarkable network of tunnels, passageways, and basements that stretched for many city blocks and was used for nearly 70 years.  It all started back in the 1870’s when Chinese laborers began constructing tunnels to conduct business and take refuge from discrimination.   This underworld soon grew into a playground for the seedy who were looking for a drink during prohibition, a place to gamble, female companionship, and other questionable behavior.  But there were also pool halls, a bowling alley, an ice cream parlor, Chinese laundry shop, boarding rooms, and just about anything else you can imagine. 

Props (like this fine lady and the whiskey bottles) give visitors a sense of what must have been happening in the underground.
Booze and gambling frequently led to fist fights and shoot-outs.  When we visited, everyone seemed very civil and calm!
Hop Sing's laundry shop was one of the most popular businesses in the underground.
The Empire Meat Company had a retail shop on street level but the constant 42 degree basement was ideal for storing and processing the meat.
Next, our tour led us to Pendleton’s most famous brothel - the Cozy Rooms operated by the town’s famous, Miss Stella.   The first room you enter after walking up the stairs is a chapel, which seems a bit out of place in this establishment, but reportedly some girls wanted to practice their faith and were not accepted in the community.

Ms. Stella
a "working room"

When there were no  church services, the chapel was a waiting room for the visiting gentlemen.  Our tour continued through the living and working quarters of the brothel.  Surprisingly, Miss Stella's Cozy Rooms were in business until the early 1960’s.

The "Cozy Rooms" were one of the most popular places in town.  You could either come in the front door and up the steps or through a back room from the roof (for those wishing to be discrete).
While the "working rooms" were small and all about business, their living quarters were much more spacious and nice in those days.
Before leaving Pendleton, we visited the Tam├ístslikt Cultural Institute which houses the tribal museum of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (made up of the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla tribes).  The museum is a historical-cultural timeline that covers 10,000 years of people that shared this land with nature and eventually the white man.  Through interactive exhibits, artwork, and dramatic video one learns how these tribes have been changed throughout history.

The museum exhibits are modern and full of great artifacts.
The tribes have embraced change throughout history but still hold tight to their traditions.
Pendleton was just supposed to be a quick shopping trip but we loved that we found so much more to do.  Too bad we will not be there in September for the famous Pendleton Round Up – this town seems to know how to have a good time.

A beautiful rainbow across the Oregon prairie as seen from our campsite.
Double rainbow-always makes us think of our dog Otter who waits on the Rainbow Bridge.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The "Tops" Continued...

Now we continue with more of our "tops" from our second year of RV'ing. (Click on the yellow title for a link to an earlier blog post about that subject.)

Top 10 Coolest Small Towns

Seaside and the nearby towns of Grayton, Seagrove, Rosemary Beach, and Seacrest Beach have always been tops on our list of beach towns.  The warm Florida salt air and sugar white sands pave the way to a great vacation.  Chain restaurants are replaced with Air Stream food trucks and a beach cruiser bicycle is the preferred mode of transportation.

Cedar Key, Florida

Cedar Key is a funky little coast town in a forgotten part of Florida that is a mix of artists and fishermen.  It is the largest producer of farm raised clams and the best clam chowder to prove it.  It was also one of the largest producers of pencils made from the abundance of cedar trees.

Gruene is a town that dates back to the 1840's and has one prominent business that has remained open through the ups and downs - a dance hall and saloon.  What does that tell you about this town?  The dance hall is the oldest in Texas and a who's-who of country music has graced her stage.

We quickly fell in love with Breckenridge and the nearby town of Frisco.  The town is charming, clean, dog-friendly, and bustling with summer outdoor activities.  There are gorgeous hiking trails in the surrounding mountains and a free gondola and chair lift to take you up the ski slopes for gorgeous views. 
Telluride came highly recommended from friends and did not disappoint   We caught the fall colors just right and marveled at the bright yellow glow of the aspen leaves.  
Basalt was never meant to be a destination for us, instead we stumbled upon it on our way to Aspen.  Turns out we liked it so much more than Aspen!  In contrast to Aspen, Basalt runs at a slower pace that is much more livable.

Our friends Melinda and Dick introduced us to Ouray which is a charming town set beautifully along the Million Dollar Highway in the Colorado mountains.  The town is nicknamed "Little Switzerland" because of how it sits in the valley flanked by the mountains.

This town is known for its Danish pastries and other goodies and is proud of
its nickname of "Little Denmark".
Ennis, Montana

Ennis likes to claim it is a little town with a big fishing problem.  The town is a fly fishing destination and is dominated by fly shops and guide services.  But downtown has managed to squeeze in nice shops and galleries and a great soda fountain.
Cody, Wyoming is recognized as the home of Buffalo Bill.  But when you look closer you soon learn that Cody has a great small town atmosphere with street parades, nightly rodeos, a first-class museum, and many years of  interesting history.

Top 5 Kayaking Spots

If we had to pick a favorite kayaking spot, this would be it - underneath the beautiful Teton mountains in Grand Teton National Park.

Kayaking in such a wonderful place like Yellowstone was awesome and catching Yellowstone cutthroat made it even better.
This little lake north of Steamboat, Colorado was recommended to us by a guy in a local fly shop.  Our guy did not steer us wrong - the lake was beautiful and over a dozen rainbow trout ended up on my fly.

Western Lake along the Florida panhandle is one of our all time favorite kayaking spots.  The lake is surrounded by white sand dunes, tall pines, and golden marsh.  
While we did not catch any fish in this lake, we had a great time paddling around looking at the glorious aspens.

Top 10 Surprises (These are things that we did and were surprised at how much we enjoyed them)

LBJ Ranch (Fredericksburg, Texas)

Lyndon Baines Johnson's house in the Texas Hill Country is affectionately known as the "The Texas White House."  Tours take you through the house and the sprawling cattle ranch to give you an inside look at his life outside of Washington.  We thought the tour of the house was great and there is also an audio tour of the grounds that is well worth listening to.

Smoke Jumpers Visitor Center (Missoula, Montana)

When a wildfire breaks out in remote and inaccessible areas of the western wilderness,  the smokejumpers load into a plane with 80 pounds of gear and parachute into the forest to put it out.  The Missoula Smokejumpers have a visitor center at their base and offer tours that give you an up close and personal look at what these elite firefighters do.   

Rocky Mountain Elk Visitor Center (Missoula, Montana)

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is known for their conservation work that ensures the enduring legacy of a wildlife symbol of the west.  We found the visitor center very entertaining and engaging and taught us a lot about elk.   

Mule Fest (Hamilton, Montana)

The annual Mule Days Festival in Hamilton, Montana was truly delightful and more fun than we expected.  It is great family fun, in a beautiful setting, with plenty of adorable "long ears."  

Don King Saddlery and Museum (Sheridan, Wyoming)

This museum was a great find.  Don King is well-known in the world of saddle and rope making.  The museum displays his personal collection of over 500 saddles and countless other saddle making items.  

Heart Mountain Internment Camp (Cody, Wyoming)

Heart Mountain Internment Camp is a wonderful museum that tells the painful story of the "imprisonment" of many Japanese-Americans during World War II.   We discovered this museum while spending a week in Cody and highly recommend it for anyone visiting the area.

Palm Springs Art Museum (Palm Springs)

The Palm Springs Art Museum has a wonderful collection of art and sculpture and is free on Thursday evenings in the winter.  While we are not great lovers of art museums, this one surprised us with some really interesting modern art.  After perusing the museum, head out into the main drag for the lively Villagefest where there is food, music, arts and crafts and plenty of excitement to keep you entertained for a few hours.