Oregon 2011: Plays, Pinots and Peaks

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To not leave any wine region in the country untasted in situ, I decided on a road trip to Oregon’s Rogue River and the more famous Willamette Valley near Portland.  That the state also offers an acclaimed Shakespeare Festival added artistic flare to the visit.   I saw “Measure for Measure” and “Julius Caesar”, both good productions.  Although the words were Shakespeare’s, the former play strayed quite far in costume and presentation, which had a Hispanic sheen as actors broke into Spanish, and also a sprinkle of Bollywood when they broke into song.  It sounds weird, but it worked.  The play was more engaging and the ethical dilemmas it posed were brought into clear relief.  Julius Caesar’s presentation was more conventional, except the role of Julius was played by a woman.
 The Festival is located in Ashland and is a modern complex of three theaters with indoor seating and an outdoor space for shows.  The outdoor space was used for their daily “Green Shows”, early one-hour free music performances.  I attended two, rock and cowboy/hill-billy music presented by aging hippy musicians.  Not great quality, but fun.  One evening, I sat next to an 88 year old engineer who was still working at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory near Berkeley.  He was syncing with the music, enjoying himself.  Hopefully, I can be as lively at his age.  Although the audience of the Green Shows was of mixed age, in the plays the average must have been over 60.  This is also the case for classical and dramatic plays in the Bay Area and elsewhere, although a little lower in London.  I guess middle-aged people are busy with children and young people are busy tweeting.
 Ashland is a cute touristy town about 2000 ft in elevation with a population of 21,000 whose economy relies on the Festival, other tourist attractions such as rafting on the Rogue River and skiing on Mt. Ashland (6,500 ft.), a small university and logging.  It is situated in a broad valley surrounded by mountains.  It looks spectacular at dusk as the fresh grass turns a warm golden-green color.  Not long ago, Ashland boasted the tallest building between San Francisco and Portland, a ten-story high hotel in the center of town.  Built 80 years ago, it is still stands out as a landmark because of its unusual beaux-arts and gothic architecture.   The town’s pace is slow and calm.  Even young people drive below the posted speed limit.  It has a beautiful park downtown that surrounds a rapidly flowing creek.  A walking/running path hugs the creek seemingly for miles.Applegate Valley
One morning I went for a long walk across from the Inn where I was lodged that was about 2500 ft up a mountain above Ashland.  Within 100 yards I wandered on to a logging trail through a pine forest with trees shooting straight up at least 60 ft and maybe 100 ft.  It was so dense that the clear blue sky was barely visible and so quiet that only a few birds and an occasional woodpecker could be heard.   While chatting with the innkeeper when I checked in, we discovered that he had been at Stanford as a graduate student in the same department as Noreene (ex-wife) and Oscar (friend) at about the same time.
On the day I did not go to the theater, I went rafting in the morning and wine tasting in the afternoon.  The raft trip on the Rogue River was very enjoyable, drifting down the river in sunshine and crisp fresh air was soothing.  The only disturbance came from the occasional gold-dredging machines along the banks operated by one or two people hoping to find nuggets.  Rafting difficulty levels range from one to six.  Mostly, we meandered at one, but we got our juices flowing in a couple of 2 pluses and adrenaline and water gushing at two fours.  It was great fun.  A guide’s wife, who was British, struck up a conversation having noticed my Indo-British accent.  It turned out that her father was my contemporary at the LSE and active in British politics, which is why I remembered him.
In the afternoon, I drove to the Applegate Appellation along the Rogue River, passing through Jacksonville, another cute touristy, but smaller town that was prominent during the gold rush.  I managed to find two of the three wineries I was recommended.  Their physical setting felt different from California wineries mainly because the surroundings were greener and bordered by Pine trees covering the hills.  As grape growing and wine making technology has spread world-wide, it’s difficult to find bad wines or remarkable wines.  I did not come across a remarkable wine in my tastings at the wineries or in town, except perhaps a Vermentino made by Troon Vineyards that was a fruity, crisp and dry white wine.  Like California wines, Rogue River wines are over-priced for their quality level and would not fare well with international competition.  Tipped off by a tasting room in town, I went to a jazz performance at a nearby winery.  Again, the performers were aging hippies, but so were the listeners who danced to the music singly or in couples.
Jazz Performance
After three days in Ashland, I drove up to Portland for a stay of two days mainly to visit the Willamette Valley wine region, but I was lucky to also find things to do in the city.  I stopped in Dundee, the main appellation in the region, on my way into Portland and started to work down the list of recommend wineries.  To fortify myself for the task, I lunched at the Allison Inn on the best burger I have had in decades.  It had been marinated in Pinot Noir and was served with a huge helping of fries with hints of garlic and basil.  The Pinots, for which the Valley enjoys an international reputation, at Four Graces Winery were very good and expensive.  They were excellent at Archery Summit, my next stop, and even more expensive, reaching $100/bottle for the Arcus Estate, their top wine.  Expensive as these wines are, they cost a fraction of Burgundy Pinots.  I lingered at the winery to savor the taste and enjoy the scenery from its hilltop location.  I also needed to sober up before driving into Portland.  Sadly, age has eroded my capacity for alcohol.

Expectedly, it rained in Portland the next two mornings.  I had read about an exhibit of antique sports cars at the Portland Museum of Art.  The dozen sports cars were from 1930-1960 and included the usual suspects—Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, Jaguar, Aston Martin, etc.  For me, the Aston Martin DB4 had the simplest sleek design.  Outside the museum, locals put many of their own antique cars on display as well, their sparkling polish dulled by the rain.
Aston Martin DB4
I drove back to Dundee, now in a dense fog and drizzle.  My GPS led me into remote small gravel paths, totally lost with no one in sight to ask directions.  Eventually, I found my way back to paved roads and the couple of wineries I wanted to visit before lunch.  The wines were good, but not at the level of Archery Summit, which was also true of my afternoon tastings.  I lunched at the Inn at Red Hills on a very good and inexpensive fettuccini with vegetables and morels.  In the afternoon, I visited the famous Domain Drouhin winery where the wines were good and the scenery better with the fog lifting from the hills covered with rows of vines and pine trees in the distance.  Even after a few days of visiting wineries in both valleys, vineyards surrounded by pine trees still felt odd.  I chatted with a knowledgeable local fellow wine-taster, who later asked if the very-stretched Hummer limo parked outside was mine.  It’s amazing how much the perception of Indians has changed over the years and obviously reached remote areas of the US.

In the evening I had dinner with Roger and his wife Cynthia.  I knew Roger from when he worked at the IFC in Washington.  He had been posted to Russia in the early 1990s and then left the organization.  His Russian connection brought him to Portland five years ago.  I had lost touch with him, but had heard he lived there. I found him in the phone book and he was kind enough to invite me home for dinner.  His ultra-modern house was situated up on a hill behind the downtown area providing a great view of the city.  His other guests were a couple from the Philippines where the husband had been the Minister of Agriculture a few governments ago.  We had a lively conversation about the political economy of the world, literature and wine.

I headed back to California the next morning, breaking journey in Ashland for the night.  The distance between my house and Portland is about 625 miles.  The beginning and ending 200 miles were through flat farm country with mountains and hills in the distance on both sides with streaks of snow at higher elevations.  Despite the heavy and prolonged rains this year, Northern California’s hills and un-irrigated land had turned brown, but remained green in Oregon.  On the way up, near Redding I passed Mt. Lassen National Park, a volcanic area where I had camped with the Hamids (Nassim, Mohsin and Naved) and the Downings (May and Blake) thirty-five years ago.
Mt. Shasta
A little further, I noticed a huge snow cone in the distance.  I thought it was a mirage or an unusual cloud formation.  It turned out to be the snow-capped Mt. Shasta, rising to 14,000 ft.  Days later, a similar sight of Mt. Hood while approaching Portland came as no surprise.  The middle 200 miles through mountains covered with Pine forests was scenically much more interesting, especially at Lake Shasta, a deep green body of water with forested mountains rising from it on all sides.  In Oregon, I passed more habitable areas that are uninhabited than anywhere else in the world that I can remember.  The whole state has 4 million people, with just over half living in Portland.  Its population density is 40 per square miles compared with Bihar in India, also an agricultural area, with a density in excess of 2000 per square mile.

Since my separation/divorce 18 months ago, feeling lost I visited places where I have lived before such as New York, London, New Delhi, Washington DC, hoping to revive contact with people and places and resuscitate roots.  While those visits were enjoyable and helpful, reaching back into my past also constrained my thinking about the future.  This trip, with its long drives and country music or bible preaching as my only options on the radio, I had plenty of quiet time to think freely.  Amazingly, I came to some important decisions.  I won’t tell what they are in case you hold me to them.


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