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A few decades ago, the people of Oregon's southwestern corner felt so isolated from the rest of the state that they started a secessionist movement. Half joking but with serious undertones, they set about to create the State of Jefferson from Josephine and Jackson Counties. A couple of northern California counties, equally isolated from their state, were invited to join in.
Unfortunately, they picked a bad news day to announce their plan to the world--the weekend of December 6 and 7, 1941.
Had they followed through with their scheme, the two Oregon counties would have created a smaller version of the very state they wanted to shed. Indeed, they comprise a sampler quilt of Oregon, with a major river (the Rogue), tree-thatched mountains (the Siskiyous), an artistic center (Ashland), a pioneer town (Jacksonville), a major commercial center (Medford) and a river recreation gateway (Grants Pass). The area also contains some of the state's most striking coastline, which we will visit in Chapter five.
If your time is limited and you want to sample an Oregon "rijsttafel" without covering the entire state, this is your corner. From here, a brief side-trip will take you Oregon's only national park, Crater Lake, just over the line in Klamath County.
Although the state's early history is focused around Astoria and Oregon City to the north, southwestern development soon followed, with the discovery of gold in 1852. Creeks around Jacksonville and other tributaries of the Rogue River were panned and dredged for several decades. Jacksonville ruled for half a century as the largest city in southern Oregon.
When the gold ran out, settlers found that the climate and soil in the broad valley of Bear Creek, a tributary to the Rogue, were ideal for agriculture and particularly for pear trees. To this day, orchards around Medford produce a good share of the nation's pears. And of course, the surrounding Siskiyou mountains offered timber. Medford and Grants Pass became--and still are--important lumbering areas.
Cutbacks in logging have dented the economies of the two communities. The surrounding Siskiyous shelter much of the old growth Douglas fir forest that is haven to the spotted owl. If you happen to saunter into one of the good old boy saloons along G Street in Grants Pass, you might want to discuss something other than what some locals call "that gawddamned bird." The weather or the Portland Trailblazers are safer subjects.
It's tough to make a buck here these days, the boys will tell you. The tourist business, however, is thriving. This area is, in fact, one of the most-visited regions of the state. And Medford, although not a tourist town, is thriving as southeastern Oregon's commercial hub. It's now Oregon's fifth largest city.
CALIFORNIA BORDER TO ASHLAND
Approaching Oregon from California on Interstate 5, you'll climb the thinly forested south slope of the Siskiyou Range. These mountains run cross-grain to the north-south Cascades, forming a lumpy border between the two states.
If you like hard liquor, you might want to engage in a southern Oregon ritual by stopping at Hilt, the last California town on the highway. The hard stuff is state controlled and rather pricey in Oregon, so many Oregonians come here to stock up. A former lumbering town, Hilt now consists of a service station, cafe and a small general store with a large booze department.
You'll enter Oregon about a mile beyond, just short of the Siskiyou Summit. For a sky-view side trip, take Exit 6 from I-5 up to Mount Ashland, southwestern Oregon's only ski resort. During a good snowfall year, the small facility's twenty-three beginner to advanced runs are open from Thanksgiving through Easter. Skiers enjoy awesome alpine views since all the runs are above a 7,000-foot base. Call (541) 482-2897 for ski details and (541) 482-2754 for recorded snow reports. Cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are available in the surrounding national forest.
In summer, the area offers hiking trails through thick Douglas fir forests and views of the California and Oregon slopes of the Siskiyous. The road is winding but paved, navigable by most ordinary vehicles and RVs. After six miles, you'll pass Mount Ashland Inn, a wonderfully cozy retreat built of incense cedar logs, set in a forest thicket. For details, see "Where to recline" in the Ashland section below.
Beyond the inn, continue winding upward to the ski resort, where the pavement ends. About a mile farther, on a well maintained gravel road, is Mount Ashland Campground. This national forest facility has sites for tents and small RVs, with pit potties and water but no hookups. The area offers awesome views of California's Mount Shasta to the south, swimming in a baby blue haze. From the camp, you can hike about half a mile up to the Siskiyou Crest for higher two-way views of the area, but it's a tough grind through manzanitas and over rocky outcroppings.
From the Mount Ashland turnoff, I-5 drops steeply toward the broad, forest-cradled Bear Creek Valley. Tourist publications tend to stretch the more famous Rogue River Valley to include Medford and Ashland. However, it's wimpy little Bear Creek that drains this southeastern end of the basin. The legendary Rogue doesn't enter the picture until you reach the town of Gold Hill, well on your way to Grants Pass.
Reach for a lower gear as you sweep quickly down from the heights. The descent is steep but well graded. Incidentally, that near-convex volcanic cone to the northeast is Mount McLoughlin, named for the "father" of Oregon, who we meet in Chapter three, page 125. As the descent levels off, take I-5 exit 11, which puts you on Siskiyou Avenue and takes you to the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a remarkable haven of culture in this land of lumberjacks. En route, watch on your left for Weisinger's Vineyard and Winery at 3150 Siskiyou Boulevard; see "Activities and attractions" below.
|Population: 16,775||Elevation: 1,861 feet|
The drive along Siskiyou Boulevard carries you through the tidy, landscaped suburbs of this attractive community, and past the velvety lawns, immense shade trees and stately brick of Southern Oregon University. If you'd like to stroll its pretty campus, you can park at a fee lot just off the boulevard (opposite Garfield Drive). The student activity center with a book store and cafe sits at the parking lot's south end. At the north end, step into the campus information office in the curved-roofed Britt Building, where you can pick up a campus map. Among the university's lures is the Schneider Museum of Art, listed below.
Approaching the business district, the route splits into two one-way streets--northbound Lithia Way and southbound Main Street. Compact downtown Ashland is a park-and-walk place and the best place to begin is in stunning Lithia Park. To reach it, continue through the downtown area then, just short of the small Lithia Creek bridge, curve down to the left, angle across Main Street and take an immediate half right onto North Main past a little wedge of a plaza with a visitor information kiosk. The street curves to the right and then left to become Winburn Way. Follow it uphill, alongside Lithia Park and its merrily cascading Lithia Creek. (It cascaded too merrily on New Year's Day, 1997, flooding the downtown area.)
Find a place to park (which may be a challenge on summer weekends) and begin your Ashland walkabout. You might pause first at the information kiosk to load up on brochures. It's open in the summer from 10 to 6 Monday-Saturday and 11 to 5 Sunday. If it's closed, you'll find the Ashland Chamber of Commerce a couple of blocks south, next to the Black Swan Theatre at 110 E. Main Street. It's open weekdays 9 to 5; (541) 482-3486. Note the dramatic bronze sculpture of Ashland performers adjacent to the chamber office.
We nominate Lithia Park as the prettiest small town park west of the Rockies. Planned and planted by John McLaren, the master of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, it's a lush greenbelt shaded by mature trees, following the course of sparkling Lithia Creek for more than a mile. It was financed by New York advertising mogul Jesse Winburn. He came to town in the 1920s, hoping to build a spa around Lithia Creek's effervescent, if rather sulfurous, waters.
These natural mineral waters can be sampled at a public fountain near the information kiosk. Lithia water is--along with anchovies, aged camembert and dry martinis--an acquired taste. (I was born thirty miles away and have visited Ashland hundreds of times, but I haven't yet acquired it.) Think of it as Perrier with a rotten egg finish.
RV AND GENERAL PARKING ADVISORY: RV parking is limited around Lithia Park and in the immediate downtown area, although you'll find unmarked curb parking a block or so above and below the downtown grid. RVs up to twenty-one feet will fit in a lot opposite Lithia Park, just beyond Lithia Park Cafe. Parking of any kind becomes scarce in the summer, when the Shakespeare Festival is in full flower. Parking isn't metered, so we suggest that you find your spot early in the day, before crowds begin converging for the afternoon theater performances. However, some streets have parking time limits and the local patrol is quite active.
From Lithia Park, everything of pressing interest is within a short walk, including the three theaters of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Downtown Ashland, which nudges up against the park, is neon-free and spotlessly clean--with an attractive collection of shops, cafes, book stores and stylish boutiques. Of particular appeal are the Chateaulin Wine and Gourmet Food Shop at Main and Oak streets and the Oregon Store on Winburn just below the park, both offering samples of Oregon wines and specialty foods. Also check out Paddington Station at 125 E. Main Street, with a good selection of giftwares, specialty kitchen gear and folk crafts. For the Scottish and Irish among you, it also carries an extensive selection of Celtic CDs. Udderly's at 169 E. Main Street sells tasty and fashionably overpriced yogurt and ice cream, with flavors blended in while you wait. It also sells COWpuccino and COWlectable gifts. Bloomsbury Books and Coffee House at 290 E. Main Street is the best of several local bookstores.
Nearby is the Rogue Brewery & Publichouse at 31 S. Water Street, (541) 488-5061; it's one of two area microbreweries. The other is Standing Stone Brewing Company at 101 Oak Street, between Lithia Way and Main Street, (541) 482-2448. At either, you can sip hearty malts and ales brewed on the premises, accompanied by appropriate brewpub fare.
Ashland's most historic hotel, the Mark Antony at Main and First streets towers nine stories above the town. It was the tallest structure between Portland and San Francisco when it was opened in 1925 as the Lithia Springs Hotel by Jessie Winburn. It faded during the Depression and was reopened as the Mark Antony, with an Elizabethan theme to match the festival. After operating for several years, it was closed and may or may not have reopened by the time you arrive.
While strolling about downtown, check out a promenade called Calle Guanajuato, which runs alongside Lithia Creek just below the park. It's behind the block of stores on North Main and many shops and cafes open their back doors to it. The promenade is the site of the Lithia Artisans' Market and Crafts Fair during summer weekends.
ALL THIS WORLD IS A STAGE!
Even without the Shakespeare Festival, there is much to do and see in Ashland. Indeed, you could "do" the town and come away happy, having never set foot in one of the theaters. However, the Bard is the cause of it all and the reason for it all. More specifically, a diminutive, puckish teacher from Oregon State Normal School (now Southern Oregon University) was the cause of it all. Angus L. Bowmer (as in BOW and arrow) started the festival in 1935. He convinced town fathers to help finance a pair Shakespeare plays as part of Ashland's Fourth of July celebration. City officials agreed to underwrite Bowmer's plays only if boxing matches also were held to guarantee their investment. Of course, as in any fantasy come true, "Twelfth Night" and "The Merchant of Venice" outdrew the pugilists and made enough to cover their deficit. Shakespeare couldn't have scripted it better.
From this has grown one of the largest and most remarkable theater festivals in the world. Remarkable, because Ashland is 300 miles from the nearest metropolitan core and because Oregon of the 1930s was hardly a bastion of culture. Directing the plays and sometimes playing the Puck he resembled, Angus continued building his festival until his retirement in 1971. He remained as advisor until he died eight years later.
Through the efforts of Bowmer and his successors, Ashland has become the most theatrically focused small community in the world. In England's Stratford, the focus is on Shakespeare, the man. Here, it is on the play. Actually, it's on a variety of plays, ranging from the Bard to contemporary classics to avant garde experimental theater. About 350,000 people attend each year, choosing from eleven plays in repertory, presented in three theaters during a nine-month season. More people buy more tickets to see more performances of more different plays than in any other place in the country. The ghost of Angus, unlike that of Hamlet's father, has to be smiling.
Critics rave about the shows, done in "rotating repertory" by professional performers. The company consists of 450 paid staff including seventy actors, supported by 800 volunteers. Most performers do at least three plays, often simultaneously. Othello in the afternoon may be a walk-on in a Noel Coward comedy at night. Some performers have multiple roles in the same play and make lightening-fast changes that would impress a raceway pit crew.
"If you go into the quick-change room off cue, you might enter as a page and emerge as Queen Elizabeth," one of the performers quipped during a backstage tour.
For young dramatists, this is one of the most sought after companies in the country. Alumni include George Peppard, William Hurt and Stacy Keach. The company has won a Tony Award for regional theater and a Presidential commendation for volunteerism. Other accolades include an ACLU award for refusing a National Endowment for the Arts grant because it had strings attached.
The festival could have used the money, but it certainly isn't poor. You'll note that everything about this facility is perfectly maintained, from the theaters to the landscaping on the bricked courtyard. A few years ago, supporters donated $7.5 million to build the dramatic Allen Pavilion of the Elizabethan Theatre to improve acoustics and sight lines.
BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE
For drama buffs, a visit to Ashland can be total cultural immersion. You can see several plays within a week, attend drama-oriented lectures at Southern Oregon University (including some Elderhostel courses), sit in on theatrical discussion groups and take backstage tours. Also, you can watch dancers and musicians perform prior to the plays, try on period costumes and play with props in the Festival Exhibit Center, nibble on Olde English savories, and buy "Will Power" T-shirts and Elizabethan souvenirs at the Tudor Guild Gift Shop. You can buy copies of every Bard play or cheat--as we do--by purchasing twelve-page abridged versions to brush up your Shakespeare just before curtain.
Plays are presented in the state-of-the-art 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre and the intimate 140-seat Black Swan from late February to early November. The 1,200-seat outdoor Elizabethan Theatre--the oldest in America--functions from mid-June to early October. Take a wrap for the Elizabethan, for nights can get chilly.
GETTING TICKETED: Tickets should be reserved well in advance, particularly in summer. One call does it all: (541) 482-4331. Or write: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, P.O. Box 158, Ashland, OR 97520-0158. You'll receive a thick brochure that lists all the plays, performance times and related festival events such as lectures and Elizabethan feasts. It also lists area lodgings, restaurants, tours and other attractions. With brochure in hand and plans in mind, call the above number with your credit card ready, to charge the tickets you want. Ticket prices are rather reasonable when compared with other major American theater groups. They start under $30, and range close to $50 for special boxes in the Elizabethan Theater. During spring and fall, when only the Bowmer and Black Swan are operating, tickets are a few dollars less. (WEB SITE: www.orshakes.org)
The festival runs over ninety percent capacity, so early planning is essential. If you don't have a ticket, you can join the daily ritual on the Shakespeare plaza near the box office. Hand-letter a sign indicating your needs and stand around looking hopeful. Other patrons often have spare tickets. Scalping is strictly frowned upon; expect to pay the going rate.
Another ritual that must be observed: There is no late seating at the festival theaters. When the door shuts, latecomers are shut out until intermission. Incidentally, children under five are not admitted to plays or other festival events.
Backstage tours, well worth the modest fee, can be arranged on shorter notice. Conducted by performers and other festival personnel, they cover all three theaters. The tour ticket price includes admission to the Festival Exhibit Center. It's a small museum of Shakespeare Festival lore, where you can view props from past performances, play with Brillo pad chain mail and styrofoam goblets, and try on old costumes.
OTHER DRAMA GROUPS
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has inspired a cottage industry of drama in and about Ashland. Among them:
Actors' Theatre does comedies, dramas, musicals and children's plays in a 110-seat theater at Main Street and Talent Avenue in Talent, three miles north of Ashland; P.O. Box 780, Talent, OR 97540; 535-5250.
Ashland Community Theatre does an assortment of comedies and dramas in an arena theater. Tickets are available at Paddington Station; (541) 482-7532.
Oregon Cabaret Theatre is a dinner theater troupe doing contemporary musicals at First and Hargadine; P.O. Box 1149, Ashland, OR 97520; (541) 488-2902.
Theatre at Southern is Southern Oregon University's theater arts program, presenting a season of dramas and musicals at two theaters on the campus at 1250 Siskiyou Blvd.; (541) 552-6348.
And there you'd have Oregon.
Perhaps no other state in the Union is so consistently appealing and so versatile. It's all here--the world's most beautiful seacoast, the mighty Columbia River, Hells Canyon of the Snake River, the famous whitewater of the Rogue, the indescribable gem of Crater Lake, the Cascade Range with its volcanoes born of the Ring of Fire, and the great High Desert that slopes away to the east. For lovers of history and culture, it offers Lewis and Clark's Fort Clatsop and the fur trading outpost of Astoria, the pioneer towns of Oregon City and Jacksonville, the rich heritage of the Oregon Trail, the artistic bastion of Ashland and the cosmopolitan excitement and dignity of Portland.
Oregon is a manageable package, a handy rectangle about 345 miles wide and 275 miles deep. You can experience many of its highlights on a fly-drive vacation, or bring your RV and spend a leisurely several months discovering its wonders.
I've been exploring this place since I was a toddler, and I still make new discoveries with each visit. Although we live elsewhere, I'm an Oregonian by birth, first seeing the light of day in Grants Pass a certain number of years ago. I grew up there, and I've return often to learn what's new in my native state. When Betty and I decided to do this "Discovery Guide," we spent months prowling from coast to mountain to desert, from city to town to hamlet. With each revision of this book, we retrace our steps to find out what's new and exciting.
We've done it all, examined it all and explored it all. We've sorted through the wonders of this amazing state, and saved the very best of Oregon just for you.
Don W. Martin
Hanging out in Lithia Park