Intoxicating Bend, Oregon

bend, oregonWho wants to move to Bend, Oregon, with me? Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I already have a perfectly good place to live. Why would I need to move to a small city in Central Oregon? If you’re asking yourself this question, you’ve probably never been to Bend, because it’s one of those places that gets under your skin. Drop by for four or five days, as I did earlier this month, and you can’t help but envy those who call this place home.

Bend makes it onto a lot of Best Places to Live lists, particularly the ones you see in Outside, Men’s Health and other publications that value recreational opportunities and craft beer, rather than career climbing. I was fully prepared to be disappointed by the place, but instead I was seduced. The weather was perfect with sunshine, temperatures in the 70s and clear blue skies and vistas of snowcapped mountains in every direction. And everyone we met, even those we encouraged to tell us something bad about Bend, told us the same thing: we love it here.

My first I-Want-to-Move-to-Bend moment came on a hike to Dillon Falls, just minutes outside of town. We were hiking on a path alongside the cool, rushing waters of the Deschutes River. The sun was out and it was perfectly quiet, save for the melodic rush of the powerful rapids. I watched the river flow and couldn’t help but view it as a metaphor for how quickly life goes by. It’s too short not to be in a place you love, right?

Before you quit your job and move to Bend based upon my half-baked advice, I should admit that it isn’t perfect. The unemployment rate is 11.3 percent and that number doesn’t even accurately reflect how bad the economic situation really is, because there are also lots of people who have only part-time work or full-time McJobs with wages so low that they are forced to drink mass produced beer. (Contrary to popular belief, you cannot use Food Stamps to buy craft beer in Bend, at least not yet.)

Bend experienced one of the country’s steepest boom and bust real estate swings, before and after the Great Recession, and though the price of homes has gone down, it’s still far from cheap. And although the climate is sunny and dry, it can get quite cold in winter. So there you go. Bend isn’t perfect. No place is. But even if you don’t want to move there, you at least have to visit. Here’s why.

The Great Outdoors

In Bend, you don’t even have to leave the city limits to enjoy nature. Whatever you like to do: ski, hike, cycle, kayak, rock-climb, white-water raft, you name it, and you can find it close to Bend. I’m into hiking and I highly recommend the Dillon Falls section of the Deschutes River Trail, the Lava Lands Visitor’s Center, Smith Rock State Park, the Peter Skene Ogden National Scenic Trail, the West Metolius (River) Trail, right next to the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery (a free and interesting site itself) and Pilot Butte State Park, which is right on the east side of town. Also, the trails at the High Desert Museum are perfect for a stroll and the fact that you can learn about the region’s history and wildlife on the premises makes this place a must-visit while in Bend.

And even if you’re not a skier, take the ride out to Mt. Bachelor and continue on the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway (parts of this byway are open only in the summer) for some glorious alpine scenery.

Beer

When it comes to good beer, there’s an embarrassment of riches in Bend. I have no clue how 10 brewpubs and three breweries (with more set to open soon) stay in business in a city of 80,000, but as a visitor, you can only benefit from the stiff competition. I visited seven brewpubs in four days and felt like I had just scratched the surface of what must be the best craft beer scene in America.

My favorites were McMenamins Old St. Francis Brewery, for its killer English Brown Ale and its atmospheric pubs, Crux Fermentation Project, for its tasty Marzen beer and its patio, and 10 Barrel Brewing Company, because I love their fire pit and indoor/outdoor bar. But all of Bend’s breweries are worth a visit, and if you manage to hit them all and collect stamps to prove it, you’ll get a nice little souvenir mug from the visitor’s information office.

Eats

For a city of its size, Bend has a remarkable array of good restaurants. I didn’t have a single bad meal anywhere. I had a carnivore’s pizza at Deschutes Brewery that was out of this world; some very memorable oatmeal cookies at Lone Pine Coffee Roasters, a stylish little café in an alley location in downtown Bend (thank you, Anna Brones); and some surprisingly outstanding New England Clam Chowder at Parrilla Grill. My colleague Pam Mandel sent me to the Sparrow Bakery for breakfast and I quickly became addicted to their vanilla and cardamom spiced ocean rolls (see photo below).

But the Bend restaurant that I’m still dreaming about, a week after returning from Bend, is Big Island Kona Mix Plate, a casual Hawaiian-style place in the Old Mill District. I had the mixed plate with bulgogi and spicy chicken and couldn’t remember the last time I tasted anything so divine (and affordable at $10 a plate with two sides.)

Dreamers

When Cate Cushman, a real estate broker we met, moved to Bend in 1976, the town had a population of less than 15,000. Cushman, a Georgia native, had been traveling across the country in a Winnebago with her first husband when they fell in love with Bend and decided to stay. Nearly 40 years later, she’s certain that she made the right move.

Bend’s population more than doubled in the ’90s, and continued to rise in the last decade, from 52,029 in 2000 to 76,639. Much of the population gain can be attributed to Baby Boomers from California moving to Bend to retire, but you don’t have to look very hard in Bend to find young people who have moved there as a lifestyle choice. Some call Bend a place to experience “poverty with a view,” but I think that, for many who move there, the point is to step out of the rat race, slow down and enjoy the finer things in life.

Take Sibel Edmonds, for example. I met Sibel at the Bend Brewing Company one afternoon this month and she told me that she looked all over the whole world for the perfect place to live and raise her daughter, Elle, and settled on Bend, thanks to its natural beauty, cultural offerings, good schools and sunny, dry weather, among other things. I don’t know if Sibel is right or not, but I like the idea of being in a place with so many idealistic people who are looking for their own little utopia. Bend may or may not be a good fit for us, but I got enough of a taste of Bend’s good life to know that I want more.

Culture Shock In Green California, Where Even Homeless People Drink Craft Beer

homeless drinking beerI live in a very left-leaning community just outside of Chicago, a city that would sooner elect a Martian than a Republican to office. But even though I’m accustomed to mingling with people who listen to NPR’s “Car Talkin order to feel like honorary members of the proletariat and cast stink eyes at people who fail to bring their own bags to Whole Foods, traveling to California, the state that invented cool, still presents a kind of culture shock.

We went to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, traveling in a carpool lane for much of the way, and noticed that all the best parking spots were reserved for hybrid cars. On our Africa tram ride at the park, our driver gave us a lecture on how to drive (slow down, come to complete stops, use proper tire pressure) in order to help us be more green. Afterwards, we repaired to a nearby mall to get my sons, ages 3 and 5, slices of pizza and noticed a Caucasian family all eating with chopsticks in the food court.

I approached the mother and told her I was impressed that her children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15, were using their sticks so deftly.kid eating sushi“They’ve been eating sushi and using chopsticks almost since they were babies,” she explained. “The trick is to tie them together with rubber bands for them to practice.”

My son, James, is such a bad eater that he actually nibbles around the exterior of McDonald’s chicken nuggets so as to avoid eating the stuff that is supposed to resemble chicken in the middle. If we can’t find pasta, pizza, mac-n-cheese, grilled cheese, McDonald’s or peanut butter, my kids are in trouble, but these kids eat sushi for God’s sakes?

In Laguna Beach, we had dinner at a fast food Mexican place called La Sirena Grill and when I asked the cashier why the food was so good, I got another dose of eco-California.

“Everything is all natural,” he said. “The fish is wild, sustainably caught. The mixed greens and the rice and beans are all organic. The meats are humanely raised and even these containers are made out of corn.”

We stayed at my brother’s home in North County and noticed that he has three cans for different types of garbage and recycling provided by the city. And if you’re anywhere near the Pacific, you’ll see legions of surfers, cyclists using bike lanes and nary an overweight person in sight. (Although there are a startling number of people in this state who supposedly need medicinal marijuana for various health problems!) Chain restaurants in California are required to display the calorie count next to menu items and many other restaurants do so as well.

waterless toiletIn San Diego, our hotel encouraged us not just to keep our same sheets and towels but also to decline housekeeping altogether. And in a La Jolla cupcakery (organic, of course), we encountered an eco-friendly waterless toilet. Is it any wonder that 7 of the country’s top 30 greenest cities are in California?

And if you’re looking for a psychic, a tarot card reading or some kind of eastern style wisdom seeking, California is certainly the place for you. In Encinitas, I saw this enormous complex with golden domes (see photo) and a sign advertising “Self Realization Fellowship” and thought, only in California.

One of the other things a traveler can’t help but notice in California is that there are homeless people everywhere. A 2011 study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness put the total population of homeless in California at 135, 928, while other estimates put the figure at closer to 200,000.

self realization center encinitasAs a traveler who covers a lot of ground on foot, I’ve encountered dozens of homeless persons every day so far in my travels around Southern California and it isn’t possible to help them all. Southern California’s mild climate makes it about as good a place as any for homeless people in the United States but it’s hard to know if most of the homeless here are native Californians, people who moved here on a wing and a prayer to follow a dream that didn’t work out, or people who were already homeless and moved here to take advantage of the warm climate.

Whatever the case may be, at least some of them apparently still retain their good taste in beer. I saw a young, heavily tattooed and pierced homeless man drinking early in the morning in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and at first I thought he was drinking some kind of cheap 40-ounce beer. But upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a 22-ounce bottle of Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale.

Along that same brighter culture shock angle, it’s practically illegal to drink Bud Light or other bland, mass-produced beers in San Diego and other parts of Southern California. In hipster circles around the country these days, it’s socially acceptable to drink either very, very bad cheap beer, like PBR or Old Style, or craft beer, but certainly not Bud, Miller and the like. There might be people drinking bad beer in San Diego, but I certainly haven’t noticed them.

Last night in San Diego, I was in the mood for some good beer, so I did a quick Google search of brewpubs in the area and found that there were at least 32 to choose from. It’s no wonder that Men’s Journal named San Diego the best beer town in America. I ended up at the Coronado Brewing Company, which serves up a pretty damn good English Brown Ale, but the dizzying selection of places almost had me feeling nostalgic for the days when cities had just a handful of places to drink good beer and it wasn’t so hard to figure out where the hell to go.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, eyeliam and Darin Barry on Flickr]