Blissed-Out in Bend, Oregon
Bend instantly delivered on our greatest hope, which was for it to be a refuge from the undercurrent of hostility in the other, non-metro area, Oregon communities we’d recently visited. Indeed, it was a kinder, gentler place from the get-go than our previous 2 Oregon venues. One bumper sticker read “It’s Bend, be nice” and at least some people were listening.
Our lovely Bend RV park with a lockable equipment shed at the back—a first!
Like our cramped LaPine RV park about 25 miles south of us, we were still on the main rail line when in SE Bend. Amazingly, we were about the same distance from it but, fortunately, the noise still wasn’t a deal-breaker for our sleep. And at least we were farther away from the highway noise at Bend. Like when in LaPine, we were still forced to stay off of the mountain trails because of lingering snow pack and again found a lower elevation, scenic river to be the centerpiece for our hikes. But that’s where the similarities began shrinking between Bend and LaPine and Bend was indeed the cultural oasis we’d hoped for.
We didn’t encounter the belligerent guys in the forests around Bend like we did out of LaPine. The local young males didn’t seem hellbent on destroying the woods. Drivers in town were bend-over-backwards polite about yielding to us as cyclists and pedestrians and the mountain bikers were into sharing the dirt trails.
During our first 2 weeks in Bend, I only noticed a single, small “Trump 2020” sign in a truck back window and one “Black Lives Matter” poster in a living room window. There were no political lawn signs, no posted messaging about guns, or implied threats—divisive signage seemed decidedly out of fashion. Instead, the yard art was more often in the form of frogs, herons, and floral door wreaths. By far, the most prominent messaging in the residential areas was folk-art porch signs saying “Welcome.” It took seeing a dozen or more of those signs for the sentiment to penetrate my armor that had accumulated from the hostility of properties turned into “Trump fortresses” encircled by negative signage in rural Oregon. It was like a walk back in time to when smiling at and greeting strangers was done.
Bend always was and still is, a throbbing, year-round sports hub, just like Flagstaff and Fruita/Grand Junction, Colorado, where we spent last summer. We love the energy of being in any of those cities in the summer and we buzz with excitement from seeing bike racks with and without bikes on cars, kayaks on roof tops, joggers, trail runners, hikers, and all the rest. Seeing so many people out exerting, pushing themselves, creates an external wave of momentum that we can ride instead of always providing it from within.
A classic “multi-sport” vehicle, apparently for one.
Twenty five years ago, when we last spent much time in Bend, it was about 1/3 of the size it is today, going from about 30,000 to over 90,000 people. Bend was, and is, the darling for many in Oregon.
We, like many people, longed to find a way to justify moving to Bend to enjoy the high desert, dry climate, and the multitude of individual sports opportunities when we were in our 30’s. Back before telecommuting existed, it just didn’t work for us or most others; moving to Bend usually meant trading long term financial security for current lifestyle satisfaction. The joke then was that only orthopedic surgeons could make a good living in Bend, but only during the ski season. Our first 20 minute drive through Bend’s residential neighborhoods to get to creekside hiking trails made it clear that the prominent ‘dirt bag’ sports crowd of the past had been displaced by the well-heeled.
The tedious drive through town was an enchanting display of beautiful homes but after seeing mile after mile of the same formula, it was too cookie-cutter, too much like Disneyland. I felt like I could write the building code for the exterior appearance: 2 stories, 3 different colors of paint, 2 different textures of siding, a tiny porch, and a yard, but postage stamp-sized was sufficient. Metal chains hanging from roof gutters instead of downspouts were definitely in. Boutique businesses seemed to adhere to the same rigid design standards. Craftsman style exteriors were everywhere, even on remodeled little bungalows. The good news was that there were almost no hostile ‘snout houses’ in which only a windowless garage faces the street behind which homes hide. That design style shouts: “Go away! You can’t see us and we don’t want to see you!” Even what looked like exorbitantly expensive homes had a casual, inviting air.
The rigid conformity in the residential construction styles was echoed in the rigid traffic pattern through town. Bend was all-in on the use of tight, one lane wide, traffic circles, presumably for traffic calming. When making our 20-30 minute traverse through the center of town to get to trailheads, it was a near-dizzying experience of looping out of one traffic circle and into the next with too little straightaway in between. These extra-tight circles were taxing in our oversized, trailer-hauling truck, even without the trailer in tow. We clutched at the thought of navigating them with the trailer. The bold pieces of metal artwork in the middle of seemingly every ring didn’t make up for the annoying process of making a slalom run of half loops to travel between the east and west sides of town. We did learn by experience however, that the circles were effective in making the streets unusually safe for cyclists.
Traffic circle art a-la-Bend: made with kayaks.
One of the recent thin threads in our lives was how people were getting squeezed out in our society, particularly out of housing. I was dumbfounded while outside of Mountain Home, Idaho in April when a lovely, newish RV park had gone from being nearly empty 2 years ago to being double in size and nearly filled. There was a clear answer: these people were priced-out of housing in Boise, which had created a housing boom in Mountain Home. We were told that almost all of these folks in these newer RVs were waiting for homes to be built in Mountain Home because there was no available housing stock there either.
In LaPine, Oregon, our cramped, 40-site RV park was nearly full, permanently. It was odd because some mobile home parks are exclusively permanent residents, some RV parks are a mix, and occasionally a park will limit the length of stay for everyone. But this was almost exclusively semi-permanent residents in trailers, not in ‘rooted’ mobile homes. It again reflected people being forced out of local housing because the shortage had driven up the prices. Unusually, there may not have been any retirees at all; most were 30-somethings, most had jobs in Bend but could not afford to live there. Rental prices had shot-up in LaPine, so they were living in a trailer in LaPine with no prospect of upgrading. We live in a trailer for fun, they were doing so out of necessity.
The LaPine RV park was very distinctive because even though it was tightly packed with only 1 or 2 nightly spots, it was neat as a pin. On laundry day, I learned why from the bulletin board: the only items allowed to be stored outdoors were lawn chairs and barbecues. Bikes weren’t on the list but were evident. This was the secret I’d been looking for, this was how they had balanced becoming an unintended, year-round residence for workers without the place looking like it. Another park in which we stayed a few years ago for a single night shut down a couple of weeks each year for the sole purpose of forcing people to move on. Permanent residents often get too comfortable with their overflowing stuff spilling to the edge of their outdoor space. Online reviews of RV parks will often disparagingly mention if the place allowed itself to degrade to these messy “long-termer’s” encampments.
And of course, the pitiful sight in Portland and elsewhere of homeless people camped on sidewalks, freeway exchanges, and anywhere they were tolerated was another new sign of the housing squeeze. It’s not a new problem and a couple of years ago our stressed apartment manager spoke of residents “bunking up” when rent prices shot-up. Before that, we noticed a huge influx of visitors to Zion National Park that resulted in us no longer going there at all. It had become too difficult to get a camping spot and the rangers attributed their sudden popularity to visitors sharing their photos on social media. This pressure of more people on housing and temporary lodging isn’t new but what was new this year was the pressure on RV parks from both the pandemic and the reduction in housing construction.
A modest (but not inexpensive) Craftsman-styled home.
Suddenly, We Would Be In The Fray
Little did we know at the time when we were observing the plight of others in the difficult housing market that we would also soon be in the fray. On the second day of our upcoming July bike trip along the Oregon coast after leaving Bend, Bill sprung it on me “I think we should move.” It was the outrageous, record breaking heat in the NW that was the tipping point for him. In prior years, we’d had batteries leak and stick candles droop from the heat in our apartment without air conditioning and the recent, record-breaking 116° in Portland had him worrying about the survival of our belongings in heat waves that were expected to become the norm. I didn’t disagree with his logic and said “Let’s do it.”
Bill had dreamed of moving out of our crummy, noisy “traveler’s apartment” with painted laminate countertops and unsightly stained carpets but I had drawn a line in the sand: I wouldn’t move again until he shed a significant pile of possessions. He wasn’t a hoarder, but we’d handled and moved the possessions of his ghosts too many times and the clutter made it harder for him to find the things he valued.
His growing courage over the years had lead to action and slowly but steadily we reaped the rewards of his effort to kick the ghosts and their stuff out of our lives. We cheered when the floors of the closets reappeared and the clothes in the closets could hang, not be held in place from the accumulated lateral pressure of too many garments. I had looked around the apartment before we left for our bike trip and was buoyed by the new literal and figurative lightness emerging.
There wasn’t anything this old in Bill’s stash.
Abruptly, the roller coaster ride of finding a new apartment and moving with a minimal disruption to our hiking and biking lifestyle began. We were horrified by our early online searches because the floor plans had little storage and seemingly even lacked room for our teak bedroom set with 3 dressers. Two bedroom apartment photos often showed a bistro table and 2 chairs instead of a dining area. The layouts of apartments with slightly more than the 850 square feet that we currently had just wouldn’t accommodate our otherwise meager furniture. “How to people live in these spaces?” was my frequent, irritated lament. At the one week point in our search, we discovered that renting sight-unseen was the new industry standard and Bill went into a tailspin.
Rude, really rude to rent without even seeing the apartment. We knew that in the hot home sales market, that people had been making offers before they saw the homes. But unlike buyers, if we landed another apartment with stained carpets or painted-over counter tops, we would not be allowed to upgrade them as renters. We were no longer mere observers to the squeeze in the housing market, we were “squeezees”. Our rent had more than doubled in the 12 years we’d lived there and it would require doubling it again to secure a suitable place for us with AC. Unlike so many other people, at least we could afford it.
Mixing It Up
The unexpected apartment search ahead of us would be in July, during our bike trip, but in June while in Bend, we were focused on keeping life interesting during what was expected to be an uneventful summer. At the outset of our stay in Bend, in order to prevent one week being indistinguishable from the next during our total of 13 weeks there, I planned to find a weekly activity that was other than hiking or biking. In hindsight, the search for an apartment and becoming stand-up paddlers, took care of the need for additional stimulation for the second, longer stay beginning at the end of July.
The first week’s June ‘candy’ fell into my lap, which was a Garmin webinar on the use the SOS button on our newish satellite communication device. It wasn’t a high-content event but it was coincidently time-sliced with getting our rigs washed by a mobile service that happened to be in the RV park, hanging our air-dry laundry inside the trailer, and eating lunch. We were settling in after having just moved our trailer to a nicer spot within the park so even though the 90 minute webinar counted as easy listening, the day felt quite different.
Visiting Lava Lands with our friends Leon & Leslie.
Our third ‘special event’ day took care of itself when our friends from Texas dropped by in their trailer on their way home from visiting relatives in Seattle. Not being fond of driving, we considered it a heroic detour because Bend isn’t on the way to anywhere. We explored the much touted, nearby High Desert Museum and Lava Lands, the interpretive hub for Newberry National Volcanic Monument with them and enjoyed patio dining under the ponderosa pines together. We don’t get many visitors and this is the second time that they have swung by us to visit us, which we appreciated.
The lack of high adventure on the lower elevation trails in the early summer made it the perfect time to add a little intellectual stimulation to our hikes by mastering the use of our heavy Walkie-Talkies. We bought a pair several years ago when we became hike leaders in the desert hiking club but never used them enough to get comfortable with them. We needed to both get more automatic in their use and become more savvy about the circumstances in which they worked and didn’t work. I also needed to delve into using our Garmin in-Reach Mini satellite-linked device and Bill’s all-time favorite GPS app, Gaia.
“Dead” Dogs of Oregon
Seemingly dead dogs at trailhead parking lots were a common sight for us in Oregon, something we never saw in the southwest. Fortunately, they weren’t actually dead, just ‘dead tired’. These dogs were so tired that they didn’t twitch or blink an eye, they didn’t even appear to be breathing.
A ‘dead to the world’ dog at a Bend trailhead.
Dogs aren’t allowed on the SW trails that we hike. In the Palm Springs area, dogs are banned because of the jittery Big Horn Sheep. Dogs are only allowed on the paved trails in most National Parks and Monuments, like at the Grand Canyon. And for whatever reason, we almost never see dogs on the mountain trails of the Alps, though there might be a canine mascot at a mountain hut.
Canals of Oregon
One of the delights of our traveling lifestyle is the unexpected threads that develop to amuse our minds, like the ‘dead’ dogs at trailheads, and another one of those threads this season was the old canals that we kept stumbling upon. The first was the Medford Canal that we were forced to cross by crawling over a downed tree in the Willow Lake area in southern Oregon. I was surprised that it was named a canal—to my eye, it was a powerful, unbounded river or creek. The sign was clear however, it was carrying drinking water to Medford.
During one of our first hikes on the trails near Bend, we encountered the bone-dry Columbia-Southern Canal built in the early 1900’s. It was conceived to deliver water to early settlers and later, to Bend. It literally never delivered and was abandoned. A later modification to it failed because when water was diverted to it, the water disappeared into underground lava tubes. Only a half mile from our RV park, we found ourselves walking along the Central Oregon Canal within Bend and later learned that it was one of 700 irrigation canals in Central Oregon.
The word “canal’ triggers the image in my mind’s eye of a flat, slow moving, contained ribbon of water with a tow path along it, like on the eastern seaboard of the US or in Europe. With further pondering, I remembered that canals could be irrigation ditches or raised troughs of water for irrigation, but that’s about it. The Medford Canal, which was a torrent of water running through the forest, conflicted with my prior images of canals, just as the stories-deep, empty Columbia-Southern Canal did. The Central Oregon Canal in Bend at least fit my second image of a proper canal.
The never-successful Columbia-Southern Canal.
I’d never really had a bucket list of must-do or see activities but I finally realized while in Bend that my bucket list was of unsolved problems, unmet needs. That dawned on me when 2 long-term problems found solutions in one day.
One find was a pair of cycling glasses that were relatively flat, instead face-wrapping, so that my stick-on magnifying lenses wouldn’t be distorted. Bill suddenly had a new pair of cycling glasses on the eve of flying to Europe in 2015 when I finished applying the little plastic ‘cheaters’ and realized that I couldn’t focus well because of the excessive curvatures of the lenses. I’d been patiently waiting since then for the styling to change, babying my old pair of budget-priced cycling sunglasses for years.
Cruising by the locked sunglasses display case at the Bend REI, I spotted the Julbo sport glasses that were almost goggles. About triple my preferred price point, they were a no brainer. The bigger, elevated-from-the-frame lenses would give my moist skin and eyes more protection while reducing my fogging problems. A week later, Bill bought a pair for himself.
I had 3 things on my REI shopping list that day and only found one item but I left the store with 2 old problems having been solved with new products. One was the cycling glasses, the other was an equally overpriced solution for cutting the size of of my sunscreen containers when traveling. I already had one product made by Matador and they now had the perfect little toiletry bottles for me. Silly-expensive at $13 a container, I seized the opportunity to finally solve my sunscreen storage problem. The packets were supposed to hold 3 oz or 90 grams of product but fell short by about 1/3. They would hold 60 g of water or 75 grams of sunscreen. No matter, they only weighed 11 grams each and were super-sleek, just right for backpacking or our upcoming, 2-week long bike tour.
Less than a week before departing Bend after a month-long stay in June, our tempo dramatically accelerated. For years, I’d longed for a little watercraft of some sort for us to play with; nothing serious or purposeful, just a little paddle-around-fun. Perhaps, a minor bucket list want. But, we were maxed out for stuff on and in our trailer and truck and there was no way to stow such a thing. Even the fold-up boat I spotted was too bulky for our space.
In Bend, no car was too small for watercraft but we didn’t have room for even 2 of these.
A few days later near our hike’s turnaround on the same river, 3 buff women were pumping up their stand-up paddle boards (SUP) that folded down into smallish cubes. There wasn’t really room for the boards in the back of our truck, but we were both smitten. One woman, who happened to be a white-water kayaker and just-retired-pediatrician, answered all of our questions. Her borrowed, inflatable, craft was from Costco and she loved it more than her own.
An hour later, I saw a woman our age paddle by on the same distinctive board during our riverside picnic. I shouted “Do you love your board?” She hollered “Yes” while she effortlessly padded upstream. “Is your board from Costco?” Another “Yes” and a laugh. Both women commented on the board’s stability. That was good enough product endorsement for me: 2 older women who loved the paddle board that folded up into a manageably-sized packet. Back at the trailer, the nearly 1400 online reviews of the $1,000 BodyGlove board from Costco for $400 with an average approval rating of 4.7 out of 5 made me smile. My speed shopping was over and we were on our way to becoming paddle boarders.
Costco didn’t have the boards in stock at the Bend store that Thursday but UPS would drop our pair off on Monday while we are out on our 20 miler in 106° heat (maybe) and we’d try them out on Tuesday. That would be our only chance to use them until the end of July because we were returning home on Wednesday, but we were afraid that they’d be out of stock if we waited. We were totally excited!
Inexplicably, Costco and UPS got it all wrong, and our new boards arrived days after we left Bend. Luckily, we would be returning to the same RV park in a month, the park had an oversized office, and the staff kindly agreed to receive and hold our new SUPs. We were phenomenally disappointed to be riding a wave of joy and anticipation and then have it come crashing down. But at least it was only dashed expectations and not a logistical or social issue to resolve. Costco was so confused that I couldn’t have the delivery address changed to our home because their records indicated that they had shipped when they hadn’t. Darn!
From Bend to a Biking Interlude
Bill’s original summer itinerary was simple: be in Bend from May until mid-September for endless hiking and biking but there was a glitch. Even with beginning to make bookings in February, he had to settle for a patchwork plan: La Pine, Willow Lake, Bend, Oregon Coast bike tour, and then Bend. RV parks were almost full, forcing us into the most expensive ones, and camp sites on public lands had to have been reserved in January. And even with that, the new-normal heat and forest fire smoke would be the wild cards almost everywhere and made paying for reservations in advance nerve-wracking.
So, without our new SUPs in the back of our truck, we headed home for a quick 2-night stay before launching on our bikes for over 2 weeks. We’d bike north along the Columbia River to Astoria, then ride south along Hwy 101. There was a certain sweetness to the default plan: the inspiration for becoming international cyclotourists had struck while on a car trip along the southern Oregon coast and our first trial tours were on the coastal routes of Hwy 101 and Hwy 1 in California.