I get to create stories for a living, hunting down creativity and content like it’s my job, and through it all I’ve learned that it’s the most out of the way places -- the ones that take a little grit to see them through – that give the best reward. It’s sort of like adult homework for the adventurous.
So going north for a late summer wedding on a Christmas Tree farm in the Oregon countryside was the easy sort of ‘Yes,’ but I still needed more than the predictable PNW hit list of cinematic landscapes and mossy forest floors.
Since I’d just finished reading Pam Royes incredible book Temperance Creek, which is a chronicling of her and her husband Skip’s time as nomadic sheepherders in the Hells Canyon backcountry, I knew I wanted to go back. One, maybe I could actually find Pam and convince her to teach me how to properly make sourdouch and, two, because of Joseph, Oregon.
Now, if you head due East from Portland, about five hours (six with pit stops and mountain passes), you’ll end up in Wallowa County, which is next door to Hells Canyon. It’s a vortex of rugged ridges, hard-living characters and unbelievable artisans. And it’s the sort of place that doesn’t give it up for just anyone – you’ll earn your views, find your drinks, and you’ll be grateful for what you get – but you’ll also find yourself a little bit in love even if you can’t quite say why.
With one of the cheapest (and most beautiful) rooms in town, The Jennings Hotel is reason enough to go. But their story makes it even better. A few years ago, Greg Hennes bought a century old building in total disrepair and launched a Kickstarter to renovate The Jennings back to its former glory. It’s a perfect combo of Scandinavian simplicity, heritage design and impeccable detailing. The hotel’s almost always booked to capacity, with about half the rooms up and running, but the rest of the rooms (eventually ten in all) should be up by the rodeo next summer. One of the best parts is that every room has been given to a different designer, featuring an art and spirit completely their own.
From the sauna to the communal kitchen, to the artisan chocolatier just downstairs; the handmade soap shop across the way, the one-of-a-kind art on the walls, and the glacial lake up the road, The Jennings might become your favorite pit stop on the way from here to there. Just don’t forget to sign up for one of the finest book clubs you could ever hope to be a part of (personally, I’m vying for one of the coveted spots that will help helm that ship).
Head East. Stay at the Jennings, read Temperance Creek and see a town just on the brink of something that rare kind of special.
A Holy 3 for Hells Canyon, OregonDepending on the time of year, Wallowa County can be anything but a kind and welcoming lady. Difficult to get to no matter the direction, Joseph, Oregon, is five hours from Portland, straight East on the 84 ‘til you nearly hit Idaho. But the sprawling prairies, hidden cabins, wild berries, lake monsters and rich Native American culture make these rugged canyon and river lands rare and worth it.
Joseph is a rural outpost at the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail. Boasting about seven blocks in total, it’s a small mountain town with generational charm, homesteader ethos, and stunning snow-capped mountains.
It’s hard to get to but if you can make it, you might never leave the Wallowa County Vortex.
Here are 3 Musts (and a few extras) to really catch the spirit of this little secret.
The Zumwalt Prairie Reserve
The largest remaining prairie of its kind, it’s perfect for cowboy camping under the stars or impromptu photo shoots all the same.
M.Crow & Co.
A 109 year old generational staple of Lostine, OR. BDDW furniture designer Tyler Hays sells country goods next to handmade, high end cutting boards and more. Across the street is the most organized antique store you’ll ever find.
You can’t go wrong but try the Hurricane Creek Hike so you can feel even better about stopping at Terminal Gravity for a beer.
Temperance Creek by Pamela Royes
It’s an unreal story about the strongest woman we’ve ever met falling in love, following her heart and living in the wilderness as a sheepherder, cowboy and (sometimes) outlaw. Rumor has it she still makes the best sourdough and that you can still see the scar from when she got shot within two weeks of going into the backcountry.
Even More…Stay at the picture perfect, easy, well designed Jennings Hotel
Camp at Wallowa Lake at the foot of the country’s most pristine glacial moraine
Visit the Joseph Canyon Overlook
Get a Triple Mountain Berry Shake at Little Bear
Try the fried chicken at The Imnaha Tavern
Try the 6 Ranch Burger and every beer at Terminal Gravity Brewery
Visit Bee Crow Bee for amazing handcrafted soaps, perfumes, candles, shampoos and more
Get weird with the alchemy of plants and herbals at Wild Carrot + Dandelion Wines