On The Road is Think Out Loud’s radio road trip series: conversations with wanderers, tourists, and residents along Oregon’s backroads and highways.
Highway 26 is a route for adventurers. It’s the path that Portland-area hikers, bikers, skiers and snowboarders take to get their fix of the outdoors.
Think Out Loud producers and host Dave Miller recently took a drive along Highway 26 from Sandy to Mt. Hood Meadows, talking to various people along the way. We interviewed mountain bikers, restaurant owners, a ski tuner and a fly fisherman — even a group of kids who threw snowballs at us.
Stop One: Joe’s Donuts, Sandy
The first stop on our trip is an institution — Joe’s Donuts in Sandy. Sherry Vargo bought it from the previous owner 14 years ago. She and her daughter have worked seven days a week ever since then
“I think in the fourteen years, we’ve had five days off…Three of them were sickness. Two of them we couldn’t get in the door because the snow was so high.”
That commitment is even more astonishing when you consider the hours.
“I start about 8 o’clock at night, my daughter and myself. We’re usually done about 4 a.m., 5 a.m.”
We pointed out that we were talking to her at 9 a.m., and she laughs — an infectious, joyous laugh.
“Yeah…usually this is my sleep time … so if I’m not quite coherent, it’s because my brain isn’t working yet.
Stop Two: Mountain Biking, Sandy Ridge Trailhead
Just up the road is the Sandy Ridge Trailhead. It’s a mountain biking mecca, close enough to Portland that people can pop up for a pre- or post-work ride. Bob Lessard explains the biking culture.
“If you come here on a Saturday afternoon, you will just see total strangers all just sitting on the tailgates of their pickup trucks and their SUVs, just chatting and saying ‘I had a great day!’”
He’s here with Allie Evershed, who is beaming. “This is seriously the best day I have had in a long time. The morning — driving up here with the sun…”
“It’s soul cleansing,” Lessard interjects. “It’s soul cleansing — Unicorns and rainbows.”
Stop Three: Fly Fishing, Sandy River
From the parking lot for the Sandy Ridge Trailhead, it’s just a short drive to Brightwood Beach on the Sandy River. This is Gabe Hatter’s go-to spot for salmon and steelhead fishing.
“You come out here and you’re trying to do one thing and you’re fully focused on that one thing. And then at some point you realize that … you’ve gotten your mind off of anything else you’ve been working on. Maybe it’s your job or your life at home, or whatever. You haven’t thought about any of that stuff. You’re just fishing, you know, it’s perfect.
“And then you realize you’re just looking at your surroundings more. Maybe it’s the swirl of the water or the way the light hits the far bank, you know? I mean, those are the things that make it worth it.”
He pauses, then adds, “Catching a fish every once in a while helps, though.”
Stop Four: Skyway Bar and Grill, Zigzag
Continue up Highway 26, and you hit Zigzag. It’s home to the eclectic Skyway Bar and Grill. The owners, Tom Baker and Tracy Anderson bought the restaurant 16 years ago.
When you walk into the restaurant, it feels like you’re walking into a Tom Robbins novel. Anderson explains how the original owner built the place.
“He took windows and an original tin ceiling, an old boiler, crystals, and wood frames, old beams, and he created this building.”
There’s now a big cast iron fireplace in the main dining room. All around it is a huge mural that Tom painted featuring skiers and a possum. And there’s something — some old antique, or kitschy piece of art, in seemingly every corner.
“I’ll probably be adding to it today and tomorrow when I go to the swap meet in Portland,” says Baker. “It’s a good place to find things.”
Stop Five: Elk Jerky Stand, outside Zigzag
If you’re lucky, when you drive up 26, you might catch sight of roadside entrepreneur Brad Clark. He sells elk jerky, elk summer sausage, salmon jerky, bison summer sausage, and, if you’re feeling adventurous, alligator jerky. He’s coy about his business.
“I don’t want to make it sound bad because it makes me look stupid for doing it, but I don’t want to make it sound good, cause I don’t want any competition.”
He used to be an auctioneer, but when he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he had to stop. Now he puts his loquaciousness to use selling meats. He giddily tells us about the sign he made for his 2000 Chrysler.
“I used to use a sign I took up and down. The trouble with that, it was a tarp. The wind would blow, and it would blow me around with it. So I made a permanent one about two months ago … I went down on the freeway one night. Hit 75 miles an hour to make sure it wouldn’t blow off. If it was going to blow off, I wanted it to blow off when nobody was around.”
Stop Six: Mountainology, Rhododendron
The past two years were slow for Garrett Walicky’s ski shop, Mountainology, but things are getting better with the improved snow year.
“We got a local crowd that comes in. Now we’re kind of the go-to down here in Rhodie.”
One attraction for the shop is hanging out at Walicky’s feet.
“This is the shop dog. This is Winston … He brings in more customers than the store itself. He hangs out in the window, and people love this guy — big old, 120-pound teddy bear.
Stop Seven: Oregon Trail Historical Marker, Rhododendron
Carol Haugk’s main task these day is keeping Rhododendron clean and safe — she pays attention to little details like brushing moss off the historical marker in town. She’s lived Rhododendron for 52 years, and skiing has been her life. At 20, she was featured skiing on the cover of Look magazine, which was similar to Life magazine at the time.
“Dad said, ‘You have to choose a profession that you really, really like, because you will be doing it eight hours a day for probably up to 40 or more years, so you better like it.’ I said, ‘well I really like skiing, that’s what I’m going to be doing.’ So from the seventh grade on, I was going to be a ski instructor … I believed since skiing changed my life, that if people learned to ski, their lives would be changed.”
Stop Eight: Mount Hood Cultural Center, Government Camp
If you’ve ever wondered about the name Government Camp, Lloyd Musser is the man to talk to. He’s the curator of Mount Hood Cultural Center, and he knows everything about the area.
“The army came here after the Civil War. They moved a bunch of troops from the South to Fort Vancouver. So they had cannons and stuff they were pulling, and a lot of men and officers and horses and mules.
“Well they get to The Dalles in the fall, in September, and the officers are getting tired, they want to get out of the saddle. So they got on a raft and went to Fort Vancouver. Sent the enlisted men, with all those mules and horses and all the gear through the mountains. There’s no grass, it’s been freezing and snowing and raining. So they get here and there’s a big meadow down here. And the enlisted men made a command decision they were going to jettison all the gear they didn’t need and hightail it for Oregon City and Fort Vancouver.
“So they had this mountain of wagons and saddles and all this gear stacked down here in the meadow. Then in the Spring the government hired some contractors to come back and retrieve all that gear. And so it became, ‘You know where the government camped up there? That’s where we’re going.”
Stop Nine: Glacier Haus Bistro , Government Camp
At Glacier Haus, we run into a mixed-race family, most of whom were visiting from China. Many of them were on their phones, and the American in the group explained they were posting photos and videos of his future grandma-in-law.
“This is actually her first time touching snow…she’s 81 and she’s seen snow but never actually touched it til today. We have some video of her walking around and throwing a couple of snowballs and stuff, so everybody is just kind of reviewing the pictures and the rest of the family that didn’t get make the trip, they’re all posting it on WeChat which is sort of like a Chinese Instagram so that they can see what we’re doing and keep up with the trip.”
When she was asked what she thought of it, she said, “Really fun”
Stop Ten: Government Camp Parking Lot
As we started driving out of Government Camp, a blur of white streaked by the window. It was a snowball that had just barely missed the car.
We turned and saw five young guys hanging out on the sidewalk. They looked like they were having a very good time. So we pulled the car around and headed back to them. They seemed ready to make a run for it, then sized us up and realized that we weren’t a threat.
We asked them about what they thought people needed to know about Government Camp.
“Loosen up. Don’t expect this place to be nice to you…people just take things too seriously … This is a road with a bunch of ski bums on it. It’s not a nice community. It’s just a bunch of bums that like to snowboard.”
We asked if that included them. “Oh yeah,” one replied.
They all work at the resorts or ski shops nearby. We asked them what their ideal lives would look like, going forward.
“This. This forever.”
Stop Eleven: Mt. Hood Meadows Parking Lot
As impractical as those kids’ plans for their futures might seem, when we got to the parking lot at Mt. Hood Meadows, we met a few guys who were living an adult approximation of that teenage dream. We asked them what they were up to.
“Spring turns, having some fun, enjoying the parking lot scene … You can always expect some good energy and some good vibes in the Mt. Hood parking lot.”
The guys all have jobs, but they don’t take precedence over having fun. One of them works in construction, and he said his boss tried to reach him earlier. “He blew up my phone already with like three or four messages because the weather got good.” But work took a backseat to fun. Luckily, he met his boss while skiing, so he understands. “He’s a ski bum.”
They reflect on the difference a good snow year has made for the mountain.
“We were just talking about how we love that there’s snow this year and it’s not so dry and everybody can maintain their businesses. We want it to survive up here. There’s a lot of character and a lot of soul … This is everything that we live here for.”