Bend might be worthy of bypassing, but its beauty has endured

By JAYSON JACOBY, Baker City Herald December 05, 2008 04:36 pm

A couple decades ago you could bypass Bend if you wanted to, except you never did.

In most years during the 1980s my family traveled east every Thanksgiving from our home in Stayton, over the North Santiam River and through the Cascades to Sunriver, where we rented a house for the long weekend.

Back then Bend was small enough that the one main route through town — Highway 97 — was sufficient to handle even heavy holiday traffic. There were an awful lot of signals, sure, but the delays were of a tolerable duration.

If anything, the brief interlude as we traversed Bend only heightened my sense of anticipation for Sunriver and its fabulous (to a kid and, occasionally, to an orthopedist) sledding hills and sleeping lofts. I remember how my heart would beat a little faster when our car cleared the last intersection and the roadside pines appeared and the sign for the High Desert Museum loomed out of the darkness (it was almost always dark, because we left after school on the day before the holiday).

Had anyone suggested then that the state ought to build a ring road in Bend, something akin to Interstate 205 in Portland or Interstate 105 in Eugene, the very notion would have provoked laughter.

But then I doubt many people predicted that, within one generation, Bend would triple its population.

After a hiatus of 15 years or so my parents revived our tradition. Our family — a considerably larger contingent now with the addition of spouses and nine grandchildren and some number of portable DVD players — has gathered in Sunriver for each of the past four Thanksgivings.

Yet even though I’ve become re-acquainted with Bend I still feel a trifle bewildered whenever I approach the place, and no matter from which direction.

Since I live in Baker City it’s usually from the east. To avoid Redmond, another burgeoning Central Oregon city prone to congestion, I exit Highway 126 just west of Powell Butte and follow the Alfalfa cutoff, which intercepts Highway 20 a mile or so east of the Bend city limits.

What I remembered about this part of Bend from our past trips is that it pretty much ended once you got east of Pilot Butte. There was St. Charles Hospital, and a lot of sagebrush and juniper.

Today the junipers are scattered, but the tacos and the pizza practically deliver themselves to your car. It’s as if Pilot Butte, an ancient volcano, had reawakened and erupted Burger King instead of basalt.

The situation is much the same as you revolve around the compass rose.

On the west, Awbrey Butte resembles Bel Air without the palm trees, and to the south the pines have surrendered, for most of a mile, to Fred Meyer and Wal-Mart and, inevitably, to factory outlet stores.

In the north, Bend’s and Redmond’s respective sprawls seem destined to collide, making Redmond to Bend what Springfield is to Eugene, or Gresham to Portland.

Bend’s rapid growth is hardly a secret, of course. I had read about the construction of the Parkway, a highway that parallels the old route of Highway 97, so when my parents announced three autumns ago that they had rented a house in Sunriver I figured I could rely on the Parkway to guide me around the gridlock.

I found the Parkway easily enough. In fact I drove right under it. What I couldn’t figure out was how to get onto the thing. This annoyed me because the Parkway is four lanes wide and illuminated as intensely as a runway.

Instead I wandered about in a poorly lit commercial district which I did not recognize. Worse still I drove through a couple of roundabouts, or rather I drove around and around them in a carousel-like way that made everyone in the car woozy except for me, and that’s only because I was too mad to notice the incipient nausea.

Last year I actually located the entrance to the Parkway and it whisked us, as it was designed to do, quite briskly into the pine forests through which Highway 97 runs south to Sunriver.

That successful episode didn’t instill much confidence, though. Also I’m still frightened of roundabouts.

Anyway this year I plotted a different detour on the far east side of the city. It, too, was efficient. And yet I felt a twinge of nostalgia as we rolled along, inconvenienced neither by red lights nor stop signs. The sense was that by avoiding as much of Bend as I could I was in some minor way betraying my family’s well-loved tradition by boycotting one whole act.

Driving through the bustling heart of Bend, it seemed to me in retrospect, was an integral part of our experience. It was our 10-minute flirtation with the urban rush before we fled to Sunriver, that sedate refuge which supplies most of the amenities of a city but steadfastly refuses to be one. Now as then, Sunriver scrupulously prefers the lodgepole pine grove over the warehouse retailer, the narrow path over the broad Parkway.

On Friday morning we drove to Bend to engage in battle, or at least to look for a slow-cooker on sale.

We went to the mall on the north side. This was, back in the 1980s, the prime shopping destination in Bend, although it boasted, as best I recall, a handful of stores.

Today it epitomizes corpulent American commerce, a place that deals in products as disparate as chain saws and organic tortilla chips.

When you’re browsing the storefronts you could be any place, so generic is the architecture. There is nothing to distinguish Bend from Boston, or Boise.

Nothing, that is, until you get clear of the buildings and the view opens to the west and the Three Sisters suddenly appear, their white domes flanked by the pinnacle of Mount Washington and graceful Bachelor and craggy Broken Top, so aptly named.

And right then you realize, with immense gratitude, that although we can pave over the juniper stumps and scrape smooth the contorted fields of lava we can’t really ruin the place, can’t replace its true heart with false fluorescence and all-night drive-thru lanes.

There is yet magic in a place, it seems to me, so long as a person, even while stuck in traffic, can look out and see the glistening glaciers of a peak that was here long before anyone figured out how to grind grass into a cup of juice.

And persuade people to pay five bucks for the pleasure of gulping it down.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.