Hours in any direction from the nearest decent-size city, Wallowa County, Ore., is remote even by the standards of the rural Northwest. To get there, my husband, our daughter and I drove along the straw-colored cliffs of the Columbia River, through Pendleton, home of the sturdy woolen blanket, and La Grande, a college town with a quiet core, before climbing onto dry high desert plateaus, winding along wild rivers, passing through pine forests and descending again into a valley of cattle and wheat.
We were passing through far east Oregon on a late-summer road trip between California and Montana. The Wallowa Valley, at the tristate border with Idaho and Washington, was out of the way. But I’d heard about Joseph — a town of just over 1,000 people with an outsize reputation for bronze sculptures and unrestrained natural beauty — from a photographer friend in Portland. Despite its remote location, the region had been attracting young Portlanders, who brought the city’s design sensibility to tiny Joseph, which is named for the Nez Percé chief who fought his tribe’s relocation from their ancestral home in the 1870s.
Until recently, the town’s biggest claim to fame — beyond its significant Native American history — was a Swiss-made tram that is said to have the steepest vertical lift for a four-passenger gondola in North America. But the Wallowa Valley is now also home to unexpected businesses like Arrowhead Chocolates, which serves Stumptown Coffee and produces 40-some varieties of small-batch, Fair Trade Certified chocolates in regionally inspired flavors like huckleberry and blended whiskey. (The latter is made from Stein Distillery’s whiskey, also made in Joseph.) We were staying above Arrowhead Chocolates at the Kickstarter-funded Jennings Hotel, which is part Northern European-style sauna, part artist residency.
As soon as I saw the Wallowa Valley, with the wind quivering through golden fields, wide-open skies and big red barns — barns of exceptional character, barns I wanted to move into and make my home — I understood how someone might get hooked. It reminded me of the placid beauty of the Great Plains. But unlike those sweeping, uninterrupted prairies, the valley is surrounded by the Wallowa Mountains and has 31 peaks over 8,000 feet as its dramatic backdrop.
We arrived on a Sunday, when many small towns virtually shut down. But when we pulled up at Terminal Gravity Brew Pub in Enterprise, the next town north of Joseph, at 8:30 — hungry after a long day and hoping for a no-fuss pub dinner — the place was overflowing with people. A yellow Craftsman house in a residential neighborhood (with a warehouse in the back), the brewery describes itself as “the Middle of Nowhere/Center of the Universe,” which had seemed like tongue-in-cheek bravado until we witnessed the Sunday night scene.
A narrow creek ran through the front yard, where barefoot children leapt back and forth, chasing one another and shrieking; picnic tables were crowded with groups of friends, eating dinner and making conversation above the music. A band played fast, upbeat folk-country-bluegrass with an upright bass, a banjo and a washboard, as couples swung each other around in the warm summer air. I felt as if I’d crashed the most uninhibited, un-self-conscious party I’d been to in years. It wasn’t what I’d imagined when, the day before, we’d passed a sign that declared another neighboring town, Lostine, “A Little Piece of God’s Country.” Even the food — a mix of vegetarian options like a beet Rueben on German rye ($9) or a buffalo burger made with meat from a local ranch, Stangels Livestock, and served on a ciabatta roll ($11.50) — was a surprise.
BEING FROM A SMALL, rural Western town myself, I know better than to see someplace like Joseph as two-dimensional. But even I was surprised, again and again, by the idiosyncrasies of the Wallowa region. On our first full day in town, we stopped at the Red Rooster Cafe, also in Enterprise, for breakfast. The place looked like a lot of farm country diners: vinyl booths, Formica tables, homey rooster décor and a counter where locals greet one another over bottomless cups of coffee. With its lovingly preserved interior mural of Wallowa Lake — painted by a local artist, Gene Hayes — it could have been a relic of the 1960s.