Southern Oregon—Medford, Ashland, All of It—Is the Perfect Antidote to Portland

Bluer than Picasso’s Blue Period
Bluer than Picasso’s Blue Period
Dave Barton

No sales tax. Death with dignity. You can't pump your own gas. Welcome to Southern Oregon.

Forget Portland. It's just tattooed, hipster-bearded, beer-brewing alternative types infusing coffee with bacon grease or making artisanal doughnuts and hogging all the attention. Central Point is where it all begins. It's pretty unremarkable as far as cow towns go—just lots of pastures greener than green from lots of rain, dilapidated buildings and too many Dutch Bros. drive-through coffee stands—but there are three unexpected joys to be found there.

Do a double-take at the odd-looking horses of Pleasant View Farm (5827 Old Stage Rd., Central Point, 541-664-7245), until you realize they're not horses, but rather Bolivian llamas and Suri alpacas. The farm (one of several alpaca/llama ranches in Central Point) welcomes visitors, and while I haven't taken it up on its hospitality, any website advertising "Special 'lamas' for Special People"—intentionally (or unintentionally) equating camelids with Buddhist teachers—deserves a special mention.

The only restaurant in town wholeheartedly recommended is Thai Garden (43 N. Third St., Central Point, 541-727-7502). If you're a fan of the Netflix doc The Search for General Tso, then the sweet-and-spicy Chinese fried chicken named for him should be on your list. Smoky, garlicky, it's the single meal in Central Point that you'll miss when you're back home.

The Central Point Pioneer Cemetery (Hamrick Rd., Central Point, 541-664-2181) is badly in need of some respect and care—tombstones have fallen (or been pushed) over, the grass is wildly overgrown and parts of the cemetery are strewn with branches that have fallen off the trees—but it's easy to lose a few hours among the dilapidated plots and gravestones dating back to the mid-1800s. One lovely anecdote: When I was there in February, someone had walked through and left tiny candy bars at the graves of many of the children buried there.

Central Point may not be much besides green, but its greatest strength is as a starting point to navigate less-hoary sites within a few hours of it.

South of Central Point, Medford is warmer and flatter, and it has straighter streets and more than 10 times the population. Located in the part of Oregon where people who have moved there from California complain about all of the people from California moving there, it's also more liberal, with a median age that skews younger—a great place to base further Oregon adventures.

The city's shiny, glass-and-brown-brick Rogue Community College's Riverside campus (114 S. Bartlett St., Medford, 541-245-7500) is smack in the middle of a downtown that feels like an update of what modern small towns should be. The Lithia Commons is a streamlined concrete and grass walking area taking up two park blocks near the college, with easy parking allowing for Farmer's Growers and Crafter's market on Thursdays and Saturdays, concerts, and other group activities.

Nearby, you'll find art supplies, used-book stores, a performing-arts center, too many fast-food venues, plenty of restaurants, Barnes & Noble, even an Irish pub. I thought the fish and chips at 4 Daughters Irish Pub (126 W. Main St., Medford, 541-779-4455; 4daughtersirishpub.com) were meh, but the ambiance was pleasant—full of character (flags and other Gaelic icons), quiet enough when a sports event wasn't happening that you can have a conversation and actually be heard, especially in the comfortable areas upstairs—and the beer is cold. Ahuva Bagel Co.'s (1130 Biddle Rd., Medford, 541-776-2245; www.ahuvabagels.com) bland interior is geared more toward moving product, instead of providing a place for you to prop up your computer, but what it lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for with its perfect open-face cream-cheese-and-lox pairing.

My suggestion: Get your sandwich to go, then drive over to the Starbucks across from the college campus (1408 Biddle Rd., Medford, 541-732-1970) for coffee and conversation. The building's an easy-on-the-eyes design from a corporate coffee chain that occasionally seems as if it has run out of ideas, but the shop is quite beautiful. Sleek walls of glass, greenery outside, high ceilings, colorfully painted walls, an elegant bathroom, easy-on-your-back-and-ass couches, and freaking gorgeous lighting fixtures offer a warm aesthetic that's way more comfortable than the collectors of mentally ill homeless people so many other Starbucks have become. It doesn't feel rushed, there's (attractive) people-watching available thanks to the college, and the smell of burned coffee doesn't linger on your clothes when you leave.

Kaleidoscope Pizza's (3084 Crater Lake Hwy., Medford, 541-779-7787; www.kaleidoscopepizza.com) tie-dye and Jerry Garcia memorabilia isn't my thing, but their regular-crust pesto pizza—with portabello mushrooms and black olives, no roma tomatoes, anchovies on the side—is worth it. If you believe your food can also never have too much of the stinky rose, try the roasted-garlic pizza, too.

Thirty minutes away is Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival every summer (www.osfashland.org). The 2016 season includes the good (recent South Coast Repertory hit Vietgone), the debatably good (The Wiz), the overproduced (Twelfth Night and Hamlet), the rarely produced (Timon of Athens) and a couple of world premieres, including one about abortion (Roe, directed by the festival's artistic director, Bill Rauch). Ticket prices are ridiculously expensive, but it's a must-go mecca for theater people.

Ninety more minutes and you're in Prospect and a tiny jewel of eating: Beckie's Café (56484 OR-62, Prospect, 541-560-3563). Located among the pines, its tiny parking lot just off the freeway, breakfast at the rustic eatery is a gut-filling idyll, with large portions and friendly service. In the winter months, the snowdrifts can reach up several feet, inevitably closing down sections of the nearby Union Creek Resort from convenient shoe-and-sandal traffic, but the pack makes good snowballs.

Forty-five minutes from there is the fifth-oldest National Park in the United States, Crater Lake (www.nps.gov/crla/index.htm). Located in Klamath County, the serenely beautiful expanse of water, formed in a volcanic crater, is bluer than a Picasso painting and the deepest lake in the country. Majestic by any definition, the lake is surrounded by forest, with bike trails available around the rim.

If you're looking for a slower pace than what you're used to in California, less interested in sightseeing and tourist traps than a re-acquaintance with Mother Nature and the lost art of conversation . . . welcome to Southern Oregon.

Did I mention there's also recently legal recreational pot smoking?


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