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How Hood River morphed into the Aspen of the West

America has become a place where the affluent may consciously go shopping for a new hometown. The phenomenon is reshaping many Western communities.
A brew pub in Hood River

A brew pub in Hood River Bernt Rostad/Flickr


Windsurfing near Hood River

Windsurfing near Hood River Konstantin Zamkov

Though I was born in Oregon, my family moved east to Washington D. C. when I was quite young. Part of the bargain of that move  — my father’s vow on accepting a position with the Department of the Interior  — was return trips each summer to see the grandparents.

So we made a pilgrimage cross-country most summers. Once in Oregon the first stop was the Willamette Valley, where we had family in Hubbard and Amity. After several days we headed east to the Wallowas and the Wallowa Lake cabin of my maternal grandparents.

Our general pattern was an early, 4:30 to 5 a.m., departure from the valley. My Dad would carry my sister and me  — asleep  — out to the car. He laid us on the backseat, while my Mom covered us with a blanket. In the front, my parents would drive through the pre-dawn darkness, sharing a thermos of coffee and puffing on their morning cigarettes.

As we headed east up the Columbia Gorge toward northeastern Oregon and the Wallowas, it was often sunrise when we hit Hood River. For a kid from the cramped and old East, waking up as the sun rose over the vast mountains and wide waters of the Columbia Gorge seemed like being there at the dawn of creation. The rocky cliffs of the Gorge, the mighty Columbia River, the mist on the mountains, and the waterfalls hurtling down wove an expansive and wild tapestry in my childhood mind. Though I didn’t then know the word, “primal” was what it felt like.

Then, like a litany of the Wild West, the names of the towns ticked by as we journeyed east: Cascade Locks, Hood River, The Dalles, Hermiston, Pendleton, La Grande, Elgin, and on. Each passing town marked progress on the journey, but much more. The names themselves conjured explorers like Lewis and Clark, cowboys of the Pendleton Round-Up, and native peoples of The Dalles and Umatilla.

With another year of school trips to colonial staples like Jamestown and Williamsburg under my belt, the brick streets and houses of Alexandria and Arlington looking old -- not to mention the heaviness of the Greco-Roman monuments of D. C. -- the west stirred my boyhood soul. The vastness of Oregon in general, and of the Columbia Gorge in particular, both freed and fired my imagination.

Recently I returned to Hood River to work with a congregation there. It’s a new Hood River, no longer the sleepy town surrounded by orchards I knew so many years ago. Today Hood River, as one longtime local explained it to me, is a kind of “mini-Aspen or Sun Valley,” by which he meant that tourism, recreation, and the things that attend such activities have created a quite different town than the one we drove through, and occasionally stopped for breakfast in, so many years ago.

The changes really began in the 1980s when Hood River was “discovered” by windsurfers, and later kitesurfers. A whole new population descended on the, until then, small orcharding community.

Here’s the factoid that most seemed to sum it up on my recent trip to the Hood River of today: 43 perceny of the homes in Hood River are “vacation rentals.” That is, they are homes owned by people in Vermont, Colorado, California, New Mexico, and most everywhere else. The homeowners may come for a couple weeks themselves to windsurf or, in the winter, ski on nearby Mount Hood. But most of the year their homes are rented out to people on similar vacations, or they stand empty.

Forty-three percent, pretty close to half, is a lot of homes to have occupied only part of the time, and then by a passing parade of visitors. There’s an upside of course. Hood River has great restaurants, trendy shops, brew pubs, and many handsome older homes. The economy is more diverse than it once was and probably stronger. But there are downsides. While the vacation rental owners do pay property taxes, they aren’t engaged in the community in anything like the way full-time residents would be. Moreover, the infusion of money from those who purchase vacation rentals has driven housing prices, as well as other costs, up for everyone.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Great piece. Thanks.

kieth

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Hey, it could be worse, it could have morphed into the Vail of the Northwest like Whistler has

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Or Gig Harbor - "Tacoma's Mercer Island"

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Nov 1, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

You call someplace Paradise, kiss it good-bye
'The Last Resort' by the Eagles

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 7:54 a.m. Inappropriate

If you substitute "Winthrop" or "Friday Harbor" for Hood River this piece would read essentially the same. The aching hard work of ranching (Winthrop), fishing (Friday Harbor) or farming (Hood River) is the stuff that drove small town youth to the city in search of fortune and fame. Now that those youth have grown up and gotten reasonably rich we go searching for the ghosts of our past.
As a resident of San Juan Island I'm always struck by the changes we've wrought by moving to the small town. By increasing the population we change the infrastructure. We insert ourselves in the politics and ignore the community wisdom gained from decades of experience.
Lynnfieldwoods hit the nail on the head with her quote from the Eagles.

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

"How Hood River morphed into Aspen" may be an accurate depiction of modern change, but it shouldn't neglect how our lifestyle of cheap travel cannot be sustained and how such resort communities will return to something closer to their origins. Fortunately, Hood River is located along a major passenger-rail corridor between Portland and Salt Lake City also serving Boise, Ogden and many small towns between. When the day comes we can neither drive nor fly anywhere near as much as we do today - a concept self-satisfied Seattlers aren't allowed to consider - small towns along passenger-rail corridors will evolve again into perhaps more humane, less frivolous locales; perhaps not if the Seattler mentality continues to opine how rail corridors must be high-speed, supposedly because their time is money valued little more than gambling.

Wells

Posted Sat, Nov 3, 6:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, I too wonder just how long these "lifestyle" communities will go on as they now are. They are the product of a set of circumstances which may one day be looked back upon as unusual and temporary.

Posted Mon, Nov 5, 7:26 p.m. Inappropriate

The economics of how people make livings in rural areas have change drastically in the last 40 years. Life in the 1970's saw the beginning of major, major changes, and rural Americal is no longer quite the same.

Nor is that necessarily bad. Frankly, I think it is very important for everyone who pays property taxes to have a vote in the communities where they own properties. Many areas with high ownership by non-full time residents have taken this route, or are studying it.

When you pay taxes, you financially support many things. You ought to have a voice in who runs those 'things'.

Posted Tue, Nov 6, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Where did you get that 43% number for percentage of homes in Hood River which are vacation rentals? Is that documented anywhere that I can verify? I work in the Hood River vacation rental industry and find that number very hard to believe.

According to census.gov there are 9,339 housing units in Hood River county. The leading vacation rental website, VRBO.com, lists 86 vacation rental properties in Hood River county. That is less than 1%. Of course there a few other smaller vacation rental listing services but I'm sure that adding them up would come up with a much smaller figure than 43%.

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