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How Hood River morphed into the Aspen of the West

Windsurfing near Hood River Credit: 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.

This is what my local observer meant when he termed it “a mini-Aspen.” Not so ritzy, by a long shot, as Aspen. But still, a tourist mecca, a town made over by money. During the year the population of Hood River is about 8,000. But during “the season,” roughly June through October, that swells to 20,000. The once small, stable and relatively homogeneous community of Hood River is now a much more complex sociological critter.

Sunrise along Gorge at Hood River

Photo by Scott & Emily/Flickr

The view over the Gorge at Hood River as the sun rises

Not only do vacationers change and swell the population of Hood River, there’s another element to the town’s makeup: people who have chosen Hood River  — sometimes after a pretty exhaustive search  — as home because of the beauty, lifestyle, and recreational opportunities. Several people I met had spent an entire year travelling the U.S. looking for the ideal place to live before deciding it was Hood River.

Hood River with Mount Hood in the distance

Photo by Edwin and Kelly Tofslie/Flickr

Hood River with Mount Hood in the distance

Some of these have located rapidly growing start-up technology companies here. They did not chose Hood River because its an ideal location for business. They chose it because, when they aren’t doing business, they can go windsurfing or skiing or hang out at a local brew pub or wine tasting room, or just enjoy the beauty of it all. We are society that has become  — for the more affluent  — all about choice, something this business of checking out lots of great places and then picking one to live in brought home to me. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of “home shopping.” At least for some, we choose where we want to live in a way not unlike choosing a car or a pair of shoes.

Add to the mix a population that is now over 25 percent Hispanic. For years, Latino’s came as migrant labor to the orchards. Now, most are year-round residents, swelling the local Catholic Church and moving into new housing over the Gorge/hillside and out of old town Hood River. It is not only Hispanics live in “the heights” and the valleys beyond. It is increasingly where locals live as well. Prices are lower there. Land more available. Orchards disappear to be replaced by housing developments.

All of this makes Hood River an interesting, complex, and somewhat fragile place. It is a creation of “the new economy,” offering the look and to some extent the lifestyle of a small town, but the possibilities of a global and hi-tech economy.

“The schools,” said one stay-at-home Dad, whose family chose Hood River after setting out from New Hampshire and traveling the country looking for their perfect home, “are the place we all come together, where we invest in the community.” 

Of course, that may not be true for the many recent retirees, another group that is choosing Hood River. But still, the public schools in Hood River play a role schools have long played in American culture —bringing together different groups and classes of people.

While the cliffs and vistas of the Columbia Gorge remain much as I remembered them from those pilgrimages of my childhood, the community of Hood River is almost completely changed. It is changed not only because someone came up with the idea of standing on a surf board with a sail on it, but because  — at least for many today  — where we live is no longer a given, whether given by family, culture, or even work. It is a choice. 

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