Every man I see is thickly bearded, save one with a goatee. And he runs the place. This I expect of Portland, where I live. But out here, among sage-country ranchlands on the cusp of the Oregon Trail?
“Yeah, I don’t know why. After a few weeks here you just end up with one,” the goateed Tyler Brown admits. “My wife hates it. But no one would trust us if I were clean-shaven.”
Tyler’s place is one of the best small breweries in the United States, Barley Brown’s. Its Pallet Jack won the gold for American-style IPAs at the Great American Beer Festival in 2013, one of some 80 awards the Main Street establishment’s bagged so far.
None of its brews are bottled, so to sample the Barley Brown goods, you’ll have to come to Baker City, a historic town off I-84 about two hours northwest of Boise, Idaho.
Tucked between the Elkhorn and Wallowa mountains in northeastern Oregon, the city of 10,000 found form during an 1860s gold rush. Today, its principal artery is home to a strip of recently opened breweries, boutiques, and dinner-only restaurants—most of which are run by converts from Portland, California, and New York.
That outsider influence has helped make the city a worthwhile overnight stop.
My friend Kirk Jones, a photographer from Portland, and I check in at the Geiser Grand Hotel, a cupolaed Victorian dominating the corner of Main and Washington that opened in 1889. I roll my suitcase to a pillared dining area and look up to see a fussy stained-glass ceiling staring down at me. At the reception desk, a woman is poring over fresh local morels laid out before her.
“You won’t see a more perfect morel at Whole Foods,” says Barbara Sidway, a co-owner of the hotel, holding one up and putting it back in a clear baggie. “Just got these from my guy.”
It’s too early in the season to hike into the Elkhorns to find some morels for ourselves, so we walk down Main Street for lunch at the Lone Pine Café, opened by fellow Portlanders in 2014.
Inside, a 20-something couple sits with sandwiches on an old sofa next to a turntable playing the Doors. A few hundred records line a space once occupied by a fireplace. Here, the customers are the DJs. I watch as another diner puts on the Bee Gees, then walks out.
I eat a tasty Vietnamese-style banh mi salad with chicken and talk with the manager, Aaron, who moved with his girlfriend to open up the eatery.
“It wasn’t planned, all this. We quit our jobs, drove around the country in a Honda van, and just stopped here and saw the opportunity,” he says as he sets out a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls. “It works because no one is like us here.”
A big part of Baker City’s ongoing revival is due to old-timers who welcome change, and want to be a part of it. Alyssa Peterson of Peterson’s Gallery and Chocolatier returned to her hometown after spending years in Berlin and Washington, D.C., to reinvent a store that once sold outfits to “miners and respectable women.”
“Growing up here, it was always like, ‘Oh, it’s just Baker,” she says. “[There was] this negative mentality, so we got away with not doing much. Now it’s like, we can do this here.”
Fifteen minutes west of town, the past lurks on a sage-covered hill overlooking town and the still snowy Elkhorns. Here, I find the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, which offers insight into the lives of the 300,000 people who made the five-month trek, walking ahead of Conestoga wagons and falling prey, in droves, to various diseases. (There was a grave, on average, every 80 yards of the 2,000-mile trail.)
I poke around the bookstore and a staffer sees me eyeing the museum shirts. She has one on. “Pretty neat. They’re only $10.50. You should see how many I had to order to keep the price down.”
Her family has been in the area since the days of the Oregon Trail. I point to a row of books and wonder about the best.
“What do you want to know? I’ve read all these books. My boss makes me. She doesn’t want anything inappropriate to get out here.”
I thumb through some of her suggestions, including one on Native American stories of Oregon Territory (it certainly seems appropriate), then opt for postcards made by local kids in 1989.
A new entry to the beer-drinking scene of downtown Baker City is a growler fill-up station called the BEERded Dog. Set up just off Main Street in a former barber shop, the walk-in-walk-out bar has 19 taps and welcomes pups. None are there as Kirk and I walk in just before dusk.
He flicks through the papers to show the pencil renderings of superheroes, dogs, and mythological figures drawn by his students. He moved from Oregon’s “west end”—he lived in Portland and studied at Oregon State in Corvallis (a city I recently wrote about)—a couple years ago.
“There is so much change here. I’m not sure how they can keep it up.”
After a beer, we walk back to Barley Brown’s for a burger, then return to the BEERded Dog. Another teacher has arrived in our absence, a Baker City native. I ask how she compares the town’s past to its present.
“Everyone talks about the Oregon Trail ruts up on the hill. I’ve lived here my whole life. And you know why they’re still there? COWS. It’s not like cows haven’t walked on those for decades.”
After a brief flirtation with Dallas, which she loathed, she’s back for good (she thinks). Anyway, she prefers the new life on Main Street—which pretty much shuts down by 10 p.m.—to anywhere else.
“Yeah, you’ll sometimes catch me grading papers here, too.”