You might want to change this place. Instead it might change you.
Within minutes after we arrived from Seattle in tiny Oakridge OR for five days of mountain biking, it began to pour down rain.
Hey, don’t blame us. Yes we came from the Rain City. But is that a bad thing? Everywhere we go, they seem to want rain.
Whatever the case, no amount of wet was going to dampen this trip. Over the years we’ve ridden most everything Oregon has to offer. The ABCs: Ashland, Bend, Cannon Beach. The epics: North Umpqua River Trail, McKenzie River Trail. Even Portland. What there is, at least.
But never Oakridge. Its reputation as a mountain biking destination had kept growing, pushing it to the top of our most-wanted list. But one thing or another got in the way.
So here we were, watching the angry storm clouds roll in, wondering if fate, after all this time, was playing us a dirty trick. All this buildup, only to get rained out?
No worries, they told us. The trails were so thirsty we’d be lucky to tell if it even rained.
Oakridge Oregon. Population 3,300. Looking around, you’d think this is the home town of the Oak Ridge Boys. You know, the country-western group. From, as it turns out, Tennessee. I expected Elvira herself to come bopping down main street any time.
But no. This Oakridge is a former logging town that looks a bit worn around the edges. Mountain biking is the biggest thing it has going for it. When you say that about a town, any town, you know it’s not going to make Zagat’s.
“How many stoplights do you have in Seattle?” the bike shop guy at Willamette Mountain Mercantile asked when I called for directions to his store.
I said I didn’t know exactly, but it was probably pushing six figures.
“We’ve got one. On the main drag. And our shop is just beyond it. You can’t miss it.”
Now, parked right near the stoplight, I’m thinking it’s a mystery why they have even one. This is not meant to be snarky. If this intersection was in Seattle, it wouldn’t rate a stoplight.
But if they didn’t have a stoplight, maybe people wouldn’t stop at all in Oakridge. As it is, locals expressed surprise that we were staying a few days.
“Most folks just stop for the day on the way to Bend,” one confessed.
We really wanted to like this place. Coming from the big city, we saw huge potential. At every turn — and there aren’t that many — Jim and I wondered why the town braintrust hadn’t fixed up this or renovated that.
So much could be done. Get some marketing minds in here, raise some investment capital there.
Put in some signage so folks don’t miss the “other” downtown a couple of blocks off the main highway. (There actually is a signage plan in place, we were told. It’s just that no one had gotten around to implementing it.)
Get some specialty shops. A clothing store, a fusion restaurant. A night club. Get some music going, jumpstart some night life.
Change the name of the world class bike shop from Willamette Mountain Mercantile to oh, say, something like Oakridge Bike Shop. (In fairness, it shows up that way in Google.)
Combine the parks concerts hardly anyone shows up for with the hugely popular Mountain Bike Oregon gatherings. The beer garden revenue alone would fatten town coffers enough for at least a decent sign post or two.
Oakridge, we agreed, needed big ideas. Vision. Development. Infrastructure.
But while we were feeling sorry for Oakridge, while we were busy fixing it, something happened.
Over the next few days, as we rode the epic trails and enjoyed the pub grub and chatted up the locals, we noticed something.
People seemed happy. They liked it here. Most of them had lived in Oakridge for some time. They’d come, they’d stayed. There had to be a reason.
They were perfectly aware of Oakridge’s “opportunities.” They knew it could improve in oh so many ways. But you know what? As it was, things weren’t so bad.
Gradually we city dwellers saw what they meant. Oakridge began to grow on us. People weren’t hunkered over their iPhones and laptops all the time. They took time to say hello, sit down and talk.
We realized that half the trails could be ridden right from town. For the rest, having a local shuttle always on the ready was not too shabby.
Downscale was showing its upside. We could almost see cashing out in the Big City and buying a house here. $50-$60k would get you a pretty good place, we were told.
By the time we said goodbye to Oakridge four days later, our big ideas were shrinking fast. Within three hours we were sitting on I-205 in a massive traffic jam outside of Portland, thinking about how we’d hardly ever even been behind a single car in Oakridge. By the time we got home to Seattle a traffic-delayed seven and a half hours later, we were ready to turn around and go back.
In Seattle, people were rushing everywhere. At every turn — and Seattle never runs out of turns — there were lines of busy people looking pretty beaten up. Or sad. Or crazy angry.
When we thought of Oakridge, the John Lennon lyric kept ringing through our head: “Everybody seems to think I’m lazy. I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy. Running everywhere at such a speed. Till they find, there’s no need…”
Yes, things could be bigger and better in Oakridge. It has only one of the things big cities have lots of. A bakery. A library. A pub. A breakfast cafe. A Mexican restaurant, a hamburger joint. A bike shop.
But it’s got lots of things big cities don’t. And that’s probably what’s keeping it the way it is.