In early July, my girlfriend (name withheld to protect the innocent) and I packed up all our belongings, put most of it in storage in Park City, and filled her Subaru Forester with as much stuff as we could take.
The plan was to explore the great ski towns of the West/Northwest, looking for the perfect place to live. We brought enough stuff with us that, if we did indeed find utopia, we could settle in and make due, then return to Utah for the rest of our stuff at a later date. So of course we had all the bare essentials: bikes, ski boots, poles, rollerskis, running gear, sleeping bags, tent, etc. And whatever room was left after that, we filled with clothes, toiletry items, computers, food, etc.
On a Thursday in early July, we hit the road, ready to explore our first state: Oregon. Oregon was our first stop for a non-skiing reason: a couple of friends of ours from college were getting married in Hood River that weekend. It worked out well because in addition to enjoying the wedding festivities and seeing friends, we would also be able to check out some potentially good towns. Specifically we were interested in Bend, Portland, and the Hood River/Mt. Hood area.
We did not spend much time in Bend. You might consider odd if you know much about this town. Bend is a great outdoors town. They have skiable snow at Mt. Bachelor about 7-8 months out of the year. The Mt. Bachelor area is a huge playground for all sports that require the white, fluffy stuff. The alpine area is great for downhill, telemark & snowboarding. The 56 kilometers of cross country trails are fun and challenging. The backcountry is amazing and makes for some of the best crust skiing in the country once spring rolls around. In addition, the Deschutes River is known for great boating and there are hundreds of miles of running and biking singletrack trails that leave right from town. Smith Rock, 20 minutes from town, is world-famous for its rock climbing.
Crust skiing near Bend in June
The town itself is great. The restaurants and bars are top notch. You can’t beat the West Side CafÃ© for breakfast. The food is delicious, but I can never finish a whole meal because the servings are huge. The Bend Brewing Company and the Deschutes Brewery are both fun places to grab dinner or a drink. And of course there is the Taco Stand. Some would argue that it is worth moving to Bend just for the Taco Stand (And they aren’t necessarily wrong). The burritos are big, cheap, and delicious. This small Mexican place is a skier tradition. During the Bend On-Snow camp in June (yes they ski in June in Bend) you will see just as many skiers at the Taco Stand as you will on the trails of Mt. Bachelor.
Other notable features of the town: the city park, which hosts concerts, pick-up ultimate and soccer games; and the downtown area which is loaded with cool shops, eateries, and more. Bend is famous for their Pole, Pedal, Paddle Race in May, which combines all the great outdoor endeavors into one long race.
Bend has certainly attracted a large population of outdoorsy types and thrill seekers. Champion skiers Beckie Scott, Justin Wadsworth, Ben Husaby, and Patrick Weaver all make their homes there. Mountain biking and triathlon champ Steve Larsen and a host of other top athletes have also called Bend home.
Clearly Bend has to be one of the favorites for XC Town USA. So why did blow it off so quickly? Well, despite not spending much time there, we actually gave a lot of consideration. I have spent a total of a couple of months in Bend in recent years, so we felt that it was not necessary to spend a lot of time in a place we were already familiar with.
Another question is Why didn’t we just stop here, save lots of time and money, and declare a winner in our search? We had a few reasons. First, we had spent quite a bit of time researching jobs in Bend prior to leaving Utah. Bend is such a popular place to live that finding jobs can be a very difficult endeavor. We both wanted professional, career track jobs in our respective areas of study, and Bend appeared pretty well saturated. I am sure that if we were persistent we could have made it work, but there were a few other negatives as well. For one, Mt. Bachelor is 30 minutes from town. My idea of XC Town USA is a place with good skiing right out your door. When I decide I want to go skiing, I want to be on the trail 20 minutes later. I don’t want to have to continually plan my free time around a commute to and from the snow. The other thing about Bend is that it is very dry. Sure the mountain gets ridiculous amounts of snow, but the town and surrounding area is very dry. Even in June many of the trails can be extremely dusty. After experiencing the dry, but admittedly sunny, climate of Utah for six years, I now want a place with grass, lakes, and leafy trees. The only other drawback is the elevation. I mentioned that I did not want to be at altitude. Bend, at 3600 feet, is much lower than Park City, but skiing at Mt Bachelor is about 6000, still higher than I wanted to be.
So don’t get me wrong, Bend is an amazing outdoors town that many people will find absolutely perfect. But I was not quite willing to forgo any further exploration before making a decision. We placed Bend at the top of our short list and pressed onward to Mt. Hood.
Mt Hood from the town of Mt Hood
I hadn’t initially considered the Mt. Hood/ Hood River area as an option until we arrived there for the wedding. I knew that the US Ski Team had held a training camp here about 5 years ago, but I never really knew much about the area beyond the Columbia River. Immediately I was struck by the array of activity options. Windsurfing and kiteboarding (now THAT looks cool) on the World Famous Columbia River gorge. Tremendous amount of backcountry for hiking, camping and skiing. Mt Hood for all your gravity-driven sliding needs — with year-round snow! Some good mountain bike terrain and good roads for road riding. I was also pleasantly surprised by the extent of the cross country trail network. But while we really enjoyed our time here by going mountain biking, hiking, swimming, and camping, we realized that there were few if any opportunities for careers. Certainly not in the tiny town of Mt. Hood, and not too many in the adventure tourism-driven town of Hood River. The same thing went for places to live.
Windsurfing on the Columbia River in Hood River, Oregon
So following the wedding, we took I-84 west for a couple hours to a place we knew would have a decent job market: Portland, Oregon. I had never been to Portland, but I knew enough to know that this was not XC Town USA. Sure, I had heard all the rave reviews about the city: best city for cyclists, best city for outdoor-lovers, most livable city in the country, etc. etc. But it was still a big city, with the closest good skiing at least two hours away. The only reason I was interested in the area was that my dream job has always been to design outdoor gear for a company like Nike or Adidas/Salomon, both located near Portland. So we spent a couple days exploring the city. We biked through the Park (which is connected to surprising collection of good trails), we went to the zoo, we wandered through downtown, ate at some great restaurants, and explored the vast aisles of Powell’s Books.
I had heard Portland described as a smaller version of San Francisco (where my girlfriend used to live and probably the only major city I am actually fond of). But I am not sure I agree. My favorite thing about San Francisco is the ocean. I know I didn’t spend enough time to see it all, but after a few days we had both made our decision: a nice place, but a little too big and a little too far from snow.
And with that, we crossed into Washington State, ready to continue our search. One state down. I began to wonder if we were being too picky. We had seen some beautiful town that would all be very nice places to live. Would we ever find a place that met all of our criteria? Maybe not, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me from searching.