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Intoxicating Bend, Oregon
Bend makes it onto a lot of Best Places to Live lists, particularly the ones you see in Outside, Men's Health and other publications that value recreational opportunities and craft beer, rather than career climbing. I was fully prepared to be disappointed by the place, but instead I was seduced. The weather was perfect with sunshine, temperatures in the 70s and clear blue skies and vistas of snowcapped mountains in every direction. And everyone we met, even those we encouraged to tell us something bad about Bend, told us the same thing: we love it here.
Before you quit your job and move to Bend based upon my half-baked advice, I should admit that it isn't perfect. The unemployment rate is 11.3 percent and that number doesn't even accurately reflect how bad the economic situation really is, because there are also lots of people who have only part-time work or full-time McJobs with wages so low that they are forced to drink mass produced beer. (Contrary to popular belief, you cannot use Food Stamps to buy craft beer in Bend, at least not yet.)
Bend experienced one of the country's steepest boom and bust real estate swings, before and after the Great Recession, and though the price of homes has gone down, it's still far from cheap. And although the climate is sunny and dry, it can get quite cold in winter. So there you go. Bend isn't perfect. No place is. But even if you don't want to move there, you at least have to visit. Here's why.
The Great Outdoors
In Bend, you don't even have to leave the city limits to enjoy nature. Whatever you like to do: ski, hike, cycle, kayak, rock-climb, white-water raft, you name it, and you can find it close to Bend. I'm into hiking and I highly recommend the Dillon Falls section of the Deschutes River Trail, the Lava Lands Visitor's Center, Smith Rock State Park, the Peter Skene Ogden National Scenic Trail, the West Metolius (River) Trail, right next to the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery (a free and interesting site itself) and Pilot Butte State Park, which is right on the east side of town. Also, the trails at the High Desert Museum are perfect for a stroll and the fact that you can learn about the region's history and wildlife on the premises makes this place a must-visit while in Bend.
And even if you're not a skier, take the ride out to Mt. Bachelor and continue on the Cascade Lakes National Scenic Byway (parts of this byway are open only in the summer) for some glorious alpine scenery.
When it comes to good beer, there's an embarrassment of riches in Bend. I have no clue how 10 brewpubs and three breweries (with more set to open soon) stay in business in a city of 80,000, but as a visitor, you can only benefit from the stiff competition. I visited seven brewpubs in four days and felt like I had just scratched the surface of what must be the best craft beer scene in America.
My favorites were McMenamins Old St. Francis Brewery, for its killer English Brown Ale and its atmospheric pubs, Crux Fermentation Project, for its tasty Marzen beer and its patio, and 10 Barrel Brewing Company, because I love their fire pit and indoor/outdoor bar. But all of Bend's breweries are worth a visit, and if you manage to hit them all and collect stamps to prove it, you'll get a nice little souvenir mug from the visitor's information office.
For a city of its size, Bend has a remarkable array of good restaurants. I didn't have a single bad meal anywhere. I had a carnivore's pizza at Deschutes Brewery that was out of this world; some very memorable oatmeal cookies at Lone Pine Coffee Roasters, a stylish little café in an alley location in downtown Bend (thank you, Anna Brones); and some surprisingly outstanding New England Clam Chowder at Parrilla Grill. My colleague Pam Mandel sent me to the Sparrow Bakery for breakfast and I quickly became addicted to their vanilla and cardamom spiced ocean rolls (see photo below).
But the Bend restaurant that I'm still dreaming about, a week after returning from Bend, is Big Island Kona Mix Plate, a casual Hawaiian-style place in the Old Mill District. I had the mixed plate with bulgogi and spicy chicken and couldn't remember the last time I tasted anything so divine (and affordable at $10 a plate with two sides.)
When Cate Cushman, a real estate broker we met, moved to Bend in 1976, the town had a population of less than 15,000. Cushman, a Georgia native, had been traveling across the country in a Winnebago with her first husband when they fell in love with Bend and decided to stay. Nearly 40 years later, she's certain that she made the right move.
Bend's population more than doubled in the '90s, and continued to rise in the last decade, from 52,029 in 2000 to 76,639. Much of the population gain can be attributed to Baby Boomers from California moving to Bend to retire, but you don't have to look very hard in Bend to find young people who have moved there as a lifestyle choice. Some call Bend a place to experience "poverty with a view," but I think that, for many who move there, the point is to step out of the rat race, slow down and enjoy the finer things in life.
Take Sibel Edmonds, for example. I met Sibel at the Bend Brewing Company one afternoon this month and she told me that she looked all over the whole world for the perfect place to live and raise her daughter, Elle, and settled on Bend, thanks to its natural beauty, cultural offerings, good schools and sunny, dry weather, among other things. I don't know if Sibel is right or not, but I like the idea of being in a place with so many idealistic people who are looking for their own little utopia. Bend may or may not be a good fit for us, but I got enough of a taste of Bend's good life to know that I want more.