The Eclipse Trip Day 4: The Travel and Wine Tasting Day

I visit Walla Walla, get a good, hot shower, and have a great dinner.

I slept until nearly six — which is late for me — and woke up feeling refreshed. The first thing I did was look out my side window to see if my neighbors were up and about; that would determine how loud I could be. But they were gone.

All traces of them were gone.

Somehow, they’d managed to pack up three tents and a bunch of other gear into their cars and drive off while I was sleeping less than 100 feet away. How was that possible?

My sleeping pattern is regular. I sleep like the dead for the first three to four hours every night. You could set a bomb off next to me and I’m unlikely to wake. For the rest of the night, however, I’m a very light sleeper. So unless they packed up and left without sleeping there, they somehow managed to pack up and leave so quietly that I didn’t hear them. If that’s the case, thank you mystery campers.

The site on the other side of me just had a pickup truck parked in it. There hadn’t been a sign of people since I arrived. I had begun to think that the truck’s owner had parked there and then just wandered off into the woods to camp. Beyond them was a camping van with a tall, skinny tent — the kind often used for a bathroom or shower. Those people were gone, too. The guy at the far end was still there with no sign of life in his campsite.

So I opened the door and let Penny out to do her business. And then I got to work making coffee. She was back before the water had boiled.

I spent the next two hours working on my Day 3 blog post. There was no signal at all in my campsite, so posting it was not an option. When I was finished with that, I made a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Then I spent some time planning my day.

I knew I wanted to end up in Walla Walla for some wine tasting. If you’re not familiar with it, Walla Walla is one of the AVAs (basically, wine production regions) in Washington. It has dozens of wineries. (Too many, if you ask me.) I could just continue up 395 to Pendleton and follow Route 11 north from there. But I wanted to do some exploring along the way and tracing my path back to Pendleton would not accomplish that. I saw a place called Lehman Hot Springs on a side road that went east to La Grande and thought that might make an interesting stop along the way. From La Grande, I’d head north and then come down the Blue Mountains southeast of Walla Walla.

Campsite
My campsite in the tiny 5-site campground. I think that pile of wood used to be a picnic table.

Plan made, I cleaned up my breakfast mess, got dressed, and stowed my loose belongings. By this time everyone else in the campground had gone. Even the pickup truck; apparently two people had been sleeping in it. (Compared to everyone else there, I was sleeping in the Ritz.)

It was about nine when I headed out. That’s when I discovered that the creek that went past the campground was actually the North Fork of the John Day River.

The Drive

On Route 395, I passed the parking area I’d spent my first night on the road in. Three miles later, I reached the campground that had been full; I pulled in to take a look around. It was a nice place with a creek running through it and still half full. It’s in the Ukiah-Dale Forest State Scenic Corridor, in case you want to look it up.

I turned right on Route 244 and, a few miles later, passed through the sad little town of Ukiah, OR. (Sorry folks, but I just report it as I see it.) Not much going on there, but there were about 20 motorcycles. Big cruisers, mostly. I kept going. The road continued into rolling hills with patches of forest. It was a very pleasant drive. For most of the way, I saw traces of an old railroad bed that predated the road. I have an eye for these things — old railroad or road right-of-ways — and it always gets me wondering where the train (in this case) went and why they removed its tracks.

I climbed up into the forest. There were now national forest roads going off into the woods on either side of me. Plenty of camping opportunities if I was looking for them. It was after I crossed the county line that I consulted the map again. Thats when I realized that I’d passed the Hot Springs. There hadn’t even been a sign. Just another point on a map that barely existed.

I kept going.

A while later, Route 244 dumped me onto I-84, where I definitely did not want to be. There wasn’t much of a choice, though. I followed it east and after a quick side trip to see a historic bridge, got off at the first exit in La Grande.

Perry Arch Bridge
The Perry Arch Bridge near La Grande.

I had decided about 40 miles earlier that what I really wanted was ice cream. So imagine my joy when the first business I encountered on my way into town was an old-style ice cream/hamburger joint. I slid into a parking space out front, cracked the windows, and went inside. I arrived after two big parties and waited while the woman at the counter took their orders. For a while, I considered having a burger, too, but by the time it was my turn to order, I’d settled on a rocky road waffle cone for me and a vanilla pup cup for Penny. $4 later, I was on my way back out to the truck. I didn’t realize until much later that it was the first money I’d spent on food during my entire trip so far.

I’d been noticing a sort of haziness in the air for most of the day and it wasn’t any better in La Grande. I followed the road through town, passing the Ford dealer where I’d bought my truck less than two years before, then turned left onto Route 82 heading northeast. I had to trick Google Maps into finding me the route I wanted by telling it I planned to stop in Elgin on the way. Otherwise, it tried to route me along I-84 through Pendleton. The road was fast and there wasn’t much traffic on it. The valley I was in was big and broad but the haziness really made it feel sort of closed in.

I turned left onto 204 at Elgin and headed northwest, back into the mountains. The road twisted and turned and I passed more than a few SUVs towing very small pull trailers. R-Pods seem to be pretty popular, although I don’t understand why. One of the models I passed had a narrow body with its wheels extending on either side of it. If the designers had built the body out over the wheels like most pull trailers, they could have added a foot of space on either side. For a 14-foot trailer, that’s 140 square feet of additional space. Go figure, huh?

I reached the community of Tollgate, which looked like a mountain retreat with homes on a small lake. There was a ski resort up there and lots of turnoffs into the forest for Sno-Parks. Not many people, though. No reason to stop, so I kept going.

A little while later, though, I passed a sign for a farm stand that had a magic word on it: Pies. I pulled into a parking lot in front of a tiny building called The Outpost. There were fresh vegetables outside — the absolute last thing I needed. Inside was a young woman at a little counter with pies behind her and handmade fragrant soaps on the other side of the room. The room smelled wonderful.

The Outpost
The Blue Mountain Outpost has fresh eggs, produce, and pies, as well as handmade soaps that smell really nice.

We chatted for a while as I smelled the soaps. I had to buy one, of course. I asked her which one she liked and she picked one up. I sniffed it and it smelled good. Then I asked about the pies. Peach, huckleberry, and peach-huckleberry. I picked the peach-huckleberry and paid for my purchases. When I picked it up, it was still warm from the oven.

Back on the road, I continued down the mountainside. After a few Google-directed turns, I found myself driving through Milton-Freewater.

I remembered the town mostly because back when I first drove through — on my midlife crisis road trip back in 2005 — there had been a lot of frog related stuff. I wondered how that was playing these days with the famous Pepe being taken as a symbol of the Alt-Right. But that day, when I drove through, I only saw a frog in two places: on a very old sign near the outskirts of town and in a statue in town. They had obviously moved on from frogs in town and I thought that was a good thing.

I continued north on Route 12 toward Walla Walla. For a while, my rig was one of three Lance truck campers heading that way. We were all bunched up at traffic lights more than once. Onlookers probably thought we were all together. But when we got to Walla Walla, I turned off into town and they kept going.

I stopped at the Chamber of Commerce. I wanted to ask about parking for the night. I had stayed at two different campgrounds in town in the past and had no idea whether they still existed. I also wanted to ask about wine tasting. But the only guy in the Chamber of Commerce was clueless about both things. Apparently, he was new to town. I knew more about the town than he did — and I hadn’t been there for four years.

I left with a wine tourist magazine that listed all the local wineries — did I mention there were a lot of them? — and a brochure for Palouse Falls, where I hoped to spend the night. I’d also left a message at the RV park closest to town and had called the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel about getting a room. I decided that $200 including tax and a $30 pet fee was more than I wanted to spend. (I’m certain I’d stayed there with Penny and a friend a few years back and did not spend that much.)

I drove the few blocks into town and parked on a side street. (I really do love the parking flexibility T2 offers.) That’s when I realized that there could be more hotels within walking distance of downtown. I wound up finding a room at the Red Lion Inn only two blocks away for a much more reasonable $70/night. I drove right over and checked in.

By this time, it was 3 PM. I figured that there was a chance that a lot of the downtown shops and wineries would close at 5 or 6. So rather than go up to our room, Penny and I took a walk up and down Main Street.

Wine and Dinner in Walla Walla

Walla Walla is a really nice town. It’s a lot like Wenatchee, but it has a lot more going for it in terms of wine tasting rooms, restaurants, and shops. The downtown is vibrant and was relatively busy, even on that Tuesday afternoon. I was sad to see that the shop with the walk-in, glass-sided cheese closet had closed down, but glad to see T. Macarrone’s, a favorite restaurant of mine, was still open. I wasn’t in the mood to shop or taste wine, though. I think it was the weather; the heat, light humidity, and thickness in the air from smoke was taking its toll on me.

Still, I did manage to squeeze in a tasting on my way back to the hotel. It was the brand new tasting room for Bledsoe. It was a really nice space, tastefully designed with big windows looking out onto the street from its corner. Although the tasting room was not normally open on Tuesdays, the girl in there was pouring for another customer and didn’t mind pouring for me.

To say I was not impressed was an understatement. The four wines — which started at $40/bottle — had definitely been released too early. I tried not to be critical — after all, it could be my palate that was mistaken. The wines all tasted different but all had that bite that’s common with wines that haven’t been aged enough.

While I was tasting, the girl at the counter gave me some background information about the winery. It had “split off” from another winery called Doubleback that was also in the area. Both wineries were run by the same people but they had two lines of wine and two tasting rooms. I tried to figure out why someone would do that and finally realized that it was a marketing scheme. Hell, it was from the Marketing 101 class I’d taken in college. To maximize exposure of your products, make as many versions of it as the market will support. In this case, they’d taken one winery and instead of selling six or ten different wines under that name, they were selling eight or twelve wines under two different names. Two tasting rooms. Twice the exposure. Of course, this is just a theory. The way Google works these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone from Bledsoe or Doubleback found this blog post and set me straight.

I did buy a bottle of wine, though. The tasting rooms in Walla Walla all have a tasting fee that can be applied to a purchase. I wasn’t interested in spending $10 for four tastes of disappointing wine. Instead, I’d spend $40 and take home a bottle I thought was least offensive. I figured I’d share it with people knowledgeable about wine to see what they thought. Maybe they’d educate me.

From there, I went right back to the hotel. I fetched some clothes and toiletries and Penny supplies out of the truck and camper, locked everything up, and went up to my room. This part of the hotel was in an obviously old motel building that had been nicely refinished. The walls were painted cinderblock and because they’d been painted in bright colors — yellow and purple (really!) — the place looked kind of hip. There were two queen beds with their blankets wrapped in sheets. (I really like when they do that.) The pillows were big and fluffy. There was a table and chairs, a fridge in the cabinet, and even a balcony overlooking the pool.

I made reservations for 6 at T Macarrone’s, then set Penny up with food and water, showered, and got ready to go. I left a little after 5, walking back into town alone.

Feeling more refreshed, I stopped for another tasting, this time at Henry Earl. What a difference! These wines were quite good — at least more to my taste — and I wound up buying three bottles. An interesting thing about this winery: the grapes come from the Red Mountain and Wahluke Slope areas of Washington state, making me wonder why they had a tasting room in Walla Walla.

Again, it’s all marketing. First there was Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California, producing wine, offering tastings at the wineries, and getting an audience for what they made. I was in Napa back in the 1980s and it was a great place to explore wines. At each stop, you’d get an opportunity to not only taste wine, but have a production or history tour of the winery. There was no tasting fee. It was a service they offered to attract new customers. At the tasting bar, you could chat with someone knowledgable about the wine — maybe even the winemaker. Fast-forward to 2013, when I returned with some friends. Now tasting was a business, with tasting fees ranging from $10 to $20 per person and advance tickets needed for the few wineries that offered tours. The tasting bar was staffed by sales people who often only knew what they’d been told about the wine. And there were dozens and dozens of wineries, many of which had absolutely no participation in the growing of grapes.

In Washington state, it’s the same thing, but more insidious. Yes, there are some great wineries, including estate wineries, throughout the Columbia Valley, Walla Walla, Chelan, and the Red Mountain area. But since tourists are apparently too lazy to drive out to the wineries these days, winery owners have opened tasting rooms in centralized areas. Downtown Walla Walla is one of those areas. So is Woodinville — conveniently placed near Seattle to make it easier for city folks to go wine tasting without actually visiting a winery. They don’t grow many (or any?) grapes or make much (or any?) wine in Woodinville, yet people think of that as “wine country.” It’s a real shame. There’s nothing quite like visiting an actual winery and chatting with a winemaker, especially when you’re part of a group of people who truly understand and appreciate wine and want to learn all they can.

That said, I should have made more of an effort to get out to the actual wineries the Walla Walla area. But I think I’ll try again another time, hopefully with a wine tasting buddy.

Tuna Crudo
Corn Soup
Seared Duck Breast
My dinner, in three courses.

At T Macarrone’s, I sat at the bar. I’d been told their cocktails were good and the bartender helped me pair two different cocktails to my first two courses of dinner. The first one was a somewhat spicy Thai concoction that I liked a lot. It went well with the Tuna Crudo appetizer. The second one was some sort of margarita that I liked a little less; I had that with a creamy Sweet Corn Soup. I had the Seared Duck Breast (which I had them cook more than just seared) for dinner with a glass of wine that I was unable to finish. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it — I did! — it was just that I worried about being able to walk the four blocks back to my hotel if I kept drinking. I skipped dessert because I was absolutely stuffed.

Back at the hotel, I made some finishing touches on my Day 3 blog post and got it online. I spent some time taking care of email and responding to text messages that had come in while I was off the grid.

When I took Penny out for her last walk of the evening, we went to the truck to fetch a few things I’d forgotten, along with that pie. I had a nice slice before going to bed — it was delicious! — and put the rest of it in my hotel room fridge with my truck keys so I wouldn’t forget it.

What do you think?