The Willamette Valley of western Oregon separates the Coast Range from the darkly forested ridges of the Western Cascades. Both the Coast Range and Willamette Valley formed about 35 million years ago on a slab of old seafloor on which most of northwestern and western Oregon is built.
This week, I got the opportunity to tour the valley, at least portions of the valley from Salem to its mouth at Portland. My work required inspections of two sawmills west of the river, and on Thursday I drove from Portland down Interstate 5 to nearby Tigard, got off onto the SW Pacific Highway (99W), and drove south to Yamhill County and McMinnville for the first sawmill.
McMinnville's claim to fame, at least the one of which I know, is that it's now the home of Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. As well documented in Scorsese's The Aviator, the plane flew just one time - November 2, 1947. After that, for some reason, it wound up in McMinnville, Oregon, about an hour south of Portland, at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. I didn't have time to go see it, but the museum apparently has a variety of vintage aircraft, some space stuff and even an Imax theater.
It appears that the Willamette climate is well suited for growing grapes, as there are wineries all over the valley. The Spruce Goose Museum even has a wine-tasting room; next month, it hosts something called the McMinnville Wine and Food Classic. According to a copy of the 2005-2006 Oregon Agriculture & Fisheries Statistics that I picked up at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture office in McMinnville, the number of vinyards in Oregon has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, and the number of wineries has more than doubled. Yamhill County alone has 205 of Oregon's 734 vineyards. Pinot noir is the grape of choice, with 12,193 tons produced in 2005, a nearly 25% increase from 2004. Okay, the Willamette may not be the Napa Valley, but don't be surprised if you get a bottle of a local pinot noir from me as a gift next holiday.
But I was there for business, not for drinking local wines or looking at vintage aircraft, so after I was through at the first sawmill I headed further south on Route 99W to Independence, a smaller town (no aviation museum) in adjacent Polk County (fewer vinyards). The Willamette Valley is mostly broad and flat, except for some hills of volcanic basalt produced by flows of lava from the Cascade volcanoes. The hills are used mostly as pastureland and the valley floor for the aforementioned vinyards and for extensive farmlands. From the hilltops, one can see the Coast Range off to the west and the Cascades off to the east.
Finishing my tasks for the day at the second sawmill, I drove the same route (99W to I-5) back home to Portland, but the next day, Friday, I had some more work to complete at both sites and wound up taking the same tour again. This time I returned from Independence on I-5 via Salem, the state capital.
So here's how much of Oregon I've been to so far: much of Portland, every mile of I-5 from the Siskiyou Pass at California to it's crossing over the Columbia River into Washington, and the wine country of the lower Willamette Valley west of the river between Salem to Portland.
It's a start.