By Jason R. Cox
Every couple has their sacred place. Although these places are often beautiful, or interesting, or bustling, these locales aren’t special because of these, well, special characteristics. Any place can resonate within an individual. It’s special when it strikes a chord and stirs something deeper for two people who also happen to love one another.
They could be anywhere in the world. Ours is a little town that can’t compete with Sisters or Seaside in terms of beauty and amenities. You won’t find the culture that abounds in Portland, Eugene, Ashland or even Salem.
What you will find in Lakeview, Oregon, is a fantastic steak and all the peace and quiet you can handle. For us, that’s pretty close to paradise. A co-worker lived there for years and regularly wished he could return. His enthusiasm made us curious, and what we found turned us into converts.
In the heart of Oregon’s Outback, Lakeview’s elevation (4,798) is more than double its population (2,294). It is in the middle of unforgiving high desert terrain, alternately baking and freezing those within it.
Lakeview is an old city and has a rich history: Researchers discovered some of the earliest evidence of human life in Oregon north of town. Oregon’s only “continuously erupting” geyser is within a five-minute drive, but much like the freshwater bodies that give Lakeview its name, “Old Perpetual” has mostly dried up.
The upside? It never rains during our ritual nighttime stroll through downtown, after a meal at Mario’s Dinner House and a few drinks at The Eagle’s Nest. The downtown grid was laid down before cars were dominant, and is as walkable as any neighborhood in America. We park our car at the hotel and find no need for four-wheeled transportation until it’s time to go home.
Last time, we caught the tail end of sunset as it cast a glowing ring on the horizon. After that comes a starry night that usually is reserved for the hinterlands. As the desert air cools, the smell of sagebrush fills the cool night air. We walk among and enjoy modern conveniences, and at the same time feel like we’re miles away from everything and everyone.
If only Lakeview could bottle and sell such serenity. The town is past its economic prime in every measurable way. It has lost a third of its residents since 1960, when 3,260 people lived there. Ranching is following the agricultural trend of “get big or get out,” meaning less well-heeled property owners living, spending money in and contributing to the community. Like many Oregon towns, restrictions on timber harvesting have taken a toll. The Interstate system long ago picked de facto winners and losers — where the road goes, we go.
The resulting lack of opportunity — not to mention the distance from the nearest university — leads many, especially but not exclusively the best and brightest, to leave town. Even if they want to come back, how do you build a life on sinking sand?
A few years ago, pipeline construction filled every hotel room and even prompted construction of a new campground. The local bars were filled with workers from Texas, drinking and two-stepping their Saturday night away. But the pipeline is done, and the workers have moved on.
Our last visit brought reminders that economic recovery hasn’t reached Lake County. The most visible sign was a shuttered movie theater, closed thanks to the major studios converting to digital only — a transition that the Alger Theater’s owners simply couldn’t afford.
The plight of the Alger is much like Lakeview itself: Trying, and mostly failing, to find its place in the modern world. But as long as there’s good people, a decent drink and a great steak to be had in Lakeview, it will always be our sacred place.
Jason R. Cox is a communications specialist and occasional journalist residing in Salem and tweeting at @jasonrcox.
Editor’s note: Jason is the son-in-law of our longtime friends, Tom and Elsa Guiney.
Tomorrow: “Know when to fold ’em” by Lillian Mongeau