The Oregon Tourist Trail. Anne Gregg's Favourite US State Is Still the Glorious Land of Plenty That Captivated Its Early Pioneers

Article excerpt

Byline: ANNE GREGG

THIS was the first time and yet the hundredth that I'd been in Dave's Diner. America's like that. You keep walking into movies. Fifties rock stars smouldered on the walls, Elvis's All Shook Up rumbled softly on the sound system.

The waitress said, 'What can I get you guys?' when people sat down and 'Y'all through here?' when they finished. The pancakes with boysenberry syrup had all the texture and taste of foam rubber but were just the cholesterol fix I needed to cure the jetlag that had left me sleepless in Seattle.

Seattle is in Washington state, but it was the best airfare I could get, and two-and-a-half hours' easy drive south to the Oregon border. Here, the speed limit suddenly reduces to 65mph which, for a while, causes cramp in your accelerator leg through the effort of holding back.

Then you relax and look at the scenery. Cruising past big sassy haulage trucks, I registered green hills, tidy farms and blankets of Douglas fir as the snowy cone of Mount Hood played now-you-seeme-now-you-don't on the horizon. A hoarding said 'Work harder. People on Welfare are depending on us!' Irony is not entirely alien to Oregon.

It was good to be back.

This West Coast state, just above California, is the bit of America I've always liked best. All I saw of it last time was packed into a five-day filming assignment. I remember whizzing from Portland through the spectacular Columbia River Gorge to the Pendleton Round-Up, the third biggest rodeo in the US, where real and rhinestone cowboys strutted their stuff and Shoshone descendants war-danced. On the Deschutes River, I rafted over grade-four rapids (scary), and in the Mount Hood ski area took a butchers at the Overlook Hotel, scene of Jack Nicholson's manic hatchet-work in The Shining (not as scary without him around).

Oregon has everything - plains, volcanic mountains, forest, the world's deepest waterhole (Crater Lake), wine country and a scenic coastline. I wanted to see more.

Corvallis, in the Willamette Valley, was first base: a delightful medium-sized university town within easy reach of both the towering Cascade mountains and the Pacific. The kind of place Bill Bryson was searching for in his book The Lost Continent: real small-town America with maple-shaded suburbs and kempt lawns, where church is the heart of the community, kids can cycle to school and people rarely bother to lock their doors.

The nicest thing was that for all the appearance of folksiness there was little evidence of small-town mentality, either here or elsewhere, just pride in an enviably civilized lifestyle.

Whichever direction I set out from Corvallis, the countryside was glorious.

To the north, vineyards, to the south, golden seas of wheat dotted with red barns. More than once I thought, this is as near as dammit to the land of plenty which the covered-wagoners of the Oregon Trail dreamed of as they hacked their way across the North American wilderness in the mid 1800s.

There were other graceful towns in the Willamette River's path, like Albany and Coburg, and, to seek out, more covered bridges than Madison County - spare pine structures mostly dating from early this century. As to why roofs were built on bridges over rivers, speculation has ranged from blinkering animals nervous of crossing water to providing cover for lovers. The truth is that in the Rainy State, as Oregon is sometimes referred to, bridges lasted three times longer with overhead protection.

RAIN or no rain, Oregon has long settled spells when temperatures are in the high 80s and skies are cloudless - as on the fine September morning I set out for the ocean, winding through the buffer of craggy hills with their creeks and Christmas trees (Oregon provides half of America's) to Depoe Bay (seaside-outing location for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest). …