I WOUND UP IN Joseph, Oregon, on a whim and a hunch. A photo of jagged mountains and blue lake in a lifestyle magazine caught my eye. I liked the sound of the local place names—Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Lostine River, Imnaha River Canyon. So I did a little digging, found a cabin to rent, and one bright day my wife and I packed up and headed to far northeastern Oregon.
Somehow we had failed to reckon with the eight hours it takes to drive there from Seattle—though beyond Issaquah almost all of it is beautiful, empty, rolling, or vertiginous, a long reel of green shading to brown and back to green and then to gold as you swoop in and out of mountains, rain shadows, wheat fields, and prairie. Past the mill town of Elgin at the eastern fringe of the Blue Mountains, I was pretty much grinning all the time. And by the time I caught sight of the Wallowas rising straight up out of a working valley of big ranches and small no-nonsense towns, I knew that this was the place.
Joseph, the last and prettiest town in the valley, has everything I like best about the West—dry bracing climate, no-frills amenities, easy access to incredible beauty, and the bliss of solitude. Okay, so it’s a bit of a drive—Boise, the nearest burg of any heft is four and a half hours away—but that’s a price I’m willing to pay to be alone with granite summits, glacial lakes, dreamy farm roads that peter out into cross-country ski trails, salmon streams winding through wildflower meadows, and the monumental canyon of the Imnaha River unspooling mile after desolate mile until it drops into the Snake. There’s even a thriving wolf pack—despised by local ranchers, cherished by conservationists—you might glimpse on the 33,000 acres of the Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie, the largest undisturbed expanse of bunchgrass in the Northwest.
The truly jaw-dropping hikes into the high country of the Lostine and Wallowa river watersheds are often snowed in till late spring—and even in blazing summer these treks require a fairly serious commitment of time and muscle. But you can get a taste of the terrain in April on the first few miles of the Hurricane Creek trail near the county seat of Enterprise or, if you’re willing to brave another hour-and-a-half drive over increasingly miserable dirt roads, on the trail that tracks the final glorious five miles of the Imnaha’s run to the Snake.
The Nez Perce Indians wintered in this balmy canyon of brown corduroy and gold velvet—and it may be the ideal place in which to channel the spirit of their revered leader Chief Joseph.
"The irony about Joseph is that the town is named for the guy we kicked out," notes Rich Wandschneider, longtime resident and founding director of Fishtrap, a literary workshop series that’s been here since 1988 (this summer’s session, on the theme of migrations and passages, runs July 10–17). The story of Chief Joseph’s eviction could be fodder for a writer’s workshop on its own. In 1877, a year after Custer’s disgrace, the U.S. Army gave Joseph’s band of Nez Perce Indians 30 days to leave the land their people had lived on for centuries. After the tribe cleared out, General Oliver O. Howard—angered by the revenge killing of a bootlegger by tribesmen—chased the Nez Perce 1,300 miles northeast across Idaho and Montana. Joseph came within 40 miles of escaping over the Canadian border when troops caught him and forced his surrender.
The town that took the name has always been a lot more cowboy than Indian, though these days the cowboy aura has a slightly tinny overlay of self-conscious nostalgia. Still, it’s a sweet little place with a hardware store where you can shoot the breeze and the renowned Valley Bronze foundry (there are two other foundries in Enterprise) that has spawned some great statues on Main Street, along with a small galaxy of galleries, craft shops, and fancy food emporia. After a day of hiking, biking the back roads, or fishing the spring-swollen rivers (if you’re lucky you might catch the tail end of steelhead season), it’s nice to idle away a few hours browsing the shops—then toast your purchases (or restraint) with a pale ale on tap at the Mutiny Brewing Company.
Here in the West, the combination of scenery, year-round recreation, and artsy small town is a sure-fire recipe for development—and it remains to be seen whether the Wallowa Valley will go the gentrified way of our Methow or Montana’s Paradise valleys. "We’ve still got a lot of the traditional elements of a rural community," says Cory Carman, a fourth-generation rancher who raises grass-fed cattle with her husband on a spread outside the town of Wallowa, about 24 miles from Joseph. "Yes there’s tourism, but it’s not overdone the way it is in some places."
To hear Carman talk about the mix of people who live, work, and play amicably in the valley—crusty old ranchers side by side with young urban refugees, Portland foodies sharing grass-fed steaks with iced-tea-sipping church elders—you’d think this place was paradise on earth. And when the sun shines and the wind settles, it sometimes is.
Maybe what will keep it from becoming paradise lost like so many other spectacular patches of Western landscape is the fact that it’s so far from anyplace else. As Carman puts it, "The secret of the valley is that you have to really want to come here to be here."