Though for several years I tended to travel otherwise, I love road trips – for their pace, for their education, and most especially for the hidden treasures that can be found along the way.
After living in the Province of Alberta for nearly a quarter century, I moved to British Columbia, arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world. Washington State, which sits directly below BC, is similarly beautiful and is a handy drive or ferry ride from most of the more highly populated areas, became a destination of choice for our family. Over the years I have travelled all the major Washington routes, along with many minor roads. Washington is full of scenic mountains and valleys, northern deserts and lush forests, rainy coastal areas which abound with seafood, and hot dry inland areas whose soil grows luscious fruit and vegetables – and where nice wines are produced.
I will never forget the time I found my first Washington hidden treasure. Following an extended golf vacation in southern California, hubby and I had driven back up on all the coastal routes through California and Oregon and were determined to stay at the water as far into Washington as possible, no matter how lonely were the roads. We lived in BC’s interior then and yours truly had another wish – one more seafood lunch. Never mind that the possibilities looked slim to none and that it was now nearing 1 pm and we’d had an early breakfast. After miles of driving through towns that weren’t and with the map showing only a few miles of coastal road remaining, hubby was getting a tad techy. Sure enough, we spotted a hand-lettered sign that promised a café. The road in took a sharp left and looked to become gravel. Heart in my throat I insisted we follow it, though I knew it would be a least a half hour detour and could lead to more of nothing. We’d been on many such adventures which we pretty much always took in stride, but we were road-tired and needed food, not a good time for a diversion. A few miles in the road turned north again and became more of a dike than a proper road. But we persevered, even though the roadbed shortly became a very pretty crush of seashells – we were heartened to see a building at the end of it! We pulled into a parking lot and found a square blue clapboard building with a single door – and not a vehicle parked outside. But wait – there was a paper sign on the door. We got out of the car and read the sign. It appeared that very day there was a crab fest scheduled at 1 pm. It was now 12:50. Though the place looked deserted, we checked the door. It opened – onto a scene which was astounding, for before us stood a quaint old tavern-cafe with a couple of huge tables groaning under pots of freshly cooked crab and great ceramic bowls of corn on the cob and salads. Packed tightly around were tables and chairs on which were perched colourful happy characters straight out of an earlier era. When they noticed two strangers walk in, they embraced us and quickly found us a spot at a table. We got talking to many of them and discovered this was an annual thing. Most were locals, which I suppose was why the parking lot was deserted (though where they lived is still a mystery as we saw no sign of habitation on the way in). As the afternoon wore on others trickled in from the Seattle area and one or two from Oregon.
One of the highlights of that find was watching the tavern owner lower and lift out huge crab traps right off the back deck and then drop the caught crabs directly into boiling water. We ate and ate until we had Buddha bellies. I nibbled on an ear of corn and a bit of potato salad only to be polite.
Needless to say, we stayed the afternoon and did not make it home as we’d planned that day. In the following several years we visited a few more times before somehow losing contact with the place. I have since looked online for it to no avail and it still remains a mystery.
But I digress…
For the past couple of years I have been invited on more road trips than usual and pretty much always jump at the chance.
I recently returned from a golf road trip with my widowed brother. Irv is the ultimate road-tripper – the only one I know who has been to all but one American State (ironically, Alaska, which adjoins Canada to the north), as well as all ten Canadian Provinces and three Territories.
When we were planning the trip he suggested we must make a stop at the Maryhill Museum in Washington just over the border with Oregon, and I made a note of it. Late in the planning I mentioned it to him again and he said for sure we aught to make time to visit there on our way home.
I had not done any research into the museum, expecting it to be one of those small, musty regional museums that are so charming and, often, far more interesting than one could imagine.
We hit the road early after spending a couple of days in spectacular Bend, Oregon. As we came up over a rise and approached the bridge that spans the Columbia River and carries one into Washington, a grand mansion could be seen on the opposite hillside. Fortress-like, it stood proudly watching over the broad expanse of the great river that rises high up in the Rockies in BC and forms a natural border between most of Oregon and Washington, flowing through one of the most spectacular gorges in the world before dispersing into the Pacific Ocean.
The mansion sits on twenty six acres of parkland surrounded by a further six thousand acres of ranch and farm land, the nearest town several miles away – all the more exceptional because of it. The building is striking. Built by the colourful Samuel Hill, a big dreamer and even bigger innovator, its imposing Beaux Arts style, with flat roofs and deeply recessed windows, conveys the grandness and substance of the area.
Hill was born a Quaker in North Carolina in 1857. His father was an abolitionist physician who moved the family to Minneapolis after the Civil War. Sam became a successful lawyer and caught the attention of James J. Hill (apparently unrelated), a Canadian-American railway magnate, when he successfully represented against JJ in several lawsuits. A self-made man who became known as an empire builder, JJ was blind in one eye and had nine years of formal schooling. Sam became President of a number of JJ’s enterprises, married his daughter and moved to the Seattle area where he made his own mark. Perhaps because of his Quaker background, Samuel was a lifelong philanthropist who in 1921 built the famous Peace Arch at the BC-Washington border to commemorate one hundred years of peace between the two countries.
Knowing the economic benefits of good transportation, Hill advocated for a state-wide connection of roads in his adopted State, going so far as to build a ten mile demonstration road at his dream agricultural Quaker community of Maryhill, the first stretch of road in Washington to be paved. The community never took off, but the roads got built – and are a good part of the joy of discovering the beauties of the State.
The mansion, too, got built – eventually. As with the Peach Arch and many other of Hill’s enterprises, the mansion was built of concrete made to look like stone, an innovation that was successful. Alas, with the failure of Maryhill, Hill abandoned the structure in 1917.
Hill was an avid traveler and appears to have been a bit star-struck. He made friends in Paris with Loie Fuller, an American pioneer of modern dance who sometimes danced with the Folies Bergere and was somewhat of an entrepreneur in her own right. She gained the friendship of many French artists and scientists. Loie convinced Hill to transform the mansion into an art museum, and brokered more than eighty pieces by French sculptor Auguste Rodin, as well as other works. Hill added his private collection, and the museum was born.
Loie and Hill’s mutual friend, Queen Marie of Romania, officially opened the museum in 1926, though the building was still not finished and the crates of art remained unopened. With help from yet a third socialite, San Francisco’s Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the building was completed and the Maryhill Museum of Art was finally opened to the public May 13, 1940, Sam Hill’s birthday, some nine years after his death.
Like the colourful history behind it, the Museum has a delightfully eclectic collection of art. The mansion was originally conceived as a guest house, with several suites; and the museum exhibition rooms are arranged accordingly. Though with an air of spaciousness in the manner of great art museums, every square inch is utilized, with delightful nooks and crannies displaying captivating hidden treasures. One may round a corner and discover a collection of exquisite hand-blown glass, pass through a hallway where recesses display plaster Rodin busts in storage, or come upon a charming collection of chess sets, both ancient and modern.
The Rodin sculptures, of course, occupy a special space, not only within the mansion but also have pride of place on the beautiful grounds, and are outstanding.
Other major exhibitions include fabulous paintings (mostly American artists, which was nice to see), prints and drawings, decorative and ecclesiastical arts and a few pieces from Queen Marie’s reign including her ‘audience chair’ and a replica of her coronation crown complete with jewels. A fascinating exhibit called Théâtre de la Mode began in 1946 as a travelling tour first shown at the Louvre to raise funds for war relief and to showcase French couture. It features highly detailed, beautifully staged one-third human size ‘fashion dolls’ (stylized mannequins) wearing designs by the likes of Coco Chanel, Balenciaga and Nina Ricci (whose son first proposed the tour). It was purchased by the Museum after its last stop in San Francisco.
The highlight for both Irv and me was an extensive collection of American Native Art housed in a cavernous rounded room. I have seen many such collections over the years; indigenous peoples of the West Coast were/are very skilled in decorative arts. Because they lived in an area of temperate climate with an abundance of food and relatively easy shelter, they could afford the time to develop these arts, and many museums large and small have good representations of carvings, basketry, decorative clothing, pottery and jewellery. But none have compared with Maryhill’s display. Maryhill was fortunate to obtain also a collection of pictures taken by Lee Moorehouse, an Indian Agent and amateur photographer, as well as Thomas H Rutter and other famous photographers; and these photographs included many in which the clothing worn and/or artifacts used were also part of the collection. So, one can see a photograph of a Native American wearing or using an item beside the actual piece of clothing or item itself. It was surreal and breathtaking, almost as if one were transported right there. Alas, though I got a good picture of some stone artifacts, for some reason the two pix I took of the baskets and other memorabilia on my iphone camera failed me. Fortunately a few can be found on the Museum website.
The park-like grounds are extensive and white peacocks and other wildlife can be seen roaming among the outdoor sculptures by Rodin and others.
The Museum holds yet another surprise. The ever-imaginative Hill also built a replica of Stonehenge on the site of the failed Maryhill community site, which stands as a memorial for US soldiers lost in World War I. Like his other structures the memorial was built of concrete to look like stone and now forms part of the Museum. It is encountered on the banks of the Columbia River as one turns the corner on the road up to the museum. Admission is free and well worth the side trip in.
It is a three and a half hour scenic drive from Seattle through the Cascade Mountains and the Yakima Valley or four and a half if one travels either side of the Gorge. From Portland it is one and half hours along the Gorge, a trip one aught to take for the scenery alone. In fact I would recommend taking the I84 within Oregon one way and the historic Columbia River Highway which was the result of Hill’s advocacy, the other. Any way you choose, the drive alone will be worth the visit.
It can be done in one day, but for the best experience start early and plan for a long day. There are picnic tables on the grounds where one can nibble on their lunch amongst the sculptures and strutting peacocks. With the Columbia Gorge as a backdrop it is a feast for the eyes.
The museum appears well-supported by the arts communities of not only Washington, but those of Oregon and California as well. A new wing opened May 15th, shortly after our visit. I can’t wait to go back and see what’s new…
Links to other cool Washington State sites and events:
Washington’s Long Beach (seems every coast has one) is another fabulous area. Close to Seattle and Portland, it is easily accessed in a day. For fun for the whole family, the kite festival is a must: http://kitefestival.com/kite-festival/
A wonderful day trip from Vancouver (either one), Seattle or Inland Wa is the Skagit Tulip Festival. Fields and fields of every colour of tulip under the sun: http://www.tulipfestival.org/about Take a side trip to La Connor for another of Washington’s vintage towns and have a meal or poke around in their shops. Outstanding artwork can be found there.