I wanted to eat what Obama ate. So I headed to American Dream Pizza, the funky twenty-year-old pie joint on SW Second Avenue in downtown Corvallis where his campaign entourage stopped for lunch last spring. Surely the political leviathan who’d built his reputation on “change” had ordered something different, a pie for a new generation: smoked gouda with Jamaican jerk chicken, or bacon and artichoke hearts. But when I stepped up to the counter and said, “I’ll have what Barack had,” the employee blinked at me blankly. Finally he said, “So you want a slice of cheese?”
Analysis of my mistake: I had arrived at American Dream with high expectations—a sure setup for disappointment.
I confess, however, that I did not arrive in Corvallis with high expectations of the town’s offerings for travelers—I blame friends and colleagues for that. When I told them I was going to explore the town of some 54,000, the No. 1 response was some version of “Cor-vall-is? But why?”
Portlanders’ prevailing opinion seems to be that Corvallis, located ten miles west of Interstate 5, near the foothills of the Coast Range and the agricultural fields of the southern Willamette Valley, is populated by undergraduates, hippies, and hayseeds. The city, I was told, may be notable for great dive bars like Squirrel’s and the Peacock (fine places to get drunk as a skunk), and also because Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, coaches men’s basketball at Oregon State University. But unless you’re attending a graduation or the Civil War game, there’s really no reason to go.
I thought of these cynics as I put my lips to a glass of Archery Summit pinot noir at Strega, a year-old Northwest fusion restaurant housed in the six-story Elements Building. The dining room, with its angled, wood-planked ceiling and generous view of the city and the Willamette River, was packed with diners supping on duck-leg confit and Portuguese fisherman’s stew. Flames flickered in the fireplace; the red-and-black granite bar was shiny enough to use as a mirror to reapply my lip gloss. Strega easily could have sprung from the Pearl District.
“Tell those Portlanders it’s not all about them,” a fellow imbiber—a doctor at the local hospital—said when I asked him what he thought about Corvallis’s long-suffering rep.
Perhaps Portlanders’ feelings about the town formerly known as Corn Valley simply haven’t caught up to its present-day realities. Owing to a $9.5 million bond measure, Corvallis’s Willamette River waterfront—once a bedraggled landscape ruled by weeds—now hosts a wide pedestrian and biking corridor lined with benches, art, landscaped gardens, and public squares perfect for idling. Bars and restaurants followed, and though some sport hippie names like Cloud 9 and the Downward Dog Pub and Grub, they offer the day-tripper something Corvallis once lacked: venues with an atmosphere that isn’t decidedly lowbrow.
Those are welcome rewards when exploring what really makes Corvallis worth a visit—the landscapes beyond the city limits. I had wanted to hike to the top of nearby Marys Peak, which, at 4,097 feet, is the highest mountain in the Coast Range, but the January snowpack was too deep.
No matter: Peavy Arboretum, a thirty-seven-acre forest managed by OSU, has nearly eleven miles of trails that wind through secondary forests in the Coast Range foothills. I started up Loop 36, a three-and-a-half-mile trail with enough elevation gain to work flaccid winter thighs. The forest was lovely and, thanks to college students, the trails were perfectly maintained even in this dreary season.
Best of all, I was but six miles from town and its numerous possibilities. A cocktail and a pulled-pork sandwich at Cloud 9? A glass of wine at Enoteca? One thing I knew: I would not, like our President, content myself with the old standards, but rather embrace the city’s quest for change.