Oregon's Timberline Lodge casts a relaxing spell by summoning the spirit of a simpler time

All the recent talk about the U.S. infrastructure got me thinking about the last time the federal government decided to rebuild America.

Bridges, parks, schools, courthouses, theaters, hospitals and dams all across the U.S.  owe their provenance to the Great Depression-era Works  Progress Administration (later known as the Work Projects Administration).  

Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles is a WPA effort. So is a 40,000-square-foot structure built of  logs and boulders at the midway point of Oregon’s Mt. Hood.

And so my goddaughter — and inveterate traveling companion — and I packed off to Oregon’s Timberline Lodge.

Cara is an architect who leaped at the chance to study firsthand WPA construction methods, but I had my own interest.

My parents, children during the Depression, raised their family on the idea that the WPA had wrought a kind of magic in bedraggled America, employing millions of artists, writers, sculptors, designers and other unimaginably skilled craftspeople.

From Portland, the 60-mile drive to Timberline is easy even as the road narrows and twists into what is known as the Mt. Hood Scenic Byway.

From the passenger’s seat, Cara whipped out her camera as stunning, snow-crusted Mt. Hood began to dominate the horizon.

The actual height of the peak that the U.S. Geological Survey categorizes as a “potentially active stratovolcano” is subject to question, depending on who is doing the measuring and which angle is being measured. But certainly this splendid beast of a mountain stands at more than 11,000 feet.

For a little geo-historical context, the USGS dates Hood’s volcanic activity back at least 500,000 years.  As I told Cara, I find this comforting because it is always reassuring to visit relics that are even older than I.

Hood is home to 12 named glaciers and boasts a rarity: a year-round ski area.

The region’s Multnomah tribe called it Wy’east.  A member of Capt. George Vancouver’s exploration mission spotted the peak in 1792 and named it for Samuel Hood, a British admiral.

On the Corps of Discovery mission that Thomas Jefferson funded, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reported in 1805 that they had spied Mt. Hood. In 1859 settlers described smoke and flying rocks spewing from the summit.

Though volcanologists say Hood will someday blow its top again, for now the mountain has quieted.

Roosevelts at the resort

In 1936 Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the same architect who designed what used to be known as  Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite (it’s now the Majestic Hotel), drew up plans for a grand yet rustic resort to be called Timberline Lodge.

The hexagonal structure, built around a six-sided stone chimney that rises 92 feet and sits 14 feet in diameter, came to life in just two years.

Equally remarkable, the entire cost of construction was $695,730 — about $12 million in today’s dollars.

A crew of about 100 workers lived in a nearby tent city. Their wages varied from 55 to 90 cents an hour for the most skilled tradespeople.

Timberline championed recycling before the word was even invented. Out-of-use railroad tracks were forged into andirons. Old utility poles were carved into newel posts shaped like bears and birds.

Blankets from the Civilian Conservation Corps were torn into strips to become hooked rugs.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the lodge in 1937, calling Timberline “a monument to the skills and faithful performance of workers on the rolls” of the WPA.

After the dedication, Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, sat down to a meal featuring what is now called Northwest Alpine cuisine: wild salmon and huckleberry pie, a regional specialty.

On location

As resorts go, Timberline is something of a rock star. It masqueraded as the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining.” Timberline also had a part in the movie version of Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild.”

These days, the superstars who preside over the cavernous lobby wrought of the sturdiest ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, hemlock, cedar and Western juniper the WPA workers could find are a pair of St. Bernards, always named Bruno and Heidi. 

When not splayed in the lobby, receiving visitors like four-legged royalty, the dogs live with hotel employees. When one Bruno or Heidi ages out of this demanding work, he or she retires to live full time with his or her employee host, and a new Bruno or Heidi quietly appears.

Timberline typically books up months in advance, often for weddings or other group celebrations. On relatively short notice, Cara and I were lucky to cadge a “chalet” room outfitted with enough WPA-designed bunk beds to accommodate a small sports team.

Air-conditioning consisted of opening a window. With no mini-fridge, we stuck our water bottles on the snow-covered windowsill.

Instead of in a closet, we hung our clothes on hand-forged iron wall hooks, also the products of WPA craftspeople.

The shared, down-the-hall bathrooms and showers meant that guests often exchanged greetings while wearing only a bath towel.

Degree of difficulty

Many trails lead up the mountain from the lodge. Some are easy; others explain why every year several experienced climbers perish in their attempts to conquer Mt. Hood.

Cara and I rationalized our decision to go for the easy option on grounds that we arrived too late in the day to do otherwise.

At least we got to model the mandatory Northwest uniforms of puffy jackets, hiking boots and backpacks that made us look as though we were preparing to scale Mt. Everest.

Even a mini-hike justifies a good dinner. We chose a grazing-menu meal in the second-floor balcony area surrounding the big stone chimney. 

Ringing the walls are fabulous paintings and textiles from the Federal Art Project, all created by Northwest artists. Like the furnishings throughout the lodge, the tables and chairs reflect what was called the Prairie School aesthetic. 

As we gazed at our new favorite stratovolcano, the Ram’s Head Bar supplied us with a platter of artisan cheeses accompanied by red wine-black fig jam and smoked hazelnuts ($16), a hearty bowl of fire-roasted tomato soup ($8.50) and an immense Caesar salad with farro wheat berries ($8.50). For Cara, a vegetarian, there could be no better fare.

After dinner, we paused to greet Heidi and Bruno. Heidi — or maybe it was Bruno—eagerly followed us back to our first-floor room. We drew the line at inviting the pooch to join us in the outdoor swimming pool.

It is impossible to exaggerate the thrill of leaping into the warm water while a soft sifting of snow falls around you. The experience made us laugh as we splashed back and forth, then raced to the comfort of the even warmer nearby hot tub.

We joined eight other women in the large, steaming spa — friends who had come from many places to celebrate the significant birthday one of them was observing.

Any reservations I had about the rustic wooden bunk beds were dispelled as my head hit the pillow. Cool mountain air slipped in through our window.

Moments before a serene sleep overtook me, I offered silent thanks to the federal government for creating this stately mountain palace.

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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