Four brown paper bags of apples labeled “very sweet," “sweet," “tart" and “very tart" sit next to a bag of pears on a shelf in my living room, which is where they'll stay until my wife and I find time to can them, freeze them and make a lot of pies.
We picked up the 43.2 pounds of fruit last weekend when we, including our two dogs, visited Mountain View Orchards in Parkdale, a 38-year-old business that's stop No. 18 on the Hood River County Fruit Loop.
The Fruit Loop is a 35-mile-long drive that takes you past 30 farms, fruit stands, orchards and wineries from the base of Mount Hood to the Columbia River Gorge and back. This loop is the perfect road trip for an early fall afternoon when the pass is clear, the leaves are starting to change and the smell of fresh apples fills the air (see “If you go," Page B6).
On U.S. Highway 26 from Warm Springs to Mount Hood, you drive through a seemingly endless stretch of the High Desert. Then it switches to a dense forest like you crossed an imaginary line separating the Warm Springs Indian Reservation from the Mount Hood National Forest.
The forest in the early fall greets you with flashes of color when the leaves on the deciduous trees change from green to bright orange and red as you approach Mount Hood's glacier-covered peak and cut past its western flank on state Route 35.
About 25 miles later you'll see a handmade sign guiding you toward Mountain View Orchards, a farm Lyle and Ruthie McAlexander have been running since 1974.
My wife, Meryl Ibis, and I made this our first stop on the Fruit Loop because unlike most other destinations, the McAlexanders let us bring our dogs with us as long as we kept them on a leash while we toured their farm.
“We've had a lot of people come here from Bend, Redmond and La Pine," said Lyle McAlexander, who mentioned visitors also come from Portland, the Willamette Valley, Seattle and parts of Canada. “Several thousand people come by the farm each year."
He said many visitors come to the farm because they saw it advertised on the Fruit Loop, an agritourism project Hood River County launched in 1992 to highlight its apple orchards, berry farms and fruit stands. The route's been expanded recently to include eight wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms that reflect the growing popularity of the Columbia River Gorge American Viticultural Area, a grape-producing region that includes Hood River and Wasco counties in Oregon, and Skamania and Klickitat counties in Washington.
Its popularity notwithstanding, the U-pick orchard was empty when Meryl and I walked through its dense rows of apple trees bearing words like Gala, Empire, Fuji, Rome Beauty, King and Melrose to let you know what variety of apples caused their branches to hang low to the ground.
If we didn't recognize an apple, we tasted it, and based on our initial impression, either tossed it on the ground or tossed some more of the fruit in a large brown box that sat in the bed of a red wagon the McAlexanders provided. That box ended up weighing in at 43.2 pounds, which included an armload of Bosc pears we grabbed to take home as well. I was happy the McAlexanders only charge 50 cents a pound for apples when you pick them yourself.
When we finished our trip though the orchard, which like the drive from Bend gave us a wonderful view of Mount Hood, Meryl and I headed toward the next stop our tour: the Gorge White House and a tasting room operated by Viento Wines. It was here that Tom Krebs, an employee at Viento's tasting room, poured us a flight of wines that included a crisp, slightly dry riesling and a wonderful rosť that tasted like the end of summer.
Either one of these wines would have made the perfect accompaniment to a quiche Meryl and I planned to make with some of our apples. A search for the dish's other ingredients — bacon, cheese and farm-fresh eggs — led us away from the Fruit Loop but helped me cross another state off of my list of places to visit.
Meryl and I had two goals in mind when we set out for the Fruit Loop last weekend. We had hoped to find fresh-from-the-farm ingredients needed to make the quiche, and we hoped to grab lunch at the Full Sail Brewery's Tasting Room and Pub, which a friend recommended because its deck provides a fantastic view of the Columbia River Gorge.
But neither one of these goals went according to plan. Eggs and bacon aren't among the common farm products on the Fruit Loop, as it turns out, and Full Sail's deck was full.
Luckily, Krebs at Viento's tasting room pointed us to The Farm Stand, a small grocery store on a hill just above downtown Hood River where we found the rest of our ingredients. One of these items, a sharp cheese made by Cascadia Creamery in Trout Lake, Wash., reminded us that we were just on the other side of the river from a state I've yet to visit, so we decided to spend a dollar and cross the Hood River Toll Bridge.
In order to mark a state off of your list, at least where Meryl and I are concerned, you have to do something that justifies your presence there. We met this requirement in Washington by making a right turn after we crossed the toll bridge and visiting Bingen's AlmaTerra Wines.
When we left this winery, which is about five miles from downtown Hood River on state Route 14, we drove past the toll bridge and continued west on the highway for about six miles until we came across the Spring Creek Hatchery State Park, a riverside park where we could get a fantastic view of Hood River's northern banks and the sun as it started to set below the Columbia River Gorge.
Gazing out at the wide, deep Columbia and the beginnings of a canyon cutting through the Cascade Range, Meryl and I seriously thought about cracking open a bottle of wine and having the cheese and some apples for dinner in the hatchery's parking lot. It had been almost a year since we last saw this kind of water and lush greenery, and with winter coming we knew it would be months until we had a chance to see it again.
But the voices of reason prevailed; while sleeping in the back seat of our car or sneaking our dogs into a hotel room might have been conceivable in our 20s, neither of us thought it was a good idea now, in our 30s, so we headed back to Bend.
On the trip back, we watched a dark red moon that reflected the setting sun's light slowly rise above the horizon as we crossed from the Mount Hood National Forest to the High Desert. While it was nice to spend some time wandering around Hood River's fruit trees and greenness, it was also nice to be heading home.