Pear trees show off their spring splendor in Hood River Valley
The Mount Hood Railroad's vintage train creeps backward out of Hood River station, clanking and groaning up the mountain toward Parkdale, the site of the Hood River Valley Blossom Festival.
After negotiating the switchback, the train's passengers suddenly are faced with the sight of acres of white and pink blossoms. Rows of pear and apple trees stretch to the horizon, which to the west is Ñ clouds permitting Ñ punctuated by the profile of Mount Hood.
Smudge pots are scattered about the orchards, and tall white fans stand ready to waft warm air about in case of frost. Pears make up 90 percent of the fruit grown in the volcanic soil of these slopes. Once, apples were the prime crop, Dan the conductor explains on the two-hour round trip to Parkdale. Squeezed by Asian imports, the valley shifted to pears. In the last five years, though, farmers have been eyeing the wine boom and ripping the trees out to plant grapes.
While the gathering of pie bakers, fruit canners and quilt makers on Parkdale's grassy strip cannot match Japan's sakura matsuri (cherry blossom festival) for scale and class, it remains a vital celebration of being an Oregonian. (Compare it to the parade of fruitless cherry trees in Washington, D.C.)
Whole families are supported by anjou-picking dads, the best of whom can fill 15 bins in a day, each holding 50 pounds, at $20 a bin. Mexican children wave from the windows of subsidized housing as the train wends its way past several of the big packing companies, such as Diamond.
In the course of climbing 1,788 feet, the train offers scenery that varies between orchards in bloom and forested hillsides, with the occasional glimpse of a trailer. The brunch train, which runs weekends in April through December, stops for just 20 minutes; passengers on the blossom festival train will have two hours in Parkdale to browse the craft fair and exhibits.
Alternatively, the blossoms can be viewed via a driving tour on a scenic loop recommended by Hood River County Chamber of Commerce (www.hoodriver.org). But though cup holders and screaming kids are fine for some people, the stylish way to do it is in a classic American train with a caboose, bar and dance floor.