Ashland, as we like it

Dad, when are we going to get there?” says my teenage stepson Garret from the backseat of our Toyota hybrid. He and his older brother Grant, both more than six feet tall, have been sandwiched there for much of our five-plus-hour drive to Ashland, Oregon. Ah, for the proper riposte; after all, we’re on our annual Shakespeare pilgrimage. No doubt the Bard would not come up empty.

Falling short in the repartee department, I’m content to let the miles slip past as they may. As far as I’m concerned, the trip is quite pleasant. Despite my nickname “the wee one,” I am afforded the privilege of the front seat. And while I-5 can certainly be tedious, Northern California definitely has its moments—the granite spires of Castle Crags and snowcapped Mount Shasta among them.

Just north of the California border, we drop into the wide Rogue Valley and turn west off Interstate 5. The road eventually narrows into Ashland’s Main Street, tree-lined and packed with local businesses. At the end of the road is a plaza that opens onto a park and a set of stairs leading up to the theaters of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Around here, of course, the plays are the thing. OSF has been putting on the Bard’s classics and other works in Ashland for more than 70 years. The season lasts for eight and a half months and includes 11 plays staged in three different theaters. And though we’re tired from our drive, we have tickets for The Taming of the Shrew tonight and need to get physically and nutritionally prepared.

The search for food is continual when you’re traveling with three big guys, so soon we’re taking our seats on the outdoor patio of Pasta Piatti, an enticing Italian place with a menu offering plenty of variations on the boys’ favorite entrée—pasta—and a nice wine list. Over calamaretti fritti and a glass of prosecco, I soak in the warmth of the evening and admire Ashland’s charming downtown. After dinner the boys order espresso dessert drinks with us–Garret’s first taste of coffee. We all need a little something to keep us perky.

We’ve made this trip every summer for the last few years, and we now know teens and tweens can survive Shakespeare’s comedies, even sans caffeine. Perhaps one reason people stay tuned in is how the works are often served up: OSF’s outdoor Elizabethan Stage, modeled on Shakespeare’s Fortune Theatre, is open to the sky. If the centuries-old prose doesn’t captivate, the brilliant sky and cool evening breeze will. When I get lost in the poetry, I like to look up at the stars. We’re so far north I don’t know what constellations I’m seeing, but it’s magical nonetheless.

When it comes to choosing productions, we steer clear of the tragedies, with one exception: last year’s Romeo and Juliet. It is about teenage love, and Baz Luhrmann’s mod 1996 movie version of the tale, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, has reached mythic status with the boys’ generation.

The staging there inspired a spirited discussion post-play over ice cream at Zoey’s Cafe. We were collectively blown away by the company’s decision to place the teenage characters in contemporary costumes and keep the adults in Elizabethan dress. I enjoyed the lively conversation as much as the Northwest-made Cascade Mountain blackberry ice cream.

Daytime for us in Ashland can be defined as lazy. Among our favorite stops are Brothers’ Restaurant for a late breakfast (omelets and bagels with lox for the guys, organic granola for me) and hang time in Lithia Park, a lush 93-acre playground on the National Register of Historic Places. Younger kids watch the ducks in the pond with their families; the guys go for Frisbee.

This trip I discover my new favorite shop, Emz Blendz Soap Co., a natural bath-and-body store. The boys find me there on their way to their top spot, the Music Coop, which has to be one of the last independent record stores on the West Coast. I wonder what CD they’ll come back with for us to wear out on the drive home.

Before we leave, there’s one more play to see and, fortunately, time for some adventure. The boys lobby for river rafting, but we adults are set on a trip to Emigrant Lake, a nearby reservoir with waterslides and a roped-off area for swimming. The slides don’t lead right into the lake, as they did in my wildest summer dreams, but it’s exhilarating anyway to bump and slip down the turns into the small pool at the end.

Then Garret, a high school water polo player, decides to take on the reservoir. In no time, he’s made his way past kids in their floaties and wading, chatting moms to the distant swim area boundary. I follow, figuring a stepmom ought to be game, and my husband soon joins us. Eventually, we’re all treading water together under the bright blue sky, as ski boats pass in the main channel. “I can’t believe we’re already leaving tomorrow!” I say. And what would our literary legend say to that?

Oh yes: “Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.”


If You Go

Ashland Springs Hotel
212 E. Main St.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival
15 S. Pioneer St.


Pasta Piatti
358 E. Main St.

Zoey’s Cafe & All Natural Ice Cream
199 E. Main St.

Brothers’ Restaurant
95 N. Main St.

Emz Blendz Soap Co.
93 Oak St.

Music Coop
181 A St.

Emigrant Lake
5505 Hwy. 66