The Hunt, Part 1: Dirt with a View

We bought our first house in April 2013, but we'd been talking about acquiring a rural retreat long before. The thought of buying a piece of land was still far off for me, so I was surprised when Justin started talking about it with more frequency. I soon realized that he was serious about pursuing the dream sooner than later, so I jumped in the game as well.

We had only a few criteria:

  • It needed to be sunny and dry. Winters in the Pacific Northwest can only be endured for so long, and all it took was one trip to Mexico one January to realize how much we could benefit from being exposed to a little more sunlight during the doldrum months.
  • It needed to have a view. A cabin in the woods is one thing, but Justin was adamant that whatever retreat we find have some sort of perch overlooking a valley, a lake—something with some level of expanse. Justin has always felt strongly about environmental stewardship and preservation, so that confident feeling of overlooking terrain was a natural byproduct. A commanding vista was a must-have.
  • It needed to be near water. Not a running tap, per se, but some sort of lake, river, stream, or ocean. Water represents life to the land, and we really love seeing and feeling that connection.

We didn't care about structures, we didn't care about utilities. Beyond those three rules, it was a matter of finding the right spot within whatever budget we could handle once we found it.

Wishy-Washy Wishram, Wash.

View eastward of the Columbia River from the railroad town of Wishram, Washington.

Justin did the heavy lifting combing through listings and looking at various areas within a few hours drive of Portland. The Oregon Coast and Willamette Valley were out for obvious wetness reasons, so naturally our eyes were set on the Columbia River Gorge. Once you drive east past the "rain belt" of the Cascade Mountains and get to The Dalles, Oregon, suddenly that warm air and sun sticks around for a lot longer (most people don't realize that at least two-thirds of Oregon is made up of some classification of desert).

The problem with the Gorge region, though, is that property is incredibly desirable (read: expensive). The views are gorgeous, but the parcels are tiny, and most of the open land is dedicated to livestock grazing and wind turbines.

To our surprise, Justin spied a little pocket of reasonably priced land in a tiny town called Wishram (on the Washington side of the Columbia River), so we decided to take a day trip out to explore. As a native Oregonian, I've always loved driving through the Columbia River Gorge, and this was no exception. It was the summer of 2013, and the steep grasslands and basalt bluffs east of The Dalles were golden and inviting.

Steep and scorched, this parcel was right on the river, but that's where the shortlist of benefits stopped.

Wishram, however, was depressing remnant of a railroad town situated at a key bridge crossing that served Central Oregon and California. What's left is a series of mobile home parks, dilapidated bungalows, and a few farms. It turned out that the two properties we explored were hardly desirable and it all made sense once we saw them why the prices were so low. The first one we explored had been scorched by a brush fire just a few months prior, and more than half of the acreage was too steep to be of any use.

Looking through the ravine to the center of Wishram below. The craggy bluffs were pretty, but it would be very difficult to build here.

The second parcel was an awkward plot of boulders and low bluffs that surrounded a small ravine that led to a housing development. While it was great for hiking around, it would not be worth building on and was too close to other houses to feel like much of a retreat.

Justin surveys one of the Wishram properties.

Broadening Our Horizons

Wishram was not for us, so we broadened the scope of our search and Justin started asking me off-handed questions like, "How far is it to drive to Hells Canyon?" and, "How far is too far?"

One day I realized that despite growing up here and exploring just about every corner of the Willamette Valley, the Oregon Coast, Central Oregon, Southwest Washington, and the Columbia River Gorge, I knew very little about Central Washington State. I've spent a fair amount of time in the Seattle area, and I've driven along the I-5 corridor more than I can recall. I've camped, hiked, and spelunked all around Mt. St. Helens and Mount Adams. But I had only driven through Tri-Cities (to the southeast), Spokane (far east), and had never even set foot in Yakima nor knew what cities, if any, were further North.

"Have you looked in Central Washington?" I asked Justin. Shrugs led to a little too much time playing with Google Maps, and I realized for the first time that the Columbia River kind of snakes back to the west and north through Central Washington before turning back east to Grand Coulee Dam, then finally north up into Canada. We learned a little more about Wenatchee, the Methow Valley, and the massive reservoirs—Lake Chelan, Lake Roosevelt, Banks Lake—in and around the Mighty Columbia. The real estate looked to be much more affordable than the Gorge area, and once we read that Wenatchee's motto is "300 days of sun!" we knew that an investigative trip was in order.

A wayside access point to the alpine Wenatchee River along U.S. Route 2.

That Labor Day weekend (2013), we planned a road trip up to Vancouver, BC, but decided to take a very long detour through Central Washington on the way back to see what this magical place was all about. We drove out U.S. Route 2 through Stevens Pass, then descended along the Wenatchee River through the Alps of Washington and the Bavarian tourist trap town of Leavenworth. (Have you ever seen a gas station clad in mock Bavarian architecture? Very strange.)

Shortly thereafter we entered the Apple Capital of the World, with orchard after endless orchard in and around the fertile soils of the Wenatchee–Columbia confluence. The geography was very similar to that near The Dalles, Oregon, but with steeper grasslands and basalt and granite outcroppings instead of columnar bluffs. This strange combination of agriculture, arid climate, and fascinating terrain was kind of magical (chalk it up to the novelty of it if you like) and we were quickly sold.

The Little Red Cabin That Could

Justin had scouted out a handful of properties worth exploring, but we were short on time. Despite leaving Vancouver, BC early in the morning, we still needed to make it back home to the "other" Vancouver before too late. So we focused on one property in particular—a hilltop, 10.6-acre parcel with a tiny red cabin overlooking Lake Chelan.

Lake Chelan is a good 45 minutes north along the Columbia River from Wenatchee, and the lake itself (and its namesake lake town) is one of the prime vacation destinations for Seattle-area residents. (I like to think of it as a Seattleite's equivalent to a Portlander's relationship with Bend and Sunriver, Oregon, sans ski resorts.) Huge summer homes, boating galore, golf, and the epicenter of Columbia Valley wines meant that it was out of our financial reach. But the more rural areas just out of easy reach to the lake and town opened up a lot more possibilities while avoiding all the hubbub of tourist activity.

McNeil Canyon leading down to the Columbia River (not really visible) and Lake Chelan in the distance.

This particular property was for sale by owner, located just across the Columbia from Lake Chelan, up near the top of McNeil Canyon. As we climbed the steep road from the river up to the highlands, a tiny red speck of a cabin perched up on the mountain came into view. I could tell it was accessed by a set of switchbacks climbing the hillside, but the driveway was a maze of access roads to other homes and I couldn't tell quite how to get there. (Even maps provided by Google or Apple don't accurately depict where the roads actually go.)

It was a long shot, but I gave the owner a call to see if we could learn anything else about it. She lived in Seattle, but called back within a few minutes and gave us directions from the main road, insisting we drive all the way up and take a look at it. She even gave us the combination to a lockbox on the main gate post so we could get the key and see the interior.

Our poor little front-wheel-drive sedan couldn't even make it a third of the way up the drive, so I yanked up on the emergency brake and we set out on foot in the 90-degree weather. The grade was surprisingly steep despite the switchbacks, but when we finally made it up to the top, we could tell why this was a good spot. The cabin was, as far as we could tell, the highest structure around, and overlooked McNeil Canyon cutting down to the Columbia River below, with Lake Chelan perched up behind it (the lake sits some 500 feet above the river level). It was beautiful!

Panorama of the little red cabin on Red Rose Lane (click to enlarge).

The weather-beaten, seldom-used cabin itself left more to be desired. Yellowjackets had found their way through a cracked window and built a sizable nest, the furnishings were dilapidated, but most importantly, the deck on the backside was of questionable integrity. It did have a toilet with a small septic system, however, and a gravity-fed 200-gallon water tank. But we were worried about the steep, rough drive (the road was more cobble than gravel) and the otherwise unusable terrain. And while the view of the lake was great, you couldn't see much of the river.

We descended the lookout, carefully turned the car around, and drove home along US Route 97 through Ellensburg, Yakima, and Goldendale. The scenery was all new to us, and the desert highlands and alpine forests were absolutely gorgeous. But there was one big question lingering in our minds: Is this area too far away for this to be realistic?