Room and Bard

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By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004

Leaders of the small town of Ashland, Ore., were so dubious of a professor's request for money to help fund a Shakespeare production over the Fourth of July that they insisted one day be devoted to boxing matches.

The boxing never really caught on. But Angus Bowmer's idea did. Sixty-nine years after his initial production of "Twelfth Night," the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sells more than 381,000 tickets to theatergoers in Ashland, population 20,000, during its 8 1/2-month season.

In three state-of-the-art theaters, Equity Guild players strut and fret their hours upon the stage close to 800 times each year between February and October. Just over half the plays performed these days are classic and contemporary, the remainder by the Bard.

Yet the kind of crowd that would be attracted to boxing will still find Ashland to their liking, and not just for the blood and gore that sometimes spills onstage during Shakespearean tragedies. While the finely bred and highly cultured come and go, talking of beauty over high tea or daintily picking their way through bookstores and art galleries between the matinee and evening performances, courser visitors made of sterner stuff can climb the peaks of snow-capped Mount Ashland, or shoot whitewater rapids, or Jet Ski a nearby lake, or hike ancient tablelands, or mountain bike, or ride extensive trails, or gallop through orchards and rolling foothills on horseback or -- from early winter to late spring -- ski.

For the soul who equally embraces the pleasures of mind and body, Ashland is like a dream. This has got to be the only place in the world where whitewater rafting outfitters volunteer the information that they guarantee to have you back in time for Shakespeare.

At first glance, Ashland is just a particularly prosperous small town surrounded by exceptional natural beauty. But keep walking.

You''ll stumble over more than a dozen art galleries and several stellar bookstores within a few blocks. You'll discover there are six more theater companies in town besides the Oregon Shakespeare Festival company, which is one of the nation's largest nonprofit theater companies in the world. You'll also meander past dozens of restaurants, at least two microbreweries and a college campus. And during a stroll through town, you'll naturally wander at some point into a 93-acre park designed by John McLaren, the landscape architect famed for his design of San Francisco's Golden Gate State Park.

Ashland is quite simply the biggest little town you'll ever see, and wish you never had to leave.

Lake Shasta Detour

You can fly within about 15 miles of Ashland, landing in Medford, Ore., home of the pear and apple orchards that fill the Harry and David's gift baskets so familiar during holiday seasons. Alternately, Ashland, in southern Oregon's Rogue Valley, is a beautiful 4 1/2-hour drive from either Portland, Ore., or Sacramento.

I'm drawn to the Sacramento option in part because it looks as if you couldn't get lost between there and Ashland even if you were directionally challenged, which I am. It's such a straight shot up Interstate 5, it looks as if crows planned the route. Moreover, a glance at the map shows huge green areas that promise a scenic adventure.

As I hurtle past a long string of state and national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, national forests, snowcapped mountains and glimmering lakes, I'm thinking that the Sacramento-to-Ashland route, with stops on either end, would make the perfect two-week vacation.

I need every ounce of my feeble willpower to avoid detouring a bit to the east into Lassen Volcanic National Park, whose volcanic peaks and glacial lakes have long been on my wish list. I soldier on a while. But about an hour outside Ashland, I succumb to the allure of Shasta Lake. I'm driving right past some of its 370 miles of shoreline. The lake's shiny blue surface is 30,000 acres, and I can no more resist that than I could a free peanut butter Twix bar.


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© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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