It started to make sense on our third morning.
We were up again before dawn, sorting through camera gear. After choosing the lenses we’d need for the next few hours, we headed to the county rodeo grounds to shoot the sleepy arena and the dust in the early sun’s eyes. We’d just missed the thunder of the Chief Joseph Days Rodeo, but the bulls hadn’t called us to Wallowa County in the first place. We came for the beer.
Several days earlier, we’d left Portland around sunup so we could get to Enterprise—over 300 miles—and get straight to work. We knew about Terminal Gravity Brewing. We’d had their beer and heard they were all about the liquid, but we had some questions and wanted to film the answers. So we went to ask how the brewery stayed relevant in a region inundated with beer, and how did they do it from what seems like the middle of nowhere?
Days of getting up early had us in a bit of a trance. Not with dulled senses, but enchanted. Rising like that—to catch light and capture beauty—leaves you for the rest of the day looking for more beauty. In the morning, it’s the gold and the dew and jumping fish and rising dust, but by afternoon and evening it’s the people and their smiles and the stories. We were captivated. Most small towns can be charming, but sometimes that charm doesn’t last much longer than your hotel reservation. Not this place.
The people working at the brewery itself were engaging mix of pirates and philosophers and they welcomed us. They were quick to smile and joke and they gamely answered our questions, whether we asked about their buccaneer brewery, the area, or a bit about their own lives. One person after another told us how the land brought them to Wallowa County. And kept them there. (If you live in the area, you know these people—you may even be these people.)
Some came to fight fires and others to study fish. Some left finance jobs in Seattle or San Francisco to pack people and gear into and out of the mountains day after day. (The Wallowas, a cirque of stunning, 10,000-foot peaks rising just miles from any doorstep in the county, are a destination for many, but home to a lucky few. In fact, Wallowa County is one of the least populous places in the state.) Many of these people stayed to be part of Terminal Gravity. They seemed to find themselves in the middle of nowhere, but at the center of something.
Millennia ago, this same stunning geography created a unique aquifer, producing water ideally suited to the type of beer the brewery’s founders wanted to make. Their first IPA made a big splash in Eugene and Portland, but one of the founders told us it wasn’t just the water that brought him to Wallowa County—he wanted a community for his daughters.
Enterprise doesn’t seem to be an archetypal American small town. Much of Wallowa County seemed unique, actually. Sure, we saw ranchers and farmers and dogs in the backs of pickups every day (and every tractor I saw gave me a sense of pastoral simplicity), but the people impressed me with a singular sense of purpose and progress. It distinguished this rural place from the many we’d visited, worked around, or grown up in. People don’t seem to live in Enterprise to figuratively go back in time. They’re there to create.
TG partners with local farmers and ranchers for both its beer and its food. We met many of these folks. We saw them smile and, taking off their gloves or clapping the dust away, meet us with outstretched hands. It’s no exaggeration to say they’re why the salads, burgers, and pastas at the brewery were so satisfying.
Outstretched hands soon led to open doors. We toasted new friends and stunning scenery. From river guides to fermentation science majors, new residents to those whose families had been here for generations, we shared stories and drank beers. Even winding down with a drink on the brewery’s front porch or in the hills overlooking the valley, their industriousness was thrilling. They stayed in Wallowa County for a different pace of life, sure, but none wanted a slower pace.
The people and place all vibrated with a sense of purpose.
I considered all this in the early amber and blue of the rodeo grounds, bucking chutes and bleachers to my left and right. I kicked a few dirt clods and walked back to the quiet stock pens where a week earlier dozens of bulls and broncs had pawed and stamped nervously. Looking into the pens and leaning over the railings, I thought: Could I do this? Could I live here? For this view, with the ranches and the mountains and the people...
It wasn’t just about the beer, and by the third day that started to make sense.
~ Solomon Hanson