You remember how much Pedro and I enjoy staying at the quirky McMenamins lodges. We found a couple that are close to home and allowed us to have one fun overnight and then get right back to our busy lives. I read that there was going to be a beer festival at the Olympic Club Hotel in Centralia, Washington. It’s one hour north of where I live. It was choice #1 but when we tried to get a room there, it was booked.
Choice #2 is right across the river from me: 20 minutes from my house. We reserved a night at the Kalama Harbor Lodge Hotel and made plans to go north and try out the beer, then return to Kalama, Washington for sleeping. I was driving, so I’d let Pedro be the sampler-in-chief. It was the birthday of the opening of the Kalama McMenamins, so I knew there would be a special stamp recognizing the occasion.
It was a remarkably warm Saturday for a rainy April, so the sidewalks of the cute little town of Centralia were full of weekend revelers and the inside of the McMenamins was packed. The beer festival activities were not evident, but we were not in a hurry. I went to the bathroom first and was lucky to find a staff member in there cleaning, while I washed my hands.
I asked the employee if she could tell me about the Brewfest, explaining that it was my first time to the Olympic Club. She didn’t understand my question. I asked what we should be sure and do, since we were there from out of town. She shrugged, “There’s a restaurant?” she suggested. I tried once more, “Well, online it says there’s a Brewfest. We are here for the Brewfest. What is happening here today that doesn’t usually happen here?” She shrugged again. “It’s the same as any other day,” she said.
Perplexed, I dried my hands and went out to find Pedro. He hadn’t discovered anything either, so we decided to investigate. We pushed into the center of the super crowded restaurant, got a little overwhelmed by the bustle, and decided the first smart thing to do would be to sit at the bar. So we did.
I pulled out my little McMenamins passport book and began looking for the right page to receive stamps. That’s a big reason I seek out McMenamin’s locations. Like a little kid, I just want stamps in my passport. When the bartender came over, he spotted my passport. “Because of the event today, all stamps are being handled in The New Tourist Bar, down the hall to your left at the end of this bar.” I thanked him, and we ordered.
The bartender seemed much more of a resource than the clueless bathroom attendant, so we asked him about the Brewfest. “After you finish getting your stamps, keep going down the hall to the theatre. The Brewfest is there.”
In order to get all my stamps, we had to go on a scavenger hunt. For Pedro and me that is expected and half the fun of a McMenamins. We had a clue and had to find the painting on the wall that would win us a stamp. We happily climbed to the second floor and began exploring.
You’ll notice the names on the doorways. Each room in a McMenamins is named, in every facility. Most of them are named after someone who is relevant to the history of the building or to the local community. The inside of the room will provide paintings and framed articles that will tell the story of the room’s namesake.
We solved the clue and got all the stamps. The young man with the stamp pad was pleased to point out a bit of trivia. He used to work at the Kalama Harbor Lodge when it first opened, and thus knew the date of its birthday and the Olympic Club birthdays got swapped somehow one year, and no one noticed. To this day they have not been switched back. I can’t vouch for the validity of that bit of information, but it seems like a tidbit that would delight some of the dedicated McMenamins groupies.
Next we headed down the hall to the theatre, which was roaring with music and we were astonished that we had not heard it from the front of the place. I had renewed curiosity at the former bathroom attendant, who was now zipping between the kitchen and the restaurant, in the very same hallway, who certainly knew about the hullabaloo in the theatre. Clearly communication between us had failed somehow, but regardless, we had completed our quest.
Several of the McMenamins locations have theatres. This one, like the one at Kennedy School in Portland, does not have regular theatre seats, but a jumble of couches, davenports, recliners, loveseats, sofas, wingback chairs and ottomans scattered about, and you choose one and have a seat. For the event this weekend, however, rather than a movie projected against the wall of the stage, there was a live band up there.
At the back of the theatre were tables set up with taps to dispense all the different brews on offer. At the very back, doors were wide open to the patio, where more taps awaited. There were about 16 different taps to choose from, including some ciders. We showed our ID at the door and got a bracelet, then bought drinking glasses filled with tokens. Each token was worth one brew sample. We spent the next two hours trying all the choices, talking on the patio, lounging on couches and listening to music, or exploring the building more.
When I had finally pushed my last unused token onto Pedro and he was a good sport and used it to taste another beer, we hopped in the Jeep and drove the hour south, back to our night’s lodging.
When we arrived in Kalama, it was cloudy, dark, and raining. Since Kalama is so close to my house, we had been here before, preferring the rooftop bar called the Cloud Bar. We were starving and finally ordered a meal, then we happily ran around the halls and solved a new puzzle and collected more stamps before calling it a night.
In the morning I woke at dawn and realized for the first time that we had a room overlooking the river! The second thing I noticed was that the rain and low clouds were gone. Two splendid surprises!
I went back to sleep again. Later we both got up and went out to have coffee on the balcony and watch the world wake up.
My skin got prickly when I saw the ceiling, because it is exactly – EXACTLY – the same ceiling my mother had designed and had built at her home. I’ll never forget it because she had a devil of a time convincing the workmen to build it for her. The good-hearted men from extremely rural Idaho were trying to save her from a mistake, and tried to explain that all the other respectable Idaho women had paint on the ceiling. My mother knew what she wanted and wouldn’t budge. They refused at first, and called her husband to confirm. My stepfather said his wife was in charge and they must do what she said. So they built her this gorgeous ceiling. When it was done, they reluctantly agreed that it looked better than they had imagined it would.
As the sun climbed, the sky became more blue. We checked out of our room and walked the path along the river. There has been a lot of construction here. Adjacent to the building, on the side with the totem poles, is now an outdoor amphitheater with a grassy lawn designed to hold an audience. Across from the lawn (still cordoned off while the grass gets established) is a brand new dock and permanent approach ramp.
We walked half a mile, enjoying the path between parks and river. We came to the final bit of McMenamin’s property, called the Ahles Point Cabin. It’s a tiny bar – McMenamin’s properties often include tiny bars – that might have a capacity of hosting 20 people inside comfortably. It remains closed since the beginning of the pandemic, and Pedro and I hopped the chain fence to explore it.
By this time, we were ravenous, and decided to go into the town of Kalama to find breakfast. Interstate 5 as well as train tracks cut smack through the middle of this tiny seaport industrial town, separating the downtown from the river. Obviously, we were on the river/lumber mill/port side. To get to the rest of the town, we had to drive miles parallel to the tracks till we came to a crossing beneath the Interstate.
I wanted to try the Columbia Inn. I had seen it from the Interstate for years, but had never stopped. It’s an inconvenient access from the Interstate, because once you spot the diner, you have passed the ramp, and must drive a couple miles to the next one, and by that time the town of Kalama is not even visible in my rear view mirror anymore and I convince myself to just keep going.
I wanted to stop because it’s another quirky place my silly Pacific Northwest that attracts me. The town sports a sign bragging about being a film location for the popular Twighlight vampire movies. The Columbia Inn has not only an old-fashioned neon sign in the shape of an Indian arrowhead – so kitschy – but also a big sign on the side that says “Elvis ate here” or something like that. Imagine being a place where a viable advertisement is: “Once upon a time, someone famous stopped there, so you should stop too!” It worked on me, at least.
Inside the place was perfectly reminiscent of a diner from the 1970s. The place is surrounded by palm trees and has a palm tree in its logo. Palm trees plus prickly pear makes me wonder if the good folks of Kalama are a bit confused about where they actually live.
We ate heartily and made the 20 minute drive back across the river and home again.