ASHLAND, Ore. (JTA) – “What do you want to let go of?” a pint-sized woman in a white turban asked as I made my way past lavender bushes, echinacea blooms and a statue of the Buddha to a crystalline pool of blue water.
After immersing myself three times in the Jewish ritual bath, I would emerge reborn, she told me.
On some level, my white-clad attendant wasn’t wrong. Dipping in the artesian mineral waters of Ashland’s hot spring mikvah — a pool that draws its living waters from an underground aquifer that flows directly into Wildcat Gulch, a tributary of the Rogue River — I had the distinct sensation of releasing whatever baggage I’d been toting for the previous 37 years. I stepped out of the mikvah and into a garden of medicinal herbs feeling cleansed, energized and — at the risk of sounding like a religious zealot — reborn.
Long known for its healing waters, Ashland has been a center of New Age spirituality since the late 1960s, when the first wave of hippies and seekers arrived from the East Coast. But Ashland’s reputation as a mecca for healing predates the counterculture, going back as far as the early 20th century when Lithia Springs, as it was then called, drew health enthusiasts looking to cure everything from whooping cough to a broken heart.
Long before that, Native American tribes made regular pilgrimages to the site of the present-day mikvah, as well as to Ashland Creek, to birth children and bathe in sacred waters.
Tucked in the valley of Mount Ashland, the highest peak in Southern Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountain range, the city of Ashland, with a population of about 20,000, is one of the largest towns in the Rogue River Valley. Nature-loving tourists flock to the region for river rafting, hiking through vast pine and redwood forests and, come winter, downhill and cross-country skiing that some say tops Tahoe for its laid-back vibe and moderate prices.
There’s also a burgeoning food and wine scene, bolstered by a new crop of vineyards that has sprung up in recent years.
But the main draw in Ashland is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an award-winning regional theater company that boasts the country’s oldest full-scale Elizabethan stage. On a recent Wednesday night, the company staged a production of the Tennessee Williams classic “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Founded in 1935 by a local English teacher, the Shakespeare Festival turned a corner in 1970, when the construction of its first indoor theater allowed for a longer, eight-month repertory season. The expansion meant that in addition to works by Shakespeare, the company also could perform classic and contemporary works.
“The indoor theater is what changed Ashland forever,” said Jeff LaLande, a local historian. “There were still sawmills here in 1969.”
Indeed Ashland, originally called Ashland Mills, was a mill town from its earliest settlement during the Gold Rush. As the midpoint between San Francisco and Portland, Ashland served as a stopover for trappers, miners and fortune seekers of all kinds.
In 1887, when the Southern Pacific Rail line linked Sacramento with the Pacific Northwest, Ashland’s fortunes rose. By the late 1800s, the town had become the cultural and economic capital of Southern Oregon.
It was later eclipsed by Medford, situated 15 miles to the north on Interstate 5, which benefited from a fruit orchard boom in the early 1900s. Some of the boom’s biggest winners were Harry and David Rosenberg, two German Jewish brothers who sold Royal Riviera pears to European luxury liners.
During the Great Depression, the brothers retooled their business model and began delivering mail-order gift baskets to San Francisco and New York. Before long, Harry & David’s, which no longer is family owned, became one of the most successful fruit basket companies in the country.
These days, there’s no reason to visit Medford, unless you’re stopping through on the way to Crater Lake National Park. The 90-minute drive from Ashland is well worth the trip to marvel at the park’s centerpiece, a nearly 8,000-year-old caldera lake formed by the collapse of an ancient volcano.
Crater Lake, the cleanest and deepest lake in the country, is stunningly beautiful, with deep blue water and densely forested mountains on all sides.
Closer to town there’s Lithia Park, a 93-acre land trust designed by John McLaren, the longtime superintendent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Lithia Park is worth exploring for its rambling pathways, Japanese garden and wild canyon slopes peppered with native ponderosa pines, Oregon white oaks, and towering sequoias and redwoods.
Aside from the bucolic surroundings and clean mountain air, my favorite part of Ashland has to be the food. The Ashland Food Co-Op — more local than Berkeley, Calif., where the local food movement was born — is a treat for anyone who appreciates the beauty of a brown rice cake puffed one town away or grass-fed beef raised a few miles up the road in the Applegate Valley.
Emblematic of the city’s progressive, eco-friendly character is the poster outside the co-op’s front door outlining its four principles of sustainability. There’s also the sea of Subarus in the parking lot emblazoned with bumper stickers that say “GMO’s, We don’t buy it.”
As LaLane, the local historian put it, Ashland has long been “a little blue bubble in the Red Sea of southern Oregon.”