"A sad tale's best for winter . . ." (The Winter's Tale, Act II, Scene i), but you could easily prove the Bard wrong. Just imagine . . . parking your skis against a sturdy spruce and building a snow table for the picnic you've stashed away in your pack. Then dining, on the sunny back-slopes of Mt. Ashland, upon leftover roast duckling with cognac sauce from last night's repast at Chateaulin, as you gaze at rumpled hills fading away in deepening shades of blue to violet, and the white cone of Mt. Shasta gathering clouds to itself like cotton candy in a spinner. In the evening, you change costumes from PolarGuard to velvet, and sit enchanted in the hushed theater, watching the players weave the intricate amusements of Twelfth Night, then amble home beneath the winter stars. "Thou knowest winter tames man, woman, and beast." (The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene i.)
As years pass, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—now 60 years old—opens earlier and earlier. These days, the house lights go up in mid-February, revealing the many delights of winter in Ashland. There is something magical about spending a day cross-country skiing in the Oregon wilderness, then returning to an evening of superbly staged Shakespeare. Dining beside a blazing hearth in some cozy, dark-paneled restaurant feels sort of, well, Elizabethan. "In winter's tedious nights sit by the fire/With good old folks." (Richard II, Act V, Scene i.) And many of the town's lodgings lower their prices during the off-season, sometimes by as much as half.
In winter, culture-vultures can easily fill their time in Ashland. By the third week in February, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will have four plays in repertory, afternoons and evenings, in its two indoor theaters: Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, opening February 16; Molière Plays Paris, opening February 17; The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare, opening February 18; and Strindberg in Hollywood by Drury Pifer, opening February 23.
Eventually, a total of eleven plays will comprise the eight-month 1996 season. Backstage tours, costing $8 and including the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre, are offered on performance days. In the theater complex downtown there is also the Exhibit Center, with costumes and other memorabilia of the festival.
Each year, more than 100,000 theater-lovers come to the OSF from the world around, and stay to see three or more plays each. Ashland welcomes them with lodgings and eateries for all tastes and budgets. It also offers them a lot more than Shakespeare and other serious theater. The presence of college students—Southern Oregon State College is here—means good bookstores, cinemas, coffee shops, live music in the evenings. The pretty SOSC campus has much to offer visitors: theater performances produced by its famed drama department; concerts of classical, opera, and popular music in its fine theater; the Schneider Museum of Art and three other art galleries; and an endowed lecture series.
An impressive natural history museum opened a couple of years ago. And it's easy to spend a day or so nosing around Ashland's downtown, with its seductive boutiques, art galleries and outdoor sports shops.
Last winter there were notices on local bulletin boards about such things as a performance at the Ashland Armory by Maria Muldaur, zydeco by the Red Hot Bluesiana Band, and Tuesday performances of folk music and story-telling at the Northwest Nature Shop. The Oregon Cabaret Theatre in an elegantly refurbished old church was featuring a one-woman farce on Leona Helmsley.
Right downtown is 100-acre Lithia Park, one of the prettiest city parks in the West, designed by San Francisco's own John McLaren. Here you can stroll a stretch of sylvan trails, watch swans, geese and wood ducks paddling around a pond, or just sit on a bench beside Ashland Creek. "Winter's not gone yet, if the wild-geese fly that way." (King Lear, Act II, Scene iv.) A nice little guidebook to the park can be bought in local book shops for $1.
To a visitor from points south, something about the geography feels different up here. To find out why, venture out E. Main Street to the Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History and spend a few hours getting involved in the handsome exhibits. The splash of falling water echoes at the doorway, and a lava tube winds into the hall where there is an orientation film and, if you're lucky, a docent showing live kestrels and screech owls to awed school children. Scholarly, often interactive, exhibits explain all about this corner of the country—from volcanic cinders to pronghorn antelopes and ospreys. In winter, the museum is open Wednesday through Sunday.
"Small but challenging," is how a local snow-thresher describes Mt. Ashland, the downhill ski area about 18 miles from town. Four chairlifts serve its steep terrain, the views are knockouts and there are beginners' slopes. Kids under eight ski free. There's night skiing Thursdays through Saturdays, 4 to 10 p.m.
Cross-country skiers will find plentiful trails in the woods and mountains around town. Maps are available from the Forest Service and sports shops. At Mt. Ashland, for example, you can stop at the ski area ticket office to pick up a one-day parking permit, and drive around to park at the end of the road. From there, it's an easy two-mile ski around the back side of the mountain, through forest and meadow, to the Grouse Gap Shelter. The views from up here, of the Siskiyous, and Mt. Shasta to the south, are awesome when "jocund day/Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops." (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene v.)
Or, you can head east into the Cascades and explore lakes and logging roads in a landscape made by volcanic fire.
In Ashland, as you will see, there are many reasons "The human mortals want their winter here." (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene i.)
The Bard is coming, and the snow, and the enchantment they make together.
Photography courtesy of Finetooth/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in January 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.