Like most Vancouverites who head south by car, I usually stick to the I-5, racing down to Bellingham, Seattle Premium Outlets, or Seattle itself. But if you’re looking for a more relaxed weekend, take the slow road instead. Going off the beaten track opens your trip up to all kinds of surprises—including a quirky village where the residents enjoy dressing up as chickens.
But more on that later. Last February, I was en route to La Conner, a sleepy waterfront town about 120 kilometres south of Vancouver. Veering off the I-5 at Fairhaven just south of Bellingham, I chose the scenic route of Chuckanut Drive, which cuts through the Skagit Valley before reconnecting to the I-5 near Burlington. The narrow, winding road hugs the Chuckanut Mountains and offers misty views of the San Juan Islands. And if you’re not in a hurry, there are several pleasant stops worth making.
Located on a hairpin turn, the Oyster Creek Inn is an elegant tree house of a restaurant that overlooks the pools of Oyster Creek. It focuses on seafood, much of which is sourced from Taylor Shellfish Farms. Or, if you’re in a do-it-yourself mood, follow the signs from the restaurant and you wind up at the farm’s sea-level store, which sells live oysters, clams, Dungeness crabs, and more. In the summer (or if you’re willing to brave the winter weather), come equipped with picnic supplies and you can barbecue your shellfish on the grills provided at the waterfront picnic area.
Further along, the scenery changes dramatically as the road enters the Skagit flats and farmland. Hungry for lunch, I pulled over in the village of Edison, drawn by a retro sign on the side of the Edison Café proclaiming “homemade soup and pie”. A converted Texaco gas station, the café has been in operation since 1945. Inside, the walls are covered with vintage black-and-white photos of the community. With good food, friendly service, and bantering locals, the café has the charming feel of a small-town hangout.
That wintry Friday afternoon, Edison’s main drag was dead enough for tumbleweeds to blow through it. Yet inside the few storefronts that make up “downtown”, I found an unexpected array of enterprises that wouldn’t be out of place in Portland. The artisan bakery Breadfarm, for example, turns out a fantastic Samish River potato bread made from local spuds. Farm to Market Bakery makes dishes like Senegalese peanut soup from scratch, along with tempting sweets such as lime-soaked polenta cake. In contrast, the rustic Longhorn Saloon looks like it was transplanted from the set of a Hollywood Western.
A handful of interesting galleries underline the slightly funky vibe. Located in a restored schoolhouse, the Smith & Vallee gallery exhibits works from emerging Northwest artists. Across the street, its sister studio builds custom furniture from sustainably harvested wood. And nearby, the Lucky Dumpster art collective sells everything from earrings to clocks to light fixtures, all made from found, repurposed, or recycled materials.
Housed in an old lumber storage building, the Lucky Dumpster is eye-catching due to a whimsical outdoor mural that reads “Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.” The quote is attributed to journalist Edward R. Murrow, and it’s accompanied by an image of a boy in a sports uniform posing with a trophy.
I left Edison for La Conner and only later realized that I didn’t, in fact, understand the situation. (Nor did I understand the context of the quote. While Internet results link it to Murrow’s thoughts on Vietnam, there’s scant evidence that the quote is his in the first place.)
There was something cool about Edison that I just couldn’t put my finger on. A Google search didn’t yield much more than the village’s 2010 population statistic (133), so I called up the Lucky Dumpster’s co-owner, James Reisen, for insight.
Reisen explained that the mural—painted by Jessica Bonin, his wife and Lucky Dumpster co-owner—depicts Murrow, Edison’s most famous offspring. The broadcaster attended Edison High School and helped the basketball team win the championship in 1925. (You can see his debate-club photo at the Edison Café.)
According to Reisen, Edison has a significant number of creative, artsy people who have been happily doing their thing for years without so much as a Chamber of Commerce to promote them. (“We’re not really organized in that way here,” he noted, “unless we’re secretly organized and I’m not on the squad.”) Nonetheless, tourists have discovered the village, and word has spread. “People are visiting because they like the notion that it’s a little bit quiet here,” he said, yet there’s a “subtle bustle” from all the creative energy.
Last February for the first time, residents including Farm to Market Bakery co-owner Jim Kowalski harnessed that energy into the annual Edison Bird Festival, which happens again this Saturday and Sunday (February 9 and 10). He explained by phone that Edison is popular with bird watchers for regular sightings of falcons, hawks, and eagles. So in conjunction with the Skagit Valley Hawk Census, the festival combines bird-related education and conservation with artistic demonstrations, such as decoy carving.
Last year, a “keep your chicken in line” parade kicked off the festival, with residents taking their back-yard birds for a walk. About 300 people showed up, some dressed as chickens themselves. “People are really into their chickens, as it turns out,” Kowalski noted, so this year’s parade theme is “embrace your inner chicken.”
There are no hotels in Edison, but you can stay about 25 kilometres south in La Conner. With a population of 891, this picturesque town is well-established as a romantic retreat, especially during the April tulip season. Happily, the most taxing things to do are walking over the Rainbow Bridge for views of the Swinomish Channel, browsing antique shops, and sampling craft beer at the La Conner Brewing Company.
It all makes for a nice, leisurely weekend. You won’t miss the outlet mall one bit.
ACCESS: To get to Chuckanut Drive, take Fairhaven Parkway Exit #250 at the south end of Bellingham. At Bow Hill Road junction, head west to Edison; call shops and restaurants in advance, as hours are limited. (For Farm to Market Bakery hours call 360-766-6240; the Edison Cafe is on Facebook.) Worthwhile stops include the Oyster Creek Inn and Taylor Shellfish Farms. See here for info on the Lucky Dumpster; other Edison businesses can be found by visiting the Edison Bird Festival website. The La Conner Channel Lodge offers cozy waterfront rooms.