Thursday, March 29, 2007

Oregon's oddities and attractions on display

By Tara S. Polinsky

I moved from Pennsylvania to Oregon in early January and have worked to learn my way around. In the first few weeks, I stuck mainly to Portland’s downtown and Hawthorne Boulevard but decided I wanted to see more. During one of my escapades around the city March 17, I stopped at Powell’s City of Books.

I had never seen anything like it before. I had heard stories, but they didn’t prepare me for the block-long, three-story-high bookstore. I wandered for about two hours, and I’m sure I still didn’t see everything. While I was there, I bought a book called “Oregon Curiosities” by Harriet Baskas with quirky and odd things to see throughout the state. I figured it would give me lots of ideas for fun things to do and help get me acclimated.

Curiously, Powell’s is just one of the offbeat things covered in the book. And the $14.95 was well worth it.

One of the first things that caught my eye in the book was the world’s largest hairball in Mt. Angel, which is just about 20-30 miles from where I live in Wilsonville.

Here’s a little background: Apparently, back in 1941, some workers at a meat-packing plant found a 2 1/2-pound hairball in a 300-pound hog. For some reason, they decided to take it to the St. Benedectine abbey, thinking that was something the monks would like to see. They were right apparently, as the monks accepted this gift and put it in their museum, next to an eight-legged cow, a six-legged calf and many other oddities.

I became obsessed with seeing this hairball. It was all the talk at work all week. But when I went online to find the monks’ museum hours, I learned that it was only open till 4 p.m. on weekdays. That pretty well crushed my hopes of ever seeing it. (It turns out, the hours have now changed from 1 to 5 p.m. for anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of the hairball.)

But at the end of a meeting at work March 23, a fellow copy editor mentioned that he couldn’t get me to stop talking about the hairball. And I lamented the museum times and how it just didn’t seem meant to be. My boss surprised me when he said I could leave work early to check it out.

He told me to be sure to take lots of pictures. I was very excited and found it very hard to concentrate on work the rest of the afternoon.

Most people think the hairball is pretty disgusting, and I had a hard time talking anyone into going with me. I had dinner with friends the night before and tried in vain to get them to see the light. They just kept saying how they have cats, and that’s not something they want to see.

So, I made my way in solitude out to the abbey, which sits at the top of a hill, overlooking rural Oregon. It’s a magnificent view up there and so solemn and peaceful. I was loath to leave when my fun came to an end.

I picked up a map at the library and headed over to the museum, where I was surprised to find two other adventure-seekers. I located the hairball amidst an array of taxidermy animals, quartz stones, various bird eggs, religious artifacts and more. “Random” described the scene well.

One of the other quirky tourists was kind enough to take my photo.

“Do you want the hairball in it?” she asked me.

“Of course!” I proclaimed. “It is the world’s largest, you know.”

She did know. It turns out, they are into the curious and odd, as well, and we talked for quite a while about Oregon oddities. We shared ideas about things to visit, then headed to the bookstore, hoping to find a souvenir of the hairball.

I had visions of hairball T-shirts and magnets and maybe even earrings. But alas, that was not meant to be. I did, however, come across a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I love my German shepherd,” with a picture of the pope on it. I’m not Catholic, but I couldn’t resist buying that! I also found a bottle labeled, “Holy water.” And when I was paying for it, my cashier kindly offered to fill it with said water.

“Sure, if you have some around,” I said. I needn’t have worried. There was a cooler under the counter that dispensed cool holy water.

After that, I said goodbye to my new friends and headed back to more urban environs. I’ve recounted the story many times, and only a few have seen the draw in the giant hairball. But for any other like-minded tourists, take the Woodburn exit off Interstate 5 (#271) and follow Route 214 toward Mt. Angel. When you get to town, turn left on College Road or Church Street and follow the signs to the abbey.

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