Joseph and the Amazing, Technicolor Arcade of the Dammed

Joseph, Oregon is a town tucked into the upper, right-hand corner of the state. Despite being a lifelong resident, I’d never heard of it until I spotted it on a map one afternoon in the summer of 2010. I had a long weekend to kill and wanted to venture to a spot in my home state I’d never seen. After packing up my car with camping equipment, I pointed it due east from Portland.

This sign greets visitors as they roll into town. Take note of the “please,” obviously written as an afterthought. Despite its stern message, Joseph, named for the chief of the Nez Perce tribe, is a pretty typical tourist burg. Its main drag is littered with restaurants, quaint shops and statues of pioneers. It also serves as a gateway to one of the most picturesque and unheralded corners of the state, “The Swiss Alps of Oregon.” Joseph Mountain and Wallowa Lake offer vistas worthy of the area’s namesake. I should also note that, along one stretch back in town, loudspeakers play country and western standards during business hours. Dolly Parton and peaks always go well together, no?

Over the course of the four days I spent out there, I witnessed a rather epic thunderstorm, watched two deer tear into a campsite dumpster with military-level precision, chatted with a peculiar fire watchman at a lookout tower near Hells Canyon, got stuck on a country road by a herd of cows, jumped into a swimmin’ hole and visited a coffee shop operated by two belly-dancers in nearby Enterprise. But the moment that has most stuck with me is a video arcade I found on the outskirts of Joseph.

Located amidst a fading stretch of tourist attractions and gift shops, there it was: a tiny shack that housed many of my favorite games from the ’80s and early ’90s. Karate Champ, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Turtles in Time, The Addams Family Pinball Machine and Ms. Pac-Man. If I were to ever garner enough disposable income to set up a home video arcade, all of these titles would go in it. The only thing missing? The Simpsons Arcade Game. Despite this glaring oversight, someone in Joseph clearly had exceptional taste.

The place was empty and the machines looked like they hadn’t been touched in months. The arcade shared a gravel parking lot with a wooden lodge that looked one strong breeze away from toppling over. It felt wrong in there, for all of the obvious reasons. Cobwebs lingered in the corners like phantoms and the overhead lights were out. The draw of nostalgia and an opportunity to play Turtles 2 for the first time in well over a decade was quickly outweighed by the feeling that I had stepped into my own, personal gingerbread house or a Stephen King short story.

And not a good one either. A hacky one along the lines of The Lawnmower Man or You Know They Got a Hell of a Band.

I shook off the very real possibility that I had found myself in a Venus Brandon Trap long enough to get a ball stuck in the upper reaches of the pinball machine. Turtles 2 was stuck on its intro screen and refused to boot back up after I unplugged and replugged the machine. Then I somehow got a quarter stuck in the slot of Ms. Pac Man. Having messed up two games and facing the possibility that I had completely screwed up another, I decided it was time for me to head back to the car.

Looking back on my trip to this mysterious arcade, I can say it was no better for having experienced my patronage. There was a monster in there that day and I was it.

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