A monthly series of tango lessons and dance nights seems to fit the culture of this 1920s-era outpost on the banks of the Columbia.

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KLICKITAT COUNTY — After winding through the buckskin-colored hills of the Yakima Valley, we coasted down the curving drive to the stately mansion housing the Maryhill Museum of Art, a tan, Beaux Arts manor with a commanding view of the Columbia Gorge. Topping the dry ridgetop behind it, a modern array of giant white turbines turned slowly in an unceasing wind. Below, the Columbia River glowed a dull green in a flat midday sun.

Maryhill Museum offers a monthly tango series, to build community as well as social dance skills. “We’re kind of changing the culture of the museum through dance,” says Louise Palermo, Maryhill’s curator of education. (Bill Thorness photo)
Maryhill Museum offers a monthly tango series, to build community as well as social dance skills. “We’re kind of changing the culture of the museum through dance,” says Louise Palermo, Maryhill’s curator of education. (Bill Thorness photo)

All those muted colors were to be upended by the rest of the day: a tour through the art collection and visit to the namesake winery, followed by an evening of tango at the solitary museum. Yes, tango, the emotive dance made famous by hotblooded Argentines and being taught once a month this summer at Maryhill.

My cool Nordic demeanor might be more suited to strolling hushed galleries, but I was ready to give it a whirl.

Other roadside attractions

Maryhill Museum of Art is about a 4½-hour drive from Seattle in moderate traffic, via Ellensburg and Yakima. Along the way and in the vicinity of the museum are other attractions worth a visit.

Columbia Hills Historical State Park, 15 miles west of Maryhill, off Highway 14. Many stones with historic markings were placed in the park after being removed from the Gorge cliffs inundated by the nearby Dalles Dam in 1957. Walk the short Temani Pesh-wa (“Written on Stone”) Trail next to the parking lot or take a ranger-guided hike to a few significant pictographs in the rocky cliffs adjacent to the park on Yakama Nation land. The free guided tours are held Fridays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. through October; reservations required.

St. John’s Bakery, 12 miles north of Goldendale, off Highway 97. The sisters of St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery operate a store in front of the monastery that sells their Greek-themed baked goods, espresso, “Father’s Blend” coffee and more. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Toppenish, just south of the turnoff to Goldendale from Interstate 82. This town is crazy for outdoor murals, which cover many of its downtown buildings and depict historic scenes and significant residents. A highlight is a rodeo mural in the style of Norman Rockwell.

Zillah is a brief detour off the route southeast of Yakima. The tiny farm town boasts two excellent Mexican cafes that make an ideal lunch stop. Also here is the recently refreshed Teapot Dome Service Station, a national historic site. Two historic pumps (when gas was 27 cents a gallon) stand sentry at the gas station’s office, which is in the shape of a red-and-white tea pot. It commemorates the Teapot Dome oil-reserve scandal of the early 1920s.

More unusual than tango, perhaps, is the mere presence of the museum perched above the river. A far cry from the barns and roadhouses that dot this countryside, the century-old museum building would look more at home on Portland’s South Park Blocks, 100 miles west.

Builder Sam Hill hobnobbed with the rich and famous of his day and, when his plan to create a family estate failed due to the remote location, his Parisian dancer friend, Löie Fuller, convinced him to finish the building and make it a museum. She helped him begin the collection, most notably with a number of sculptures and drawings by her friend Auguste Rodin.

Paris-inspired collection

We stopped first at those dramatic statues, including a cast of Rodin’s famous seated man called “The Thinker,” which occupy a cool, bottom-floor gallery. On the way, you walk through a hall devoted to Fuller, with images of her on stage or in flamboyant dance costumes.

A long way from Paris but right next door is the museum’s famed Native American collection. From stunning geometric baskets to beaded clothing, the artistic handiwork of America’s first peoples is grouped by region and feels comprehensive.

Set into the hillside below the main building, the 2012 Mary & Bruce Stevenson Wing adds a sleek, modern experience. Art is displayed against restrained architecture, and when you step down to the museum cafe (called, appropriately, Löie’s) and adjacent education space, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall brings the dramatic gorge landscape into focus.

This is where we would dance.

But first, to get in the tango mood, we blasted out into the windy, hot gorge summer day and drove a half-mile west to do some sampling at Maryhill Winery.

We entered the winery through its arbor-shaded terrace, filled with visitors sipping wine and enjoying live jazz. The winery has grown into one of Washington’s largest, even offering concerts in a river-front amphitheater that can hold 4,000.

Along with a tasting (half price with your museum ticket) you can buy wine to enjoy on the terrace with small, savory pizzas, the perfect arrangement while relaxing before a 6 p.m. tango class.

Getting in step

If you go

Tango nights at Maryhill Museum

Tango lessons and dances are held 6-9 p.m. at Maryhill Museum of Art the last Saturday of each month (next event: Aug. 26) through October ($10 nonmembers, $5 members).

The museum

Maryhill Museum of Art, 35 Maryhill Museum Drive, Goldendale, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, March 15 to Nov. 15; $9 adults, $8 seniors. maryhillmuseum.org

Wineries

Maryhill Winery, 9774 Hwy. 14, Goldendale, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Tastings are $10. maryhillwinery.com.

Four other wineries are within a 10-mile radius of Maryhill Museum.

Lodging

Lodging can be found at The Dalles, Oregon, 22 miles west of Maryhill, and at Goldendale, 15 miles north, or the towns of White Salmon, Washington, and Hood River, Oregon, about 35 miles west.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge Memorial and Sam Hill’s nearby crypt are three miles east of the museum, off Highway 14; open daily 7 a.m. to dusk. Free.

Tango was the romantic rage of the 1920s in the United States, introduced to the masses by silent-screen star Rudolph Valentino, so it seems a good fit for Maryhill, which was dedicated as a museum in 1926.

Back in the education room, now edged with tables decorated with LED candles, we formed a circle as instructors Megan Pingree and Jay Rabe, both formerly of Portland, offered some beginning steps for us newbies and showed advanced flourishes like the ocho to their returning students, which was most of the three dozen people in attendance.

We were shoulder to shoulder — and soon chest to chest — with an array of locals and a few other tourists, mostly from Portland.

The monthly series is building community along with tango skills. “I have people from the next town over, Mosier and Wishram and Goldendale and The Dalles,” said Louise Palermo, Maryhill’s curator of education. It’s also altering the way people see and use the museum, she said. “We’re kind of changing the culture of the museum through dance.”

I locked arms with a female partner, Shirlina Montanye, a recent transplant from the more famous wine country of Napa and Sonoma, whose broad smile telegraphed her delight at this new local dance venue.

As we began to try the steps, shifting to a new partner with every song as an extra skill-builder, I felt pulled by famous dancer Fuller, and pushed by the windsurfed whitecaps of the Columbia. Movement is natural here, where it’s a half-hour drive between activities or events, from dining in one small town to shopping or lodging in another.

Pingree stepped in, urging me to relax my stiff shoulders and match my movements to my partner. The dance is “like a conversation,” she said. “It’s our bodies talking to each other and figuring out together how to manifest this music.”

The dancers’ shadows lengthened on the polished floor as the sun set beyond Mount Hood and the lessons gave way to a couple of hours of relaxed practice. The ocho, a graceful hip pivot, was attempted. Wine and snacks were set out on the cafe counter. The twinkling lights cast a glow. People compared moves and discussed upcoming dances with John Hadley, who helms the website gorgedance.com to steer locals to venues.

We eyed the few really accomplished dancers gliding around the room, being followed slowly, somewhat stiffly, by other couples like us, trying to make their bodies converse without words.

A calm departure

A rare sight appeared beyond the windshield as we motored back up the winding gorge road to a final stop at the Stonehenge Memorial before retracing our route home: The looming array of wind turbines sat stationary in the cool morning. Barely a breeze greeted us at the Druid replica, certainly not enough to pivot a mammoth blade.

Again, one of Sam Hill’s historic creations sat in stark contrast to the high-tech alternative power source. Scanning the name plaques for the county’s World War I soldiers, a glimpse of the white tri-blade towers beyond echoed lines of bleached gravestones at a military cemetery. A fitting quiet moment to cap a weekend that blended history, art and local culture in a melodic, choreographed dance.