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The Ponderosa Lounge Is a Parallel Country Universe Far in the North of Portland

If it weren’t so damn big, it’d be a small-town bar.

Everyone is playing cornhole in the VIP lounge. On Fresh Dirt Thursday at the Jubitz truck stop's cavernous, wood-grained Ponderosa Lounge (0350 N Vancouver Way, 503-345-0300, jubitz.com/ponderosa-lounge-country-bar), all you have to do is beat the bar's star beanbag thrower and you'll win dollar beers all night. So a lot of people are giving it a try. Onstage, folk-country singer Elke Robitaille is playing guitar and singing a soft, sad, haunting cover of "Wagon Wheel." As she harmonizes the line "mama rock me," a goateed man twirls his own mama around on the dance floor.

Jubitz is a self-contained trucker universe in the far north of Portland—maybe the only trucking empire whose family donates to charities and Democrats. And Jubitz contains multitudes: diners, shoe-repair stores, even its own movie theater. The Ponderosa, however, is its crown jewel, a 49-year-old country music institution that, on weekends, is a rollicking swing-dancing hall, home to secret after-shows by a touring Miranda Cosgrove or Brad Paisley.

Some things are new at the old Ponderosa, however: After a seven-month renovation that finished in December, the depressingly fluorescent-lit game room is gone, the stage moved, and there's a second bar and better sound.

On Thursday, all the bartenders are women and almost all the people drinking are men. On the smoking porch out back, long-haulers tell short-haulers about moving Lexuses from the Port to Denver and Texas.

At the bar, the bartender cautions me against the meatloaf. "What's your next choice?" she says, steering me to a monstrous and beefy chicken-fried steak with fluffy, delicate gravy. After an even bigger New York cut, the trucker-capped man next to me tells her he can't get dessert tonight—"not unless you got a wheelchair and a chauffeur."

For no particular reason, a woman is giving out free 1-ounce samples of Miller Lite off a serving tray. "I've had that," I tell her. She looks at me like I'm a little dim. "Well," she says, "it's free."

At the Ponderosa, Portland as a city seems to fade. The beer flows cheap and it's the color of straw, you slow-dance on the slow nights and fast on the busy ones. If it weren't so damn big, it'd be a small-town bar. Except here, everyone brings their own small town with them through the door.

GO: Ponderosa Lounge, 10350 N Vancouver Way, 503-345-0300, jubitz.com/ponderosa-lounge-country-bar. 9 am-midnight Sunday-Wednesday, 9 am-2 am Thursday-Friday, 8 am-2 am Saturday.