Stopping en route, savoring a live relic of old Oregon

Email|Print| Text size + By Mija Riedel
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2006

WOLF CREEK, Ore. -- I circled once, scanning for bears, wolves, or other unsavory characters, before turning off the car engine. The whitewashed, weathered, two-story structure silhouetted in the indigo dusk looked too good to be true. The only other buildings around were a general store and a gas station. It had been a while since I had followed a hunch, longer still since I had landed someplace like this.

I had almost passed it by. The small brown sign on the highway had been all but invisible in the groves of 100-foot pines and late evening light. Just north of Rogue River Valley and Savage Rapids Dam , the inn was the only lodging for miles.

Since I had had barely any time to plan my 1,800-mile round trip from San Francisco to Seattle, I had decided to do something completely unfamiliar. I didn't plan at all. That morning, I had chosen my route as I started the car. Suddenly, I was immersed in a rare, unprogrammed, 21st- century moment, careering north with a rapture that might have qualified me for a monastery in Tibet except for the Springsteen tunes rattling the windows of my Mazda. Four hundred miles north of the Bay Area, I turned off the highway.

I climbed three well-worn steps, crossed a broad porch , and entered a narrow hallway from another time. The ceilings were low, the space intimate, and the parlor smelled of wood and warm brick. A polished wooden piano was pushed up against the wall. The room centered around a scarred table with a chessboard painted on top. The chimney was chipped along the edges -- carved, said a note, by the spurs of drying boots. No one tended the desk. Down the hall in the dining room, a few people were quietly finishing dinner.

A sign on the counter described the Wolf Creek Inn, formerly the Wolf Creek Hotel, formerly the Wolf Creek Tavern. Built in 1883 , the lodge had been welcoming guests continuously longer than any other hotel in Oregon. Wolf Creek Tavern had been a stage coach stop, a place for miners to get a hot meal and a clean bed, a getaway for Jack London and, later, Clark Gable, and a biker bar where flower children sold mint tea and whiskey to Hells Angels.

This was infinitely better than one of the franchise motel options that dot the freeways like measles. I rang the bell. A young waitress trotted out from the dining room.

``Is there a room . . . with a bath?" I asked. After driving 400 miles, a tub trumped dinner.

She smiled. ``Sixty-five dollars. That includes breakfast."

Some of the first visitors to the Wolf Creek Tavern had been riding the stagecoach between Redding, Calif., and Roseburg, Ore. The railroad had not yet made it through the Siskiyou Mountains . In 1911, about 30 yards from where I sat pecking at my laptop, London lodged in a small, second- floor room. He and his wife, Charmian , hiked the wooded trails during the day and in the evening, London finished writing ``The End of the Story ." Twenty years later, in the hotel's single suite, Gable hid out from the paparazzi. Fleeing Southern California, he had directed the limo driver north until they reached Wolf Creek, where he fished the streams in solitude while moviemakers crisscrossed Hollywood searching for him.

Seventy years later, I dropped my bags in a small room down the hall from where Gable had dropped his. There was a glass lamp on a wooden dresser, and a double bed drowned in pillows. Around the corner, a rubber duck sat on the rim of the bathtub. Lamplight pooled and rippled. Shadows stretched from the corners. It took a while to realize that there were no overhead lights anywhere in the hotel. Without them, the eyes saw things differently, and the other senses had more say.

I ran my hands under warm water, washed the traces of the road from my face , and headed for the dining room. It smelled of freshly baked bread and warm fruit. Four hurricane wall lamps cast pale, flaxen circlets of light over blue -and- white linen tablecloths. Reflections hovered in the old windows. In these close quarters, everything appeared large and animated. I was appreciating the long, white planks leapfrogging one over the other to the 10-foot ceiling when a waitress set a salad before me and announced, ``There's no water."

She gave me the final glass that had run from the faucet.

``Pump's down," she said, turning to take another order. More authentic than I had hoped. So much for the bath. I ordered another glass of wine, and stretched into the lengthening moment.

Later, full of tomatoes, olives, and artichoke hearts, I stepped out front into the soft brown night. Through the branches of the Atlas cedars, moonlight mingled with the fluorescent Exxon signs across the road. Teenagers slouched on the porch of the general store. At the gas station someone squeezed the handle over and over again, trying to pump a dollar's worth two cents at a time. Stop, start -- as if he kept finding dimes in his pockets. The modern ritual of feeding and watering the horses. Occasionally a truck rumbled past on the highway hidden behind a thick grove of tall pines.

Around the corner of the inn, soft petals of light from the dining room illuminated bushy apple and pear trees. The air smelled of drying grass and green apples. The orchards were planted more than 100 years ago, back when the inn was a tavern and taverns served food but not alcohol, water came in pitchers, and light in oil lamps. Other than that, things didn't seem to have changed all that much since the last stagecoach pulled up.

A song began, soft as insect wings rubbing together. Crickets? I listened closely, and it smoothed into a long purr, then bumped up to a rumbling hum. A generator -- perhaps there was water. I doubled my pace, breathing the mature green pines and cedars. My bath was calling, and my pillow-laden bed.

Contact Mija Riedel, a freelance writer in San Francisco, at

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