Editors' Choice

Detour

by Mija Riedel

Sometimes the best trips are unplanned.

The speedometer read 80 miles an hour. Not much time to deliberate. I wheeled sharply off the highway. It was 8:30 Saturday night, almost dark. Hundred-foot pines, silhouetted in the indigo dusk, camouflaged the small brown sign. It had been years since I’d taken this kind of detour.

The place was unfamiliar, and that was essential. Nor was it was one of the hundred motel franchises that spot interstate turnpikes like measles. The simple brown and white sign was stunning in its lack of razzle-dazzle. In southern Oregon, just north of Rogue River Valley and Savage Rapids Dam, it was also the only lodging for miles.

Since I’d had little time to plan my 1800-mile roundtrip from San Francisco to Seattle, I decided not to plan at all. I’d chosen my route that morning when I started the car. It had been 24 hours since I was released—gloriously unemployed. Suddenly, my palm-piloted brain was wooing chaos theory. Springsteen rattled the windows of my Mazda. Four hundred miles north of the Bay Area, I turned off the highway.

The two-lane road curved left. One hundred yards ahead, a single street light glowed pale yellow in the dark sapphire sky. A half-mile to the right stood a gas station, a general store, and the Wolf Creek Inn. Whitewashed and weathered, with a broad wooden porch, it looked too good to be true. I circled once, scanning for bears, wolves, or banjo-twanging Deliverance types before turning off the engine.

I climbed three well-worn steps, crossed the porch, and entered a narrow hallway from another time. The ceilings were low, the space intimate, and the parlor smelled of wood and brick that had heated and cooled together many times. A polished wooden piano stood against the wall. The room centered around a scarred round table with a chessboard painted on top. The chimney was chipped along the edges—carved, according to 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.

I ducked through a second doorway that opened onto another parlor—lace curtains, a velvet loveseat, and a second piano. Around the corner were four small bedrooms with silk cords across their doors, as if they were bedchambers in a small museum. The air was still except for the hushed reverberations of voices murmuring through the walls.

Back in the lobby, 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 Clark Gable and Jack London, and a biker bar where flower children sold mint tea and whisky to Hells Angels.

A sign announced a suite for $100, rooms for $75. I considered my newly non-pay-checked status and my alternatives—thirty or forty more miles and the ambiance at Motel 6—and rang the silver bell.

A young waitress in black trousers and a white apron trotted out from the dining room and circled around behind the counter. She smiled.

"Do you have a room with a bath?" I asked. After pressing the accelerator for 400 miles, a tub trumped dinner.

She nodded. "Seventy-five dollars.”

I nodded.

"Only one?” she asked. “Then it’s fifty-five…that includes breakfast."


Some of the first visitors to the Wolf Creek Tavern were riding the stagecoach between Redding and Roseburg. The Oregon-California railroad had not yet made it through the Siskiyou Mountains. Almost 40 years later, Jack London checked into a small, second floor room, around the corner from where I now sat, pecking at my laptop. He and his wife hiked the wooded trails during the day and in the evening, he finished writing “The End of the Story.” Twenty years after London’s visit, in the hotel’s single suite, Clark Gable hid out from the paparazzi. Leaping into his limo in Southern California, he directed the driver north till they reached Wolf Creek, where he fished the streams of southern Oregon in blissful solitude while frantic moguls dashed about 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 four-drawer dresser with a mirror and a rounded glass lamp. The double bed drowned in pillows. Around the corner, a rubber duck sat on the rim of the bathtub. Everything seemed smooth, rounded. One pool of lamplight rippled towards another. Shadows stretched from the corners, and as they merged with the light, edges blurred. 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, and washed the traces of the road from my face. Last night, I thought, I’d had no idea I would sleep anywhere more enchanting than a budget motel. But this morning, while I’d slurped coffee in the kitchen and dodged the usual, pre-departure demons that whisper grizzly stories about lone female travelers, a ladybug appeared, flapped its transparent wings and settled on my hip. Ah! I’d learned to pay attention to such things while traveling in South America, reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Good omens. Spontaneous detours. Minutes stretched, hours bent. Days evolved from checklists into trails of unexpected moments. The last minute turn into Wolf Creek reminded me that time is more interesting when it’s fluid.


The dining room in the Wolf Creek Inn smelled of freshly baked bread and warm fruit. Four hurricane wall lamps cast flaxen circlets of light over white and blue linen tablecloths. Reflections rippled in the old windows. Within the close quarters, everything appeared large and animated. Long, white planks outlined the dining room walls, leapfrogging one over the other to the ten-foot ceiling. I was wondering where Jack London sat, which corner Gable preferred, when a waitress set a salad before me and announced, “There’s no water.”

On the table she placed the final glass that had run from the faucet.

“Pump’s down,” she explained, and turned to take another order. More authentic than I had hoped. So much for the bath. I ordered a glass of wine, and stretched into the unexpected moment.

Full of tomatoes, olives, and artichoke hearts, I stepped out front into the soft brown night. Through the branches of the tall 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, fluorescence was replaced by the moon and soft petals of light from the hotel. Just beyond the dining room windows, bushy apple and pear trees twisted in scraggly angles. The night air smelled of drying grass and green apples. The nearby 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 soft, tingling song began, like insect wings rubbing together. It smoothed into a long purr. Crickets? I listened closely, and the notes bumped together in a rumbling hum. A generator? A bath, perhaps? I took two quick, deep breaths of mature green pines and cedars, and trotted inside to my room.

The next morning, as I sat in the dining room toying with my napkin, I thought about detours, melting time, and Wolf Creek. A young, smiling waitress brought me a steaming mug of coffee. Soon, a long trail of warm plates and baskets began arriving at the table—fresh baked croissants and muffins, fruit plate, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon. I stared past the blue and white checked curtains, past leggy red rose bushes, towards the apple orchard. Every time I turned my head, the nearest apple tree moved.

I ate a muffin and some berries and looked again. With each glance, the apple tree had just settled itself into a slightly different position. I tilted my head. The rose bushes were up to similar mischief.

My fingers traversed the cool window. The surface was uneven, and in its ripples the early morning light bent and stretched. I’d read that most of the panes were original, over 100 years old. Perhaps the glass had run.

I sipped another cup of coffee, and studied the garden through glassy veils of time. Tiny prisms of light interlaced blades of grass with shadows and scarlet rose petals. The unexpected angles animate the world.


Mija Riedel writes about travel and the arts. She has written for Islands, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Boston Herald, St. Petersburg Times, American Craft, Metalsmith, and numerous other publications. Currently she is a field researcher for the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art, on the West Coast. She has traveled, studied, and taught in Austria, Australia, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Fiji, Greece, Guatemala, Hawaii, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Spain, and the Western U.S. She grew up in New York and lives in San Francisco.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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