The ninth in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395. Note: This post rated R.
It’s six o’clock in the morning and the day didn’t begin as planned – I overslept. Next stop is Pendleton in Northern Oregon. It’s a six and a half hour drive, and I’d hoped to get out earlier. That’s six and a half hours, straight through with no stops and no detours, except to fuel up the car and the inner man.
I don’t do road trips that way anymore. I used to, until it dawned on me just how much you can miss when your final destination is the only destination. I’ve learned since, that the destination of a road trip is not a place on the map that you reach at the end of a day’s drive. The destination is not a single place at all. It’s all the places, experiences and people that you encounter from the starting point all the way to the terminus. The destination is the quirky signs along the road. It’s the museums that celebrate things like Spam, barbed wire, Jell-O, and Tabasco; things that you never realized were worthy of a museum. The destination can be a small-town, somewhere out in the boonies, ice cream shop that’s gained national acclaim through word of mouth because the milkshakes there are so fucking, awesomely delicious.
For so many years, my final destination was the only destination, and it makes me wonder just how much I’ve missed.
Today’s drive will take me north, with a slight skew to the east, up U.S. Highway 97 to where it ends at Biggs Junction on the southern shore of the Columbia River, the border with Washington State. From Biggs Junction I make a hard right onto Interstate 84 to Pendleton and my rendezvous with U.S. Highway 395, which, in a sense, is the real start of this road trip; an exploration of one of America’s loneliest highways.
I spent the night at a Super 8 Motel, located next door to a Pilot Travel Center. Before going to sleep, I put down my reading and listened to the sounds of the big rigs at the travel center; the rumble of idling diesels punctuated at times by the hiss of air brakes. These are sounds that keep some awake, and prompt them to post complaints on travel websites. “I couldn’t sleep for the sound of big rigs all night long.” Well, maybe you should’ve realized that you’re parking your head a few hundred feet where long haul drivers are parking their rigs. Me? I enjoy those sounds. They remind me that I’m embarked on the adventure of a road trip. They’re sounds that lull me to sleep.
My ride is thirsty this morning. I let the tank go lower than I normally would because I wanted to get gas in Oregon which is significantly cheaper than it is in California. I skipped past the Pilot Travel Center and drove to the nearby Loves Travel Center which has the cheapest gas in the area.
There’s something captivating about travel centers. Gigantic lots filled with idling big rigs, shiny colorful cabs quivering from the power of their giant engines – kings of the road. The rigs have their own section, separated from the commoners; the sedans, sports cars, RV’s and teardrop trailers. Even at midnight a travel center can be bustling. The travel center is the evolved, more cultured version of the truck stop of myth and legend.
There was a time when the stereotypical old truck stop was seen as long haul trucker territory, shunned by mom, dad and the kiddos, cruising to Disneyland in the family station wagon. Truck stops were havens for intimidating gap-toothed, burly, uncouth, unshaven, horny long haulers who wore oil stained wife beaters, and harbored undisguised contempt for family station wagons.
The diner was manned by a short order cook/counter guy who wore a grease stained apron, and a snarl on his mug that perpetually held a smoldering cigarette. He might pull that butt from his mouth long enough to ask a customer, “Yeah Mack, what’ll it be?” The air in the little diner smelled of frying food, coffee, and cigarette smoke, and was filled with the course conversation of long haulers, and country music from a jukebox.
Legend had it that truck stops had the world’s best chili, a mahogany soup with pools of grease floating in the bowl, served with a cello wrapped packet of soda crackers on the side. Truck stop coffee was alleged to be thick enough to stand a spoon in.
If a family happened to wander in, the milquetoast dad turned his gaze down to his feet whenever a burly trucker leered at mom’s legs. You never let the kids go into the restroom of a truck stop because, not only was it filthy, but there was always a vending machines that dispensed condoms and adult novelties, such as Instant Pussy and an ominous sounding thing called a Pecker Stretcher, “for the man who has little.”
Having never actually seen an Instant Pussy from a truck stop vending machine I can only rely on the legend, which describes it as a tiny sponge in the form of a cat that, once immersed in water, turns into a slightly larger sponge in the shape of a cat. I can’t imagine that it produces any gratification other than that which comes from a clean big rig dashboard, after having used an Instant Pussy with an all purpose cleaner.
That was the perception. For me, most of the descriptions are apocryphal as Dad usually eschewed truck stops, dismissing them as “greasy spoons.” During the few times when a “greasy spoon” was unavoidable, and a trip to the restroom necessary, I stopped to gape at those vending machines and wondered how it was possible that one could get a cat just by adding water to whatever came out of that machine. I was young and innocent and it was the pre-internet days, the days before a boy could simply turn on the computer and learn about some of life’s juicer mysteries.
Travel centers are far removed from the truck stop of legend. Travel centers are vast spotless, family friendly lots that usually house a fast food restaurant and an attached gift shop and a food mart that dispenses frou-frou coffee drinks, and the only novelties to be had are toys and souvenirs. And the restrooms? Squeaky clean. Gone are the stereotypical intimidating truckers. These “knights of the road” sport clean t-shirts and cargo shorts. After coming out of the travel center shower facility, a freshly laundered trucker might go back to his rig to bring his French Bulldog out to the travel center dog park. What has the trucking world come to?
It’s a cold, 20 degrees F. when I pull out of Klamath Falls. U.S. 97 skirts the eastern shore of Upper Klamath Lake. The highway is devoid of traffic and is uncomfortably dark. It’s dark enough that I’m glad that I overslept. Day can’t break soon enough. The only light is from the full moon, low in the sky, and from the moon’s shimmering reflection on the lake.
As the sky lightens and I approach Chiloquin, I slow down to see if the oddity that Cora and I had seen two and half years earlier is still there. Yep, there it is; a prop driven, British Royal Navy, Havilland DH-114 Sea Heron, built circa 1956, lying on its belly in a grassy open field about 50 yards south of Melita’s Restaurant, Motel and RV Park.
The motel looks open, the café though looks as forlorn as the Sea Heron. For more on Chiloquin’s oddity see a previous post, Seen From the Road.
I’m driving past a string of small towns that could be in any state in the Union. They’re almost formulaic, with the usual basic services on Main Street; a gas station, a small market with a deli section and a butcher counter back at the end of aisle 9, a coffee shop, a realty office, and a sporting goods store that’s heavy on hunting and fishing and light on soccer. There’s a tavern, maybe two, where the locals look up and stop their conversations to give strangers a quizzical stare. These are shot and a beer places, where old timers in sweat stained, worn out ball caps begin to congregate at 7 in the morning.
Many of these little towns are home to the ubiquitous Dollar General, a variety store housing maybe a half dozen shopping aisles of shelves that are packed with lots of shit you don’t need and lots of other shit you do need and maybe even some shit you can’t find anywhere else in town. That’s how it was for me in New Harmony, Indiana. The mosquitos were eating me alive and there wasn’t a can of Off in town except at Dollar General. Dollar General corporate, claims that the store “near you offers more than 2,000 household and grocery items at $1 or less.”
It takes about a minute to cruise through Chemult (population 79). Chemult was originally christened Knott, when it was established as a rail stop in 1924, is tucked into the Umpqua National Forest. Chemult still serves as a stop for Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. The highway serves as main street and the residences sit on side streets back up in the trees.
Crescent just north of Chemult, claims to be ‘The Little Town With the Big Heart.’ I didn’t stay long enough to determine whether that claim is brag or fact. I can say that I passed a couple of motels, a mechanic, a country market, and two taverns. The Bigfoot Tavern is a unique looking little place with signage displaying a yeti with an affinity for beer, which, I guess gives him something in common with Brett Kavanaugh, who, during his confirmation hearing declared, combatively, “I like beer.” The Bigfoot Tavern was closed when I passed through town, otherwise I might’ve dropped in. And yes, there is a Dollar General in Crescent.
Past Bend and continuing north into Jefferson County the land is turning from forest green to yellow-gold. This is high desert country, where the land rolls and vast fields of flaxen cheatgrass contrasts with a deep blue sky, punctuated by billowing white clouds. My view of Oregon has always been dominated by timber and fishing. Out here though the movers are cattle and hay.
Past Madras, a fair sized town of 7400 and I still have just under 200 miles till Pendleton. It’s rolling scrub land. In the distance I can see plateaus that on any other day might make for some nice images. Today the vista is hidden behind a murky veil of smoke from a fire that I can’t pinpoint. The acrid smell of wildfire that I’ve become so accustomed to from years of California wildfires has settled inside the car.
I arrive at a junction where I’m given the choice of continuing, or taking State Route 293 towards the town of Antelope. Route 293 is rough, winding, barely two lanes and is as lonely as a vegan at a rib cookoff. It’s a short drive to Antelope, which, with a population of only 37, is for all practical purposes a ghost town.
Below: Scenes in and around Antelope.
Antelope began during the 1870s as a freight and stagecoach station along a road that connected the Dalles at the Columbia River with the mines at Canyon City, to the south. It wasn’t incorporated as a town until some thirty years later. Like many rural American small towns, Antelope went through a series of booms and busts.
Culture shock arrived at Antelope in 1981, in the form of an Indian mystic called Bagwan Shree Rajneesh who saw opportunity in and around Antelope. In short order, a community of Christian, conservative, gun friendly, retirees and ranchers found that there new neighbors, thousands of them, were young, progressives clad in garnet and orange robes who claimed devotion to a man who promoted “free love,” and reportedly owned 93 Rolls Royces. The Bagwan himself did a daily drive-by in one of his Rolls along a dirt road lined with devotees looking to catch a glimpse. Clearly the meeting of Christian ranchers and the followers of a man known as the “sex guru,” didn’t hold prospects for a positive outcome.
The movement had pockets deep enough to buy the nearby 64,000 acre Big Muddy Ranch, which was renamed Rajneeshpuram Commune. Parts of the town of Antelope were purchased as well. It wasn’t long before the Rajneeshees had enough numbers to take control of the city government after which the town was renamed, Rajneesh.
But there were bigger plans afoot. The goal was to gain sway over the county government. To that end a program benignly named “Share a Home,” was begun. The program bussed in homeless people from cities around the country, people who it was hoped, would provide a Rajneesh friendly electorate. The plan was foiled when the county clerk denied the “Share a Home” newcomers the right to vote
Rajneesh’s personal secretary, Ma Ananda Sheela had more nefarious plans in mind. In order to secure two of three seats on the Wasco County Commission, Sheela chose the not so subtle strategy of trying to poison the opposing electorate by having operatives lace the salad bars at restaurants in the Dalles, 75 miles to the north, with salmonella. This, the largest act of bioterrorism in American history, was only a dress rehearsal for the larger goal of poisoning the city’s entire water system.
Months later, Sheela, suspected by Rajneesh of the salmonella affair, fled to Europe. Meanwhile, Rajneesh invited the authorities to the commune to investigate the salmonella episode as well as other alleged crimes. Sheela was arrested a month later in West Germany and extradited back to the United States. She was convicted and sentenced to three – 20 year prison terms, and later released after serving 29 months.
Meanwhile Rajneesh, accused of various immigration crimes, reached a deal with authorities that had him leaving the country.
With utopia having turned into perdition, the Rajneeshees dispersed, and the locals reclaimed the town and returned it to its original name.
The former Big Muddy Ranch is now a youth camp run by a Christian organization.
Antelope marks the terminus of State Route 293 and the junction with State Route 218 which takes me back to U.S. 97 and the one time, “Wool Capital of the World.”