Local Not-Spots

You have to exit the highway to see the sights. Sometimes you have to venture down even less-traveled roads to find the real stories. Oliver Griswold tells the tales of Yachats, Oregon, and Woody Creek, Colorado.

Yachats, Oregon

The back-roads traveler happens upon picturesque villages quite frequently in Oregon. From the Wallowa Mountains in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, attractive hamlets are easy to come by. The state obviously doesn’t hold a monopoly on them, but the topography of the Pacific Northwest provides a nice backdrop for most communities in the state, especially the smaller ones.

South of Newport on Highway 101, one of these smaller towns is precariously wedged into a ravine that drains into the ocean. The town, called Yachats, is a small collection of ramshackle structures huddled against the sea spray, specked from mid-afternoon on with glowing windows. The streets are damp. A few cars might be pulled up to the grocery store on the east side of 101, and the bright sign on the store casts a glow onto the small parking lot.

Yachats slopes down to the ocean. The asphalt winds through the closely built cottages, and peters out onto short gravel driveways. The cottages are small, but sturdy enough to hold up under the elements. Inside their windows, there’s warmth on a cold summer afternoon when the clouds build and move in. The clouds build quickly, and move in often, on the coast of Oregon.

The traveler may find a great cup of coffee and views of whitecaps at the Traveler’s Cove Café in the center of town. Dry off by the fire at the far end of the post-and-beam interior, and scan the rack of brochures next to the hearth. Satisfying words jump out from the colorful array: Siuslaw National Forest, Cape Perpetua, Heceta Head Light, Little Log Church. Pick up a few for future reference. Nice places to visit if you have the time, and the pamphlets make nice bookmarks.

The Army built a large gun on top of the promontory of Cape Perpetua during World War II to protect against the ‘balloon bombs’ launched from Japan that were intended to cause wildfires 6,000 miles across the Pacific, on the U.S. mainland. In 1945, a few months after the war ended, six Oregonians on a picnic dragged an un-detonated balloon bomb from the woods. All six were killed when the bomb exploded. They were the only casualties sustained on the continental U.S. in the war.

Cape Perpetua is a high wooded point that juts out into the ocean south of Yachats. Rumor has it that Captain Kidd named the cape when he was marooned offshore for weeks in 1787, unable to navigate through high swells and rocks back out to open ocean. The landform, the rumor goes, remained perpetually in sight of his ship.

From Perpetua, the coast fades away to the north and south, the dark headlands dissipating in the salt mist, even on the sunny days. Far below, sea lions play in the coves. The wind buffets the headlands. The gnarled trees bend against it.

Yachats on the Web ]

Woody Creek, Colorado

The lights from the Woody Creek Tavern shine between the slats of chairs made from old skis. The clink of pitchers filling glasses fill the gaps between Nitty Gritty Dirt Band songs. Chairs creek. A waitress laughs and tells one of the regulars what she’s going to do to his balls if he stiffs her on the tip.

Out back, on the paths of the trailer park, between the double-wides, the river sounds drown out the bar. The stars have made their way down to a few thousand feet overhead, and they bridge the gap of sky between the black slopes of Snowmass and Lenado.

The valley is long and famous, as valleys go. Interstate 70 caps the north end at Glenwood Springs, and Independence Pass looms over the southern end, where motorists squeeze past each other on the hairpin turns into Aspen.

Aspen is the focal point of the valley, for reasons that most locals regret. It’s where the jobs are, but not the housing. Teachers and janitors can’t afford the low-income apartments that are built for them. They commute down the valley on 82, passing Carbondale and El Jebel and Basalt. And just before the turn into Aspen, they pass Woody Creek.

Woody Creek is not exactly a town. More a collection of houses and trailers, a post office, a charter school, and four or five famous people. It could be called, accurately, the anti-Aspen. It has none of the glitter, none of the pomp. Even the celebrities here live in curmudgeonly, often hilarious opposition to the billionaire contingent building their enormous houses a few miles away.

A letter in the Aspen Times illustrated the dynamic nicely:

‘Dear Sir, Please ask your wife to reduce the amount of silicone in her breasts so I may be allowed to pass the both of you without stepping into the street. Yours truly, A Woody Creek Resident.’

The Woody Creek Tavern is the center of this tight-knit community, and the tourists that roll down from Aspen on mountain bikes quiet down at dinner when they realize they’re the only ones who don’t know everybody else. The nachos are exquisite, the margaritas advertised as the freshest in the West.

If a black PT Cruiser is parked in the lot out front, you’ll be sitting next to ‘Dr. Thompson,’ formerly of Rolling Stone magazine, and his friends Jimmy Ibbotsen and Don ‘Nash Bridges’ Johnson. Local millionaires George and Michael Stranahan might show up later. George collects photography. Michael is a DJ at the local public radio station and lives in a trailer behind the Tavern.

Tonight, one voice rises over the others on the front patio of the Tavern, and everyone shuts the hell up for a minute. Jimmy’s singing, and it sounds just like the record that the waitress has turned down, which, incidentally, is Jimmy himself singing Lost River, a Dirt Band cover of a Michael Martin Murphy song:

Now every body knows
Where that lost river flows
It’s someplace he’s lost
Behind bridges that he’s crossed

Well, he’d like to return,
But his bridges are all burned
And he’s much too far down
To return to higher ground
Woody Creek on the Web ]