It turned out that driving from the town of Gold Beach on the Oregon coast to Grants Pass on the other side of the Klamath Mountains was challenging.
The course recommended online went south on U.S. 101 for fifty-four miles to Crescent City, California, then back northeast for eighty-two miles on U.S. 199. The worn Rand McNally wedged behind the van’s front seat showed a direct route that was only about half that distance. Shorter was better; it was already midafternoon, and we wanted to make camp before dark at Valley of the Rogue State Park near Grants Pass.
On the map, the highway didn’t have a number, and at one point along the way, there was a gap. Such features should have raised concern. To me, they were overshadowed by the dotted line indicating that the route was scenic. Not to Ann.
In the ensuing discussion, she inferred that I said she lacked a sense of adventure. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t; I require a compelling reason to start a fight.) She countered – in a fairly loud voice – that one of us had to show good sense to preserve us from major inconvenience, perhaps death. Finally, though, she agreed to try it.
In Gold Beach I couldn’t find the turnoff to Grants Pass, so I asked directions. A man in a worn pickup truck looked like he would know his way around those parts. After a long, searching look at the van, he said. “The road to Grants Pass?” Another pause. “It’s the last turn before the bridge.”
It was easy to miss. There was only a small sign: “Agness, 35 miles.” On the map, this peculiarly spelled place looked to be about halfway to Grants Pass.
The road was a two-lane paved highway, and we encountered only a handful of other cars, but it still took around an hour to drive the thirty-five miles. There were so many sharp twists and turns, I drove almost as much in second gear as in fourth. It was littered with fallen rocks and blow-down. On one side, the Rogue River was beautiful, unlike the shabby RV and trailer parks strewn between the road and the river. Not quite “scenic” in the way I expected. To Ann’s credit, she didn’t say “I told you this was a bad idea.” She was thinking it though. I know she was.
A few miles shy of Agness, a turnoff pointed to someplace called Bear Camp. It wasn’t on the map. A large sign warned that the road was closed in winter. Interesting.
Agness was interesting, too. There was a municipal limits sign but little after that to indicate that it was much of a town – mostly just some utility lines leading into dense forest where I suppose there were houses. After a while, the road ended at a barricade and a large stop sign. To one side was a small grocery store – frame, peeling paint, a cliché of a country store. Out front, two men were taking it easy in a big way and drinking beer. One had a white beard that hung down to the bib on his overalls. They gave the impression that they might have been there a long time. Maybe they were props to make the scene look fully rustic. Maybe they weren’t even real. Maybe I imagined them in order to make this a good story.
I asked directions, and that started a colloquy in which they grinned a lot and had fun with the city people in the Volkswagen camper.
“You passed the turn about five miles back.” They gave each the side eye.
“That one to Bear Camp?”
“Yep.” They seemed to find that a little amusing.
“It goes to Grants Pass?”
“Yep.” That pushed them almost to full giggling.
I kept asking questions and eventually learned that the road was not paved all the way. And one lane. With few turnouts. Switchbacks. Blind curves. It would take two or three hours to make that fifty miles or so. Much of it ran along a ridge that was something over 4000 feet. “A lot of times people wear out their brakes going down.”
I’m good at spotting when someone is ribbing me, so I was skeptical. So Bear Camp Road was not exactly an interstate. It would be passable. Probably a lot of fun. Ann disagreed. Strongly. The possibility of wearing out brakes had gotten her attention.
I went in the store for a snack and to give Ann a moment to gain perspective. The store was mostly bare shelves except for a few bags of chips hanging like laundry on a clothesline. When I came out, munching Fritos, Ann’s position was unchanged.
While driving back toward Bear Camp Road, she made several points that despite my eagerness to embrace the adventure – such opportunities don’t come along all that often – I found myself agreeing with. (Contrary to what some people think, that’s not unusual.)
We had lost cell phone connection miles back, and there was no reason to think it would return as we felt our way over the pass. How would we reach AAA? How would we get assistance of any sort? According to the yahoos in Agness, we might be the only ones travelling that road. A forty-eight-year-old VW camper was not likely to travel on an unpaved road for long without breaking down. We had too little gas to allow for a wrong turn.
We could be in for a long walk in the dark in bear country.
We made it back to Gold Beach, cancelled the campground reservation, and checked into a motel. I fell asleep reading about the road not taken. I learned that some people had died up there when they got caught in a snowstorm. On the other hand, so far as I could find out, no one had died in good weather. Snow had not started yet. We could have made it. Maybe.