The day couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d planned it, and I’d planned almost none of it.
The irony of this was not lost on me as we stumbled through the woods in the darkness, looking for the cozy cabin I’d booked as a surprise for Hannah’s birthday. Please, I thought, don’t let my luck run out here, after a day of spontaneous enjoyment, foiled by the one thing I’d actually thought of doing in advance.
In the splendidly diverse river valleys surrounding Ashland, it would be easy to create – or just happen upon – a fun-filled day for nearly anyone. Hannah’s birthday falls just after the closing of the area’s big natural attractions at the end of October, so Crater Lake and the Oregon Caves were out of the picture. So, like snowbirds, I decided we would go south on Highway 199, which wanders along the Illinois River valley out of Grants Pass, then through the California redwoods to end up at the Pacific Ocean.
Hannah, lover of surprises above all else, had no idea where we would be heading that morning, but did make one request: That we start at La Baguette in Ashland for a meltingly delicious cheese-and-onion stuffed bagel.
Satiated, we packed up our little Toyota, Apollo, and hit the I5 toward Grants Pass. I encouraged Hannah to speak up if she spotted an attraction that tickled her fancy. Although the mini-golf courses and strip malls of the greater Medford area held no appeal, something about the exit sign for the tiny village of Rogue River caused her to crave a second cup of coffee. I veered into the exit at the last minute and then, there we were.
It was a rewarding stop. Things Hannah loves: Trains – check, gorgeous mural complete with a real train headlight on the side of the first building downtown. Pumpkin spice lattes – check, adorable coffee stand in a caboose. Antiques – check, a just-opened retro revival shop on main street.
By the time we got out of there, it was after noon. I took Highway 99 the rest of the way to Grants Pass; on the way we stopped for some fresh strawberries at a farm stand and to buy old postcards at a junk shop.
Not that we didn’t have enough stuff packed with us – food, a change of shoes, Hannah’s mandolin, extra sleeping bag, jugs of water, camera, candles, wine, books, birthday cake, and an unopened present from Hannah’s mom.
I’m not usually the one to handle logistics on these little trips, and so I’d overcompensated by packing a breadth of useful things. Hannah, who prides herself on being prepared for anything, had also brought along a variety of essentials. Turns out, we had prepared for just about everything except the obvious.
As we broke free of Grants Pass’ creeping sprawl on Highway 199, it would have been easy for Hannah to piece together my plans by reading the green signs that announce the upcoming cities, with mileage. However, I’d underestimated the lengths through which she was willing to go in order to preserve the quality of a good surprise. Whenever she spotted a green sign in the distance, she would avert her eyes until I let her know we’d safely passed.
Despite this, she did not miss the signs that pointed toward Deer Creek Winery in Selma, just north of Cave Junction.
“Want to go?” I asked as we approached the intersection, knowing what the answer would be before I asked. Wine tops the list of Things Hannah Loves, right up there with coffee and splitting her own firewood.
We found the tasting room open and Deer Creek’s co-owner, a woman named Catherine, inside and ready to pour. As we sampled award-winning whites and reds, Catherine gave us the lowdown on the area, with two recommendations for the road ahead: Don’t miss the purple water and get your meat at Taylor’s Sausage.
When the tasting was over and it was time to go, I pulled out my wallet but Catherine raised her arms and flopped her hands toward me, the universal symbol for “It’s on the house.”
“Happy birthday,” she said.
Happy birthday, indeed. We wandered down the road a ways to asses the driver’s sobriety, but really to find a bush to squat behind. It was as if we’d been waiting to do this for weeks. This fall, our lives in Ashland have suddenly become so indoor, so civilized. Now, just a few hours and a few samplings of wine later, we were glad to revert to our more primal nature. The schedule, which had never really been formed in the first place, was definitely now discarded.
After finding the car again, we next found ourselves at It’s a Burl, in downtown (okay, it’s pretty much all of) Kerby, Oregon. At the entrance to the outdoor gallery, a giant waterfall of carved burl wood flowed with violet-tinged water. From here, we wandered into a fairy-tale land of gnarled creatures, magical crystals and tree forts that climb into the blue. Among the strange and wonderful sights, resident artists worked away in their shops, wood chips flying like a golden rain.
All of this tourism had worked up quite an appetite, so we stopped next at Taylor’s Sausage in Cave Junction. The place is to meat what It’s a Burl is to wood carving. Case after case brimmed with leg of lamb, bacon, steaks, jerky, and of course, sausage, and the clientele was as diverse as the meat selection. Here in the Illinois River Valley, marijuana growers mingle with ranchers, fishermen and new-agers drawn to the Oregon Caves and the paranormal happenings at the Oregon Vortex.
Outside Taylor’s Sausage, the town reflected the diversity of its residents. Next door is a small natural foods store that sells local produce and organic seeds. Next to that, a vintage clothing boutique. Although it was nearly 4 o’clock, Hannah and I had to duck in to try on some leather jackets and bowler hats.
Back in the car, I decided it was time to get serious. Our hosts had given explicit instructions not to arrive after dark. I had dutifully printed out the directions they sent, taking heed that my cell phone service would disappear once I crossed over the California border and entered the coastal range west of Cave Junction.
Once we reached Gasquet, I handed the printed sheet of paper to Hannah and instructed her to navigate. The first thing she told me to do was turn around and head back up the highway – we’d passed the turnoff ten miles earlier.
Near a sign for a roadside inn that reads “Food, Booze, and Snooze” (really, what else do you need?) we turned up a steep gravel road, flanked with towering Douglas fir and golden-leafed maples. Hannah told me when to keep left or keep right, reset the odometer, look for a yellow gate, etc.
We might have arrived a bit sooner had she not kept seeing mushrooms.
“PULL OVER!” the birthday princess would explain, and I would oblige, watching her run twenty feet back to snatch some unsuspecting fungus from the road’s crumbling shoulder. “Look at this thing! Can we eat it?”
I promised we’d pull out the mushroom book and identify all mushrooms once we got there, but please, could we just make it before it’s totally pitch dark?
Finally, we reached the red bridge. The directions stated that if we drove an SUV we could easily ford the stream below. Or, we could take the narrow red bridge.
I swung Apollo’s nose around and attempted to line us up exactly with the bridge’s skinny width. The old tires spun on the slick metal approach, and it didn’t look like the mirrors would clear the rails anyway. Not only is our car not an SUV, but the mirrors don’t fold in for crossing narrow country bridges in poor visibility conditions. Of all things.
“Well,” I say, trying to still sound cheerful and in control, “We’ll just walk up there!” The directions say it’s only three-quarters of a mile to the “village”.
“What is this place?” asks Hannah, for the first time breaking her commitment to the complete and total surprise factor.
“No time for questions,” I say. “It’s getting dark.”
And that’s when it hit me. The one thing I failed to plan for?
The one thing we forgot? Flashlights.
No problem, we keep a flashlight in the car. Hannah digs it out, her hands working a bit frantically, but when she hits the button, nothing happens. Battery’s dead.
Now my sense of urgency is at its height. Fun time is over. As I change into my hiking shoes, Hannah throws her duffel bag over her shoulder, glass-enclosed candles and hardcover books inside. She also grabs her mandolin case and the bag containing our snacks and a bottle of wine.
“Okay, that’s it,” I say. “No more stuff.”
“Right,” says Hannah, tucking the oversized birthday present from her mom under her arm.
“Leave. The present. Here.” I growl, but to no avail. She’s already set her mushrooms carefully on top of the car and started across the bridge.
As we climb up the steep hill, darkness settling around us like a damp and chilly blanket, I’m amazed at this woman’s total and complete trust in me. The directions I’d handed her in the car were just that – none of the pictures of the charming woodland eco-village I’d checked out online. For all Hannah knew, I was about to pull a tent out of my backpack and pitch it here among the firs. Happy birthday, now toughen up. It’ll be cold cereal for breakfast.
Gradually, we made out a faint glow at the top of the hill, and came upon a small A-frame structure alongside the driveway with a solar lantern stuck out front. Dimly, I remembered this as one of the possible cabins I could have rented through the website. But I’d opted for a different, slightly bigger one, with a wood stove. Also, although I was familiar with the concept of “off the grid”, I had been under the impression that there would be more to this place than just a cabin. People, for example.
As I stood there wondering what to do next, the fearsome sound of barking dogs came thundering down the hillside. Hannah tensed and clutched my arm. Things Hannah doesn’t like: Strange dogs, being lost. And here we were, about to be eaten by Dobermans in the middle of an unknown forest.
At close range the dogs turned out just to be friendly mutts, who sniffed us, wagged their tails, and milled around waiting for us to do something more interesting. I kept waiting for our hosts to come down the hill after the dogs, bearing lanterns, torches, or some other light-bearing device.
They didn’t come. So we went to find them, following the ambient light of dozens more solar lanterns, which allowed us to feel our way through the garden and to the outdoor kitchen. Next to it was another building, which turned out to be the sauna. Each new discovery, instead of being a joyous surprise, was a cruel disappointment. All we wanted to do was find our cabin, set our bags down, start a little fire and turn on a light or two.
We decided that our next best bet for finding the cabin was to continue up the driveway, past the glowing garden area. Ignoring the ominous thumping noises – which turned out to be a pen of miniature goats – we set out into the now-total darkness, brandishing solar lanterns which we’d liberated from the garden.
Sensing that I had no idea what I was doing, Hannah began asking uncomfortable questions. Like, Where are we sleeping tonight? And, Are we going to get murdered?
After a few minutes of this, I decided we were barking up the wrong tree. My new plan: Return to the A-frame, which at least had a propane heater, get cozy and figure it out in the morning.
The A-frame, it turned out, was the answer all along. In it, lying mockingly on the tiny table next to the bed, was a map of the village. A quick glance was all it took to learn that our cabin, the Half-Moon Cabin, was just a couple hundred feet down the path.
Thirty minutes later, we had a roaring fire going. A half dozen candles provided enough light to satisfy our civilization-weakened eyes, as we chuckled over the irony of the birthday gift Hannah had finally unwrapped – an electric coffee grinder.
Then we settled into a comfortable silence, letting the reality of being miles from the nearest human being – or power outlet – settle in. Like many of the things I end up doing with Hannah, it wasn’t the kind of activity I would have chosen for myself, but now that I was here, I appreciated how truly rare and special it was.
Whether we knew it or not at the time, we’d both gotten what we came here for. On the whole, we didn’t have much. Our food was still down in the car nearly a mile away, we had no cell phone service and no convenience store down the road. But after the unsettling idea of not having anything at all, or at least not the minimum expected, the biggest surprise was in discovering – again – how just the very basics of warmth and shelter can be a bounty.
The next morning, Hannah was up at first light. I heard her brushing her teeth and making humming noises outside our tiny cabin. Then she spit and flung open the door, sticking her mint-scented face right up in mine. Her eyes were wide, her smile even wider.
“Sweetie,” she said. “This place is incredible.”
I rolled over and went back to sleep, thanking the powers that be for plans that come to life like wood-carved creatures, turning around to surprise those who attempt to control their fates.
Check out all the photos on Flickr