By Camille Cusumano
August 26, 2012
FLORENCE, Ore. — My mind drifts back to Ken Kesey's 1964 novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion," as my friend Rob and I drive west from Eugene to the Oregon coast along scenic Highway 126. The curling two-lane road sweeps through views of the Cascade Range cloaked in Douglas fir, a landscape that easily recalls Kesey's saga of man against nature.
That story's protagonist measured timbered heights in board feet and lived in Lincoln County. He may as well have been here in Lane County, I think, as we pass a flatbed strapped with neatly sawed and stacked tree trunks. The truck might be headed to tiny lumber-dependent Noti, where the sole pub's marquee reads, "Beer drinkers wanted."
Ninety percent of Lane County is forested, says Rob, and Oregon 126 is the only road into Florence, his coastal hamlet, from Eugene. He spent a year exploring the Lower 48 for the perfect place to put down roots before leaving Southern California for that remote town nearly 12 years ago.
I fly from San Francisco to Eugene in June to visit Rob, and we drive the snaking 65 miles — 75 minutes if we don't dawdle. But we do. I find the entire drive refreshing and can almost feel my blood being oxygenated, buddy breathing with all these photosynthesizing behemoths. My sense of time recalibrates as the road leads first through rolling farmland.
About three miles from Eugene, summer fades even in August. The temperature begins to drop. "By the time we reach the coast, it'll be 10 to 25 degrees cooler," Rob says as the farms give way to Fern Ridge Lake. There, marshes and wetlands attract waterfowl and migratory birds, including cranes, egrets, mallards and grebes. Sailboats and canoes ply the calm waters, swimmers have a designated beach and lakeside campgrounds let travelers sleep amid the pines.
Just beyond Fern Ridge is Veneta, the last gas before heading west for 40 miles. The village's steepled white church no longer delivers sermons, but the staff of life: It's been converted into a café-bakery called Our Daily Bread. A loaf to go of potato rosemary, herb Parmesan or oat walnut makes for good road food. But for home-baked marionberry pie à la mode, we linger in the stained-glass sanctuary. The café also serves dinner, with a full bar and a tempting menu of fresh seafood, local produce and Oregon wines.
Beyond Veneta, the forest closes in dark and velvety and hides the headwaters of the Siuslaw River that parallels the road. Spilling into the Siuslaw (sigh-YEW-slaw, Yaconan for "far away waters") from Cougar Pass, the highest point on 126, is Wildcat Creek. We stop to see this confluence at Austa Landing County Park. We walk down the boat ramp in time to catch a rock-perched fly fisher, excited about her baited trout, fall in up to her waist.
The river gentles over boulders and a drift boater lazes in the distance, perhaps dreaming of the salmon run come early fall. (Late fall, it's steelhead.) A few paces up the riverbank, Rob shows me the 1925 Wildcat, one of 20 historic covered bridges in Lane County. Its peaked roof and white boards speak of simpler times, as does the 1884 Walton Store and Post Office we passed earlier, where locals still get mail, groceries or a cup of coffee.
A few miles past the post office, a painted sign promises honey, smoothies, kale and more at Morning Glory Farm & Espresso, a café-market with picnic grounds. For 22 years, Jerry and Sandra Collver have cultivated an astonishing array of produce on their 10-acre farm. Their bees may yield raspberry or blueberry honey, "depending on what they were pollinating," Jerry says.
Continuing west, Rob notes, "We're passing through real rain forest — more than 100 inches of rain a year. Even the bark looks green." I notice a drunken forest of Sitka spruce — the trees tilt in the spongy ground. Then we enter the Petersen Tunnel, one of those fiercely gouged wormholes through rocky mountain into another universe. The weather often changes dramatically on the western end, where there's less precipitation.
Ironically, for two people who crave cool and wild spaces, Rob and I met on a hot, crowded tango dance floor in a city. That passion aside, Rob quickly learned that my default footwear is hiking boots — not the spike heels I dance in. So he shares with me one of the local secrets. Sweet Creek Trail, two miles round trip, must be one of the most enchanting paths through rain forest.
We travel about 10 miles down Sweet Creek Road to the trail head. The leaden sky casts a flat light, which intensifies the jade and emerald hues of trillium, fiddlehead ferns, skunk cabbage and broadleaf maple. Under the towering canopy of Douglas fir hang tendrils of vines, gossamer skeins of old man's beard, some as thick as wool.
Wooden benches and catwalks cling cliffside. A bridge traverses a canyon of punch bowl-shaped falls, and a mossy stairway sinks into forest duff. Mattresses of sphagnum moss wreathe boulders. We pass red columbine, a single amber drupe hanging on a bramble, and look in vain for rare pink fawn lilies. Sweet Creek crashes over boulders in fern- and vine-choked places. A plunge pool at the end beneath a 20-foot cascade tempts me. I strip to my bathing suit and wade into the gelid waters, but pass on the full-body dip.
Après-hike, Mapleton, just across a bridge over the Siuslaw, is our ritual stop. Caffeination Station has the best espresso and saucer-sized chocolate chip cookies west of Eugene. We love the homemade soups at Alpha-Bit Café. The Alpha Farm, an "intentional community" celebrating 40 years, operates the folksy lavender-washed café, a bright reminiscence of my 1970s life in Haight-Ashbury. The café, also a bookstore with art, handcrafted jewelry, macrame and clothing, serves a mouth-watering fixed menu on Friday evenings with specialties such as game hen, Portabello-basil risotto, tilapia and chocolate-cherry espresso cheesecake.
From Mapleton, it's 14 miles to Florence. We pass under the rusty old Cushman train bridge (of the former Southern Pacific), which still swings open to allow boats to pass. "It's a reminder of the log barges that once headed for the sawmill up river," Rob says.
Florence is the undersung gem of the Oregon coast. Old Town, where the Siuslaw surrenders to the sea, bears traces of its fishing and logging commerce, and is charming enough for me. I could while away afternoons in the Backstreet Gallery, a coop of about 20 local artists, or sip espresso in Siuslaw River Coffee, where I can admire the concrete pylons and Art Deco obelisks of the old drawbridge.
There's a lot to discover near Florence too. We've visited the Heceta Head lighthouse, an impressive beacon, looked down on the Stellar Sea Lion Caves and hiked the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. At Darlingtonia State Natural Site, we hoped to catch the carnivorous cobra lilies luring flies to their gooey secretion and feasting on them.
One misty morning, we strolled within feet of the pounding ocean's spray and spume. We picked up sand dollars and wondered how a huge beached tree stump had made its way from the forest to road's end.
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