Hot Days in the Oregon Caves
Post office in Buncom, ostensibly on the way to the caves in Selma.
So hot, I can’t sleep. We should be living in caves, I think to myself, nice and cool those caves. The idea bounces around my heat-muddled brain a bit. Slowly I remember: there are caves in southern Oregon. Better yet, they are darn close to where I am right now. In a sort of half-sleep, I devise a route that will get me there through parts of Oregon I have not yet seen.
I set out for the Oregon Caves at the wee hour of 6am with a full tank of gas and a substantial cup of coffee. The sky is just turning orange, and the orchards I whiz by are cool and peaceful, on a perfect morning full of promise.
As if on cue, my little Subaru lurches violently once, twice, three times â€“ and promptly dies. Strange. I turn the key and the car coughs, sputters, but does not start. Push-starting does little for the situation, though I am one block closer to the caves. I pull over, and open the hood â€“ realizing the absurdity of this action, I was lucky to find the hood latch, never mind the reason for the stall. I poke around half-heartedly and then resign to my fate. I call Dick’s Towing.
"It will be at least one hour," says the voice at the other end. Okay, I’ve got coffee. I look into the cup for reassurance, and it is a nice morning. Then something remarkable occurs, a moment of mechanical clarity. I recall my wife, the mechanic in the family, explaining how the wires are routed to the distributor. She had even marked the one which led to the device responsible for starting the engine. I rush back under the hood, locate the wire, and follow it to the end where it lay â€“ unattached! A quick reconnect, a turn of the key, and the engine starts.
"I am a mechanical genius!" I shout to some crows. I call Dick’s and am on my way to Jacksonville and more coffee. Mine had spilled in the excitement.
I leave Jacksonville and travel 8 miles south on Hwy. 238, to the tiny town of Ruch. The town’s claim to fame appears to be the large central church, which on Sundays attracts hundreds of worshippers from all over the surrounding area, and can back up traffic all the way to Jacksonville.
In the center of town I see a sign pointing to Applegate Lake, and I turn left onto Applegate Road. Valley View Winery slips by in the first mile; homogenous rows of grapes repeat their pattern, scattering sunlight as I pass. At three miles, prompted by some huge, white dilapidated barns, I veer left onto Little Applegate Road.
The road is narrow and smooth, conducive to driving fast. The suddenness of the first corner quickly curbs my speed. Little Applegate River rolls past on the right, just miles from joining its larger sibling, the Applegate River. Near milepost-three, I arrive at the intersection of Sterling Creek Road, and there sits the town of Buncom.
Buncom is much smaller than I had expected, just three structures, but they are well cared for by the Buncom Historical Society, comprised of local area residents, and altogether very cool. Buncom was a hopping gold town in 1856, but big mining companies bought out most of the claims and the miners left. Rather than drifting away the town remained as a supply center for local farmers and ranchers until 1916, when the post office closed.
I am immediately attracted to the old post office, the smallest of the bunch, which still has its coke-bottle glass windows and a utilitarian letter slot next to the door, its wood worn smooth from countless letters.
I hadn’t noticed the silence until I was startled by a family of three riding past on bicycles, laughing and miss-shifting up the hill. The silence breaks on Memorial Day weekend too, when the Historical Society sponsors Buncom Day and a host of activities including music, a barbeque and a unique contest called Chicken Splat.
Giant burl chicken at the Burl Gallery in Kerby.
As I drive back to Ruch I think a bit about impermanence and how quickly we come and go, but such lofty thoughts quickly give way to "Ooh llamas, a llama would be a great pet, but don’t they spit, if I had a llama I would call him Lemmy," and so on.
At Ruch I turn left on Hwy. 238 and head west along the Applegate River and fields littered with freshly baled hay. The highway crosses a green metal bridge just past the town of Applegate and continues on to the community of Provolt, or more precisely, the large, red corner store that is Provolt. I turn left and meander up Williams Highway, which I believe will take me over the mountains to Selma.
An ancient white truck is parked in a gravel turnout; an even older man is stretched over the hood, wiping the windscreen with a wad of toilet paper. I stop to reassure myself that I’m headed the right way. I am hopeless with maps. As I approach, I call, "Good morning." He returns the greeting by clearing his throat and shifting his ragged cowboy hat.
"Will this road take me to Selma?" I ask.
"No," a voice hollers on my right, catching me off-guard. It emanated from deep inside the cab. His wife, I assume, clutching an enormous glass jug of water, sits staring through big yellow sunglasses. "Go to Williams, they might know a way," she continues. The man looks at me through oversized polarized shades and nods. "Thanks," I say, walking back to the car, not reassured by the encounter, but not complaining either.
At a store outside Williams I ask a man leaning over a picnic table reading a newspaper and drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup, if I could get to Selma from here. He stands upright, leans back to see what I’m diving and says, "Yep." Comforted that I am going the right way I drive on. Staying right as I depart Williams, I speed along the main road, passing bunches of sweet peas, quickly arriving at Cedar Flat Road (39-5-6). This road should take me high into the mountains and down the other side to Selma.
As I climb the steep chip-sealed road I feel the temperature drop. The views over the Applegate Valley are spectacular, despite the heat haze. I sense the beginnings of a cool breeze. After 10 miles of uphill I crest the summit, take a minute to enjoy the sights and sounds, then begin the descent to Selma, 17 miles away.
Deer Creek Road is steep and fast. Gravel coats the pavement in a thin layer. I slip out of pine forest and into deciduous, passing huge flowering dogwoods when the road suddenly spills out into a vast open valley. Now it is a straight shot to Selma. I keep to the main road. The remaining miles fly by.
Selma lies directly on Hwy. 199, which is the road I want. I turn left and head south to Cave Junction. On the way I make a mandatory stop in the town of Kerby to climb some spectacular tree houses. The chaotic arrangement of burl objects, combined with the impossibly sloped roofline of the huge gallery, make the Burl Gallery impossible to miss and equally difficult to resist.
A space for local artists to display their wares, as well as a place to purchase raw burl for personal works of art, the Burl Gallery is simply amazing. From tiny boxes to a monstrous chicken everything here is made of burl, including the three tree houses. These are not normal tree houses, nailed and lashed together with questionable design, but actual works of art. The tallest is nearly level with the roof of the gallery and offers a dizzying overview of the grounds. One even has a work area, set up so artists can carve burl up in a cool tree. The people and dogs are incredibly friendly; I would stop back even if they didn’t have the tree houses.
All the climbing made me hungry, and happily Cave Junction has a number of restaurants to choose from. I choose Stevereno’s at the junction of Hwy. 199 and Hwy. 46, that leads to the Oregon Caves. Very much a locals’ place, Stevereno’s makes a fine hamburger and a decent cup of coffee. As I pay I notice Bigfoot photos on display alongside crafty knick-knacks. Fueled up on meat and coffee, I feel ready for some caving.
A column deep in the Oregon Caves.
The Oregon Caves lie 19 miles up Hwy. 46. Ever since their discovery in 1874 by Elijah Davidson, whose dog had chased a bear into a hole in the mountain, the caves have attracted visitors, and I am one of them! I pay $7.50 for my ticket and am assigned to one of the hourly tours. Our guide advises us to bring a jacket, as the cave is a constant 42Â°F. Perfect, I think, it is noon and the temperature out here is approximately 1000 degrees â€“ what better place to be than underground.
I am wondering why humans had ever stopped living in caves, when the tour suddenly begins. Stepping into the cave is like jumping into a mountain stream: heart-stopping. For the next hour and a half we follow our guide up stairs and under columns. We gaze at stalactites and wonder at Moonmilk, all the while keeping our eyes peeled for Townsend’s big-eared bats.
The tour ends with a long ascent through a manmade section and then out into blinding sunlight. I feel like Gollum from Lord of the Rings and want to flee back into the coolness, but the guide locks the gate and I have no choice but to walk through the terrible heat and seek refuge in the grand wooden lodge.
Attempting to stay out of the heat as long as possible I peruse the gift shop, which is filled with posters of baby animals, coloring books and small toys to keep children entertained on the drive home. When I run out of things to look at, I wander back outside to marvel at the lodge on my way to the car. It is very large and covered in rough wood, but is pleasant to look at; it almost seems the landscape would be lacking if it were not there.
It is much hotter in Cave Junction on my return. I stop at the Heaven on Earth coffee shop at the junction, and order a large iced mocha for the drive home. Back on Hwy. 99, I beeline to Grants Pass , then I-5, then home. I arrive home late in the afternoon, still hours before sundown and an end to the heat. Why did I ever leave those caves?
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