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A ride to Crater Lake, a visit to the worst strip club in Oregon, the realization that even the best-laid plans can still be fucked and a reminder that while getting there may be half the fun, it’s sometimes the only fun you’re going to have.
This trip was all about heat, hills, mountain lakes and what internet reviews seemed to describe as the worst strip club in Oregon: The Alibi, in Klamath Falls. My bike took me along the Willamette Valley, up the central Cascades to Crater Lake and down to Klamath Falls. In return, I took my bike for a ride in an elevator and on a short boating excursion. Together, my bike and I tallied 360 miles and well over 15,000 feet of elevation gain.
Devising a meticulous, intricate bike route makes you feel like you’re doing something useful when you really aren’t. I spent as much time planning my ride to Crater Lake as it took me to bike there and I still had to make significant adjustments as I went along. The map is not the territory, a plan is not the future and the little guy you can place on a Google map is not on a bike. However, you can’t have the fun of changing your mind if you haven’t already made it up and deviating from the chosen path is where the fun is. This is true for confirmed bicyclists and in most other belief systems. For better or worse, the only way t0 find the hidden gems and lurking pitfalls of the unexpected is to wander off the map. If you choose not to have a map at all then everything will be joyfully unexpected but you’ll never find your way anywhere.
The idea was to skirt the Eastern edge of the Willamette Valley from Portland to Eugene, going through Lebanon and Springfield. Continue South on Route 99 and turn East at Cottage Grove, connecting to Sharps’ Creek and other logging roads that meet up with Route 138, on the Umpqua River. It was a great plan but I didn’t do it that way.
Day 1: Portland to Lebanon: a part of the plan, as planned
The first leg is an 85 mile run from Portland to Lebanon. The ride to Oregon City goes quickly and there I discovered a municipal elevator in the center of town that makes a quick ascent to the bluff overlooking the river. I expected an elevator to get me to the top of things but when the doors opened we were at the bottom of a large, steep hill. Route 213 to Silverton encounters a series of modest ridges that are not too difficult but to the South of Silverton, on the Cascade Highway, the road rises and falls on a series of open hills that top out at close to 700 feet. Traffic thins out quickly on this route as you go South and the views from the hilltops are worth the effort.
The road runs through very pleasant countryside and little towns with charming names like Sublimity and Scio. A left on Brewster Road off 226 provides a nice back-door entrance to Lebanon. It was a long day of great biking and so far my route was working out well. I rested up as much as I could, anticipating the seventy-mile ride to Cottage Grove.
Day 2: Lebanon to Cottage Grove: a plan apart
I thought I’d stay hard to the Eastern side of the valley for this run but decided to drift slightly to the West and took the Lebanon-Brownsville road instead. It was a beautiful road to with virtually no traffic. In Brownsville I picked up the scenic bikeway. The only significant elevation going South is the 700-foot gain on Gap road and after that, the terrain as flat as a pool table all the way to Eugene, where I stopped for lunch. The day had become very hot: well above 90.
At lunch I asked a few locals about easy routes out of Eugene that hook up with Route 99 to Cottage Grove. I was especially interested in avoiding going up big hills in the mid-day heat and two guys who seemed to be very helpful at the time suggested Dillard Road, which they described as scenic with only a few gentle inclines. It sounded like a plan to me.
I spent the next two hours going up a steep, 1,000-foot hill. The guys were correct about it being scenic but I had been punked by the boys in Eugene. As I ascended the ever-steepening road, I had plenty of time to reproach myself for relying on strangers for directions. Ask, but never rely. At the summit my legs were burning, my water all but used up and while resting I found an alternative route on my GPS, using 30th street from downtown to Route 99, that I could have done in a half-hour.
Route 99 is a fairly easy road but I was running out of gas as I made my way to Cottage Grove and I was beginning to experience severe cramps in my legs and back. On the outskirts of town the accumulated toll from two days of hot-weather biking came due and several times I was forced to stop and lay down to relieve the cramps and muscle spasms. I tried to look at the bright side. Perhaps the cramps and spasms in my legs would be of good use at The Alibi if I got a lap dance.
I was going to camp ten miles Southeast of Cottage Grove at Lake Dorena but I barely made it to town. I stopped at the first Motel I came to: The Relax Inn. It turns out that this was The Rainbow Motel in the movie ‘Animal House’ and the cement-block decor of the rooms perfectly fitting to the movie and to my state of mind. I was worried about the next day’s ride on 50 miles of steep, semi-paved logging roads in the rugged country between Cottage Grove and route 138 along the Umpqua River. The area is a confusing maze of logging roads with no cell coverage, no stores, no water and little chance of finding help if I needed it.
I asked around about my plan to use Sharp’s Creek Road but the locals cautioned against it, citing the severe and frequent elevation changes (topping out at 5,000 feet) and the fact that 50 miles is a long way over terrain like that. They didn’t actually say that I was crazy but the way they rolled their eyes when I mentioned Sharps Creek got the message across.
My plan was deeply flawed. It seemed that I’d have to go all the way to Roseburg to get to Route 138 and add at least a whole day to the trip but at breakfast the next morning I found some guys who suggested an option they said was fully paved, 15 miles shorter, 1500 feet lower and featured a single summit rather than multiple ridges. The route was obvious, they said, just follow the road signs.
Day 3: Cottage Grove to the Umpqua River
The route was London Road to Big River Road, over the Calapooia Divide and down Canton Creek to Route 138. It turned out to be longer and higher than I had been told and there is not a single road sign to be seen anywhere. I used my GPS a lot and checked my bearings with the two or three divers that happened by. The description had been given at breakfast might have been a bit vague but at least I hadn’t been totally conned as I had been in Eugene. Besides, it was a wonderful route: scenic and almost devoid of traffic. Big river road is coarsely paved and I had plenty of time to appreciate the physics of rolling resistance. It is surprising how much extra time and effort is required to ride on rough pavement, especially as the miles wear on. The hill is steep and unrelenting and it was another hot day; I walked my bike for long stretches as I approached the summit of the divide. By the time I got to the summit at over 4,000 feet I was throughly drenched with sweat and was obliged to change clothes.
On the traverse of the ridge line towards the Canton Creek descent my whole body began to cramp up: chest, back, and legs. I was forced to stop. I found a bag of jerky in my panniers and ate the whole thing, savoring the salt and hoping that I could recover enough to finish the ride. I did, but by the time I got to Route 138, even my hands were cramping. I needed salt and I needed to drink. A margarita would have been perfect.
The Umpqua river is one beautiful river and I was happy to see it but by the time I reached Umpqua’s Last Resort, a camping and cabin venue on Route 138, I had logged another 70 miles and was completely spent. At the little store there I walked directly to the refrigerator and downed a Sobe, a chocolate milk and a can of V8, all at once. I hate V8 but it is loaded with electrolytes.
I set up my tent and crawled in, knowing that the next day would be spent going uphill again but also that once I got to Crater Lake it would be downhill all the way to Klamath Falls.
Day 4: Umpqua River to Crater Lake
My Camp at Umpqua’s Resort was at 1,500 feet, about 40 miles from the entrance to Crater Lake Park, which sits at the 6,100 foot level. Route 138 is a state highway and so the grades are moderate but the route is uphill all the way. It was hot yet again and I went through my 6 bottles of water before I made the 32 miles to Diamond Lake so I pulled over and in a variation of the classic hitch-hiking posture I held up an empty water bottle to passing cars. It worked. Twice I was rewarded with water from the water-bearers behind the wheel.
I stopped at Diamond Lake Resort to have lunch and drink everything in sight. I was sitting at a large picture window, overlooking the lawn, the boat dock and the lake beyond when it occurred to me that a change of venue was in order. I decided to try for a boat ride. I walked over to the dock, asked around a bit and found a captain who agreed to take me and my bike in his boat to the far end of the lake, where the road would have taken me anyway.
This was exactly the kind of break I needed. Instead of slugging it out on the hot pavement I was now gliding in a boat on cool water, gazing at the scenery. It was only 3 or 4 miles but it was a fabulous diversion.
Back on the road, I worked my way up another 1,000 feet to the entrance to Crater Lake National Park and stopped at the gate to pay the $5 fee. It was already past 5PM and I was exhausted and discouraged that the campground was 22 additional miles which included a steep 1,000 foot gain to get up to the crater rim and down another thousand to Mazama Campground. The ranger seemed friendly so I asked casually if he was getting off anytime soon, maybe I could bum a ride in his ranger vehicle. He wasn’t leaving for some hours yet but he called for backup before I had finished telling him I wasn’t going to die. He actually coached me to tell the Ranger-on-the-way that I was simply unable to complete the distance. My inquiry had grown beyond my control and Hell, I’m a taxpayer so why not take a free ride?
Less than an hour later my rescue arrived. The ranger didn’t ask a single question about my condition and instead apologized for having to ask me if I was carrying any weapons. I guess that sometimes being an old guy has its advantages: in this case, a kind of face validity as an emergency waiting to happen. As we rode up to the rim at 7100 feet, I saw that I could not have completed the ride on a bike much before dark.
Day 5: Biking Crater Lake
I hung out on the rim all the next morning, resting and talking with tourists. I was interviewed for a TV news piece about the water shortage the area is experiencing after a very dry winter and since I had no knowledge at all about the issue I was eager to offer up an opinion. I was on the broadcast that night and I hope the viewers were listening carefully – especially those two guys from Eugene.
I signed up for the boat ride around the lake and biked 11 miles on the rim road to the Cleetwood trailhead, where you hike a mile of switchbacks to get to the lake, 700 feet below the rim.
The boat ride is a 2-hour circumnavigation of the lake which offers a unique chance to see a caldera from the inside: a sort of cross-sectional view of a volcano with one lava flow piled on top of another for as much as two thousand feet above the lake surface. There was a ranger on the tour who provided the geological play-by-play, which included the fanciful and seemingly arbitrary names Parks tend to give to geological features. Pictured here is a rocky structure called ‘The Phantom Ship”, which bore no resemblance to a ship at all. In fact, if it was a ship it would sink like a stone. I guess that ‘Unusual Lava Formation Sticking Out of the Lake’ isn’t quite snappy enough to attract paying customers.
I love Park Ranger statistics and their peculiar units of measurement. Meteor Crater in Arizona can accommodate 50 football fields on the crater floor. There is enough lava in the Bend lava fields to make a sidewalk that circles the earth. With respect to the size of Crater Lake, the ranger informed us that there was enough water to give every man, woman and child on the planet 750 gallons each. I had some trouble visualizing this and instead fell back on my own observation that the lake contained enough water to create the lake I was looking at.
After the boat ride I finished biking the rim road under superb conditions: cool air, practically no traffic and an excellent road. The views were spectacular both towards the lake and looking the other way … clear enough to see Mt. Shasta in detail. It is truly a world-class ride.
Day 6: Crater lake to Klamath Falls and the Worst Strip Club in Oregon
It’s about 54 miles from Mazama Village to Klamath Falls and for the first dozen or so I didn’t have to move a muscle. It’s an indulgent, smooth and gentle descent, tailor-made for an old guy whom any Park Ranger would see as a potential liability. The rest of the ride is on flat land bordering the Klamath Lakes. The only problem I encountered was the narrow shoulders on some short sections of Route 97, close to town. There are lots of trucks on this road and bikers can be subject to uncomfortably close encounters. The ride was a quick one: total elapsed time was under four hours.
Klamath Falls is not an elegant place but it does have a pleasant little city center from a bygone era. Most of the recent growth seems to be on a stretch of urban sprawl that extends for 2 or 3 miles directly to the East. It’s a desolate commercial strip of chain restaurants, chain stores, cheap motels and of course, a strip club. It’s as if the city itself wanted to get out of town.
I checked into a Motel on the strip and in short order met my new neighbors: an older man and his girlfriend, standing outside their room smoking. Their shrunken cheeks and sallow complexions told me that they were tweekers – meth heads. In the room on the other side of mine was a unit inhabited by two large dogs that barked furiously whenever someone walked anywhere near the unit. Welcome to Klamath Falls.
The Alibi was only a few blocks away. Finally, after months of planning, six days of hard riding in the sun and heat, working my way over hills and mountains, suffering cramps and water shortages, I was going to see the object of my journey: the worst strip club in Oregon.
I showered and put on a pair of clean shorts and a t-shirt that said ‘Portland’ and started walking. I was hooted at twice by kids in passing cars before I had gone a hundred yards. Maybe it was my shorts which, being above the knee, look a little gay to the younger set. A man sitting under a tree in a grassy lot shouted out some unintelligible hostility as I walked by. I came to a dilapidated tavern with a ‘For Lease’ sign in the window and then, there it was: a shabby marquee advertising ‘The Alibi – Open Daily’.
The building was a nondescript, blocky affair with no windows. There was a message scrawled in chalk on the front door: ‘Cowgirls III: Entrance in Rear’. I walked around back and under a dirty awning was a door. I pulled on the handle and it wouldn’t open. The place was closed. Closed? It was the 4th of July and no self-respecting strip club would be closed in Portland but self-respect seemed to be in short supply in this part of town and I stood there for a few moments, savoring my dejection. It made all the sense in the world. Almost by definition the worst strip club is one that is closed. The worst strip club would be one that leaves everything to the imagination. The worst strip club would not even have a sign on the door saying when they would open. The worst strip club would be no fun at all. If this place is all you have for an Alibi you might as well just plead guilty.
Some guy showed up. He was about 30 and walked with an unsteady gait. He pulled on the door handle and, realizing that the place was closed, fumbled a cigarette out of its pack and lit it up. He said he wanted to fill out an application. He was talking to me but looking all around while he spoke. He didn’t know what work he was intending to do there but he was certain that the management would think of something for him. After all, he had some knowledge of the business: if you look at the girls you are supposed to tip them.
I asked him if the place was out of business or simply off-hours but he had no idea. Suddenly, looking at my t-shirt, he stated that he knew me. I said that I didn’t think we had met. He insisted to the contrary. I was one of those rich assholes from Portland who had a jacuzzi. ‘Fucking rich assholes from Portland with a jacuzzi’, he repeated as he turned and ambled unsteadily across the parking lot. ‘Fucking rich people from portland’.
There was nothing to do about the situation. It was still early – 3 PM – and maybe The Alibi would be open later. I went back to the motel and tried once again to find what I could on the internet.
There wasn’t anything new. The place has no web site and only a few outdated reviews in Yelp, which I had already seen. There was mention somewhere of a change of ownership and a re-naming to ‘Cowgirls III’, but nothing else. I called several times over the next few hours, only to hear a stock message that didn’t even identify the place I was calling: ‘There is nobody here to answer your call …”.
Motel 6 was a beehive of activity all night long: heavy footsteps from the unit above, the dogs barking at odd intervals, some car with a big woofer cruising the parking lot repeatedly and the meth-man and his girlfriend seemed to be having trouble getting to sleep.
The next day I took the train back to Portland. All in all, this was a great trip. In cooler weather I might even do it again, especially the part of the route between Cottage Grove and the Umpqua River, which deserves a second look. The route from Lebanon to Springfield deserves to be done and I’ll try that the next time I go South.