In Oregon, Clark Gable Slept Here

Sunday, May 18, 2003

WHAT: Wolf Creek Inn.

WHERE: Wolf Creek, Ore., midway between San Francisco and Seattle.

WHY: Because if it was good enough for Clark Gable . . .

Icircled once, scanning for bears, wolves and banjo-twanging "Deliverance" types, before turning off the engine. The whitewashed, weathered two-story hotel, silhouetted in the dusk, looked too good to be true. The only other buildings around were a general store and a gas station.

I was in southern Oregon, 400 miles north of San Francisco, 400 miles south of Seattle. This was the only lodging for miles.

Inside, the ceilings were low, the space intimate, and the parlor smelled of wood and warm brick. A polished wooden piano was pushed up against the wall. The chimney was chipped along the edges -- carved, according to a note, by the spurs of drying boots. No one tended the desk. Down the hall in the dining room, a few people were quietly finishing dinner.

A sign on the counter described the Wolf Creek Inn, formerly the Wolf Creek Hotel, formerly the Wolf Creek Tavern. Built in 1883, the lodge has been welcoming guests continuously longer than any other hotel in Oregon. The Wolf Creek Tavern had been a stagecoach stop, a place for miners to get a hot meal and a clean bed, a getaway for Gable and Jack London, and a biker bar where flower children sold mint tea and whiskey to Hell's Angels.

Some of the first visitors to the Wolf Creek Tavern rode the stagecoach between Redding, Calif., and Roseburg, Ore. The Oregon-California railroad had not yet made it through the Siskiyou Mountains. In 1911, London lodged in a small, second-floor room. He and his wife hiked the wooded trails during the day; in the evening, he finished writing "The End of the Story."

Twenty years later, in the hotel's single suite, Gable hid out from the paparazzi. Leaping into his limo in Southern California, he directed the driver north till they reached Wolf Creek, where he fished the streams in solitude while moguls crisscrossed Hollywood, searching for him frantically.

More than 70 years later, I dropped my bags in a small room down the hall from where Gable had dropped his. There was a glass lamp on a wooden dresser and a double bed drowned in pillows. Lamplight pooled and rippled. It took a while to realize that there are no overhead lights anywhere in the hotel. The only non-antique in view was a bright yellow rubber duck perched above the deep bathtub.

I headed for the dining room, which smelled of freshly baked bread and warm fruit. Four hurricane wall lamps cast circlets of light over blue-and-white linen tablecloths. I ordered a salad of tomatoes, olives and artichoke hearts and a glass of chardonnay from Oregon's Willamette Valley. The waitress brought a basket of warm ciabatta and challah. The other diners were travelers like me or local fans of the chef's signature dishes: smoked baby back pork ribs with candy apple barbeque sauce, and coconut prawns with pineapple chutney.

After dinner, I stepped out front into the soft brown night. Through the branches of the Atlas cedars, moonlight mingled with the fluorescent Exxon signs across the road. Teenagers slouched on the porch of the general store. Occasionally a truck rumbled past on the highway hidden behind a thick grove of tall pines.

Around the corner of the inn, light from the dining room illuminated bushy apple and pear trees. The air smelled of drying grass and green apples. The orchards were planted more than 100 years ago, back when the Inn was a Tavern and taverns served food but not alcohol, water came in pitchers and light in oil lamps. Other than that, things hadn't changed much since the last stagecoach braked to a dusty stop at the front door.

-- Mija Riedel

Wolf Creek Inn is 20 miles north of Grants Pass, Ore., on I-5 (Exit 76). Rates from $50 to $107, including breakfast. Details: 541-866-2474, www.thewolfcreek

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