Bear Camp Road: "Not Even God Can Find Me"
I always loved the song “They Call the Wind Mariah” made popular in the 50s by Frankie Laine. I hadn’t thought about it for many years, but on July 23, 2016, on top of a mountain in the Klamath Mountain Range, the lyrics leapt right out of their cobwebs in the back of my brain, jumped up to the front, fired some old neurons, and I could almost hear Frankie Laine’s voice:
And now I’m lost; so awful lost;
Not even God can find me.
The Road Not Taken
If you take the “Road Not Taken” as Frost speaks of in his infamous poem, be sure it isn’t a one lane path winding up and down and ‘round and ‘round through a mountain. (Chubby Checker’s twist is not how you want a road to move). Also make sure it isn't the Bear Camp Road that climbs 4,600 ft traversing the Klamath Mountain Range. Wikipedia describes it thus: “a paved, one-lane road with infrequent turnouts and a few gravel sections. At both ends, the road quickly climbs up to the crest of the Coast Range, and the majority of the road is at high elevation on top of a long ridge.” (You know you should watch out for a road that has it's own wikipedia page.)
But who reads a Wikipedia description of a road before they start on it anyway? We didn’t when we left Gold Beach, Oregon on our way to Grants Pass. The road looked just fine on the map, and Karen, the lovely GPS girl talking through our Prius guidance system didn’t seem to have any reservations whatsoever about putting us on this gravel grade to hell. There were no signs at the entrance with flashing red lights saying “travel only if you have a death wish”, so we were completely in the dark. Luckily it was still daylight.
In the Beginning,There Were Double Yellow Lines
So at first we started off at about 5:30 pm on a zig-zaggy two-lane road. No problem. We even made a leisurely stop at the Siskiyou National Forest to feed our little dog Scooter while no more than 50 yards away beautiful fawns stood grazing peacefully. It was a zen-like meditative moment. Reminding ourselves of the time, we got back in the car and continued onward.
“Geez, this is a winding road, Mike,” I said to my husband who was the one at the wheel. “Do you think it’s going to be this way all the way to Grants Pass?”
“Look at the screen,” he answered. The visual display on the dashboard showed a horizontal corkscrew line stretching as far as the screen was wide. The arrow on the line represented our car. As Mike turned left, the arrow moved up the screen. When he turned right, it moved down. It was like watching a stop motion animation film that no one wants to see when trying to get from point A to B. However, Mike and I, being intrepid by pure force of will or else just plain stupid, forged ahead.
I wasn’t worried though. There were two double yellow lines and no one was following us which could have caused Mike to go faster than I would be comfortable with. So I reminded him we had no clock to punch and sat back with Scooter resting comfortably on my lap. I was enjoying the beauty of the flora of the forest, hoping no fauna decided to suddenly cross our path. Fauna soon became the least of my concerns.
At about 15 miles in, we were accepting the fact that we would, indeed, be driving on a continuously winding road from here to Grants Pass. But then Karen, the GPS girl, had to disrupt our state of mind by suddenly announcing that she was “recalculating the route.” She then directed us to take the gravel “road’, and I’m being loose with the word “road” here, that was ahead off in the trees. We thought that her gyroscope or whatever controls her orientation couldn’t handle all these curves anymore and she had gone completely mad, so we ignored her and kept on going until that nice road we were on seemed to simply end. So we returned to the little gravel one-way road and assumed this surely would last a few yards before meeting up with something bigger.
Hint: If you ever see gates that can close off a road on your right and left, even if they’re open, you probably should just turn back and travel the road from whence you came – even If it’s 30 miles. Do this unequivocally, if it’s in the dead of winter. Even if it’s in the middle of summer and if it’s the Bear Camp Road, do it anyway.
The Sign That Should Be On the Road We Shouldn't Have Taken
The Hills Are Alive
As we kept climbing up the mountain on this one lane road/path, inches away from the edge with room barely enough for one car, let alone two, we watched the screen showing our progress, subtracting one mile at a time. Every turn brought a gasp from me as I looked out to the mountains surrounding us and down to the valley below – much too far below.
As each minute passed, I was worried about the position of the sun in the sky. If the sun set and somehow we had taken the wrong road and were merely driving around this mountain in circles, what would we do? There was no turn-out to park the car, no place to even make a “T” turn and head back. In all my years on the face of the planet, I have never felt so at risk in nature and so much in danger. We were going north one minute and south the next; there seemed to be not another soul traversing up here, we couldn’t go back, and we didn’t know what was ahead. Scooter must have sensed the tension because he sat very quietly on my lap. Thank goodness we had fed him when we stopped what seemed like hours ago and thank goodness Mike had filled up the Prius with plenty of gas.
Mike kept on and seemed optimistic (a mindset I thought did not match the circumstance). If he happened to comment on a tree or a flower, trying to lessen the tension in the car, I screamed, “Do not look at anything other than the road!” with a do-you-understand-me-soldier kind of tone in my voice. (Being on the edge of a mountain road was doing nothing to bring out the best in me.) Mentally chastising myself for not being a more helpful partner, I told Mike we should start singing. “The hills are alive…” I concentrated on staying on key. When I switched to “You Are My Sunshine,” I received a definite chilly response: “Not that one,” Mike said, and he didn’t answer when I asked why.
To those familiar with a path, the road seems easy. To those unfamiliar, it can be daunting.
Somewhere along the way, climbing up and up on this mountain, we saw one lone official yellow road sign, the first and last official road sign we’d see. “Slow,” the sign said! Really? As if you had to tell us. It seemed like a cruel joke that some Bureau of Land Management guy risked his life to put up.
At times, it felt as if we had gotten nowhere in a forward direction - only upward. Finally after about 10 miles ascending, we saw a turn out – an actual turn out - and it was large. I don’t know how this one flat piece of mountain came to be, but I didn’t care. We could sleep right here in the car tonight if we have to, I thought. I was in no mood to get out and enjoy the view, no matter how utterly spectacular it was, but Mike encouraged me. There was a sign saying “Vista Point” and it was heartening to me that humans apparently had actually been up here. That’s when I took the video above. I might add that the video does not in the least convey how high up we were at that point, how singularly unique was the wide turnout, or how narrow was the one lane road I pointed out.
“Turn around,” Mike said, as I stood looking as far down as I dared. I turned and looked at the trees – the tops of them. Only sky was above them; we were at the top of this mountain. Encouraged that we couldn’t go higher, we jumped back in the car.
On The Serious Side
This article was meant to be humorous, but Bear Camp Road is really nothing to joke about. "Numerous motorists have been stranded for days or weeks on Bear Camp Road or one of the many gravel roads that branch off from it. Dewitt Finley and James Kim both died after being stranded on the road in winter." Wikipedia.
I remember hearing just a bit about a family being stranded on some mountain road in 2006, but hadn't paid attention to the details. After researching "Bear Camp Road" because of our experience, I came across numerous articles on this tragic story of a young accomplished technology analyst and his little family traveling on Thanksgiving weekend and getting stranded for nine days apparently on the same remote access road as we took. It's extremely easy to understand how this could happen after having been there. I can only imagine the terror in the dark and in the winter.
"As more snow fell around their immobilized Saab 9-2X station wagon, the Kims kept warm by running its engine. When the vehicle ran out of fuel, they made a campfire of dried wood and magazines. Later, they burned their car's tires to signal rescuers." (Wikipedia: James Kim)
By the seventh day, James Kim decided that the only option was for him to leave the car and go for help. After walking 16 miles from the car and being within a mile of the Black Bar Lodge, this courageous young father was found lying in the icy waters of Big Windy Creek, a victim of hypothermia.The story of how the wife and daughters were rescued is documented in Kati Kim's story on 20/20.
The fact that in the summer of 2016, we found ourselves on a road we would have never chosen to take, provokes the question of how many other strangers to this area will inadvertently end up on a route that should be taken only by those who are aware of its dangers.
Prepare for Rescue
I think it’s pretty normal to assume after having reached the top of the mountain, one would be headed downward. But the car didn’t feel as if it was descending, so I checked the screen. Despite the arrow that was deceivingly pointing down, Mike reminded me that it merely meant we were headed south. (What a cruel ruse that is) There was nothing to do, however, but forge on and keep on going. Two motorcycles whizzed past us, and Mike and I quickly decided the two drivers were categorically insane.
By this time, not feeling a descent, I was starting to worry that we’d never get off this mountain and felt I needed to make plans for our rescue or body recovery. How would the kids know where we were? I tried to send the video I had just taken to my daughter. No signal. Then I realized Mike’s phone was dying. We needed both of our phones charged. One or the other of us might get through to 911 if we had to. Mike’s charger was in the back seat, but I was reluctant to climb over, thinking I might break his concentration or bump his arm, and over we’d go. He assured me it would be fine and I put Scooter on the floor, knelt facing the back on the passenger seat, and rummaged through Mike’s bag to get the charger. Plugging it into the car console, I felt we had made it a bit easier to be rescued.
Enough with the Recalculating!
The miles on the screen were slowly decreasing 19, 18, 17, but at this point it didn’t seem like they were recording miles to our destination, but only to the next point on that route – whatever that would be. I started to sing again. “You are my sunshine.”
“Not that one,” Mike responded once again. I saw no need for him to be grumpy. I had originally wanted, before this journey started, to continue down the coast instead of going to Grant’s Pass in the first place! “The hills are alive…”
But no need for bitterness now, we were in this together. We kept reassuring each other at every turn in the road that it truly did feel like we were headed downward. Besides, now the edge of the mountain was on Mike’s side, so that was new. The screen said 16, 15. Finally as I noted the sun sinking lower, we saw a large information board on the left. Mike pulled into this second turn-out and got out to read the map on the board. He called me over.
“See, here’s where we are.”
“How do you know?”
“Because," he said pointing to another place on the map, “ that’s where we were.” I was not convinced.
“We need to head to Galice whatever that is, so we just have to keep going.
I told Mike to take a picture of the map. I wanted something to text the kids so when the officials came to rescue us off this mountain, they’d know where to start looking at least. Back in the car, the mood was less tense. I still wasn’t sure we were home free, but after we passed an actual large National Forest type of sign with logs for a frame, saying “Bear Camp” something or other, I felt we were back to civilization. Karen wasn’t as confident however and told us she was once again, “recalculating the route”. She took away the nice low number of miles it would take us and now we were back to something like 32 again.
“She doesn’t know what’s she’s talking about,” Mike decided and kept right on going.
Eventually we saw a little cabin and the road was becoming flatter. There were some other signs of life on the right. A house? I don't know. I was still in a state of shock and didn't know what I was seeing. Karen, kept saying she was recalculating and if she were one of those hand-held Tom-Tom or Garmin models, I would have thrown her right out of the car window.
And then almost as unobtrusively as we had gotten onto the one lane road, we were off the one-lane road. I was never so happy to see pavement that was wide enough to support two double lines or more appreciative of what those lines represented. We came to a dead-end with a sign pointing right to Galice and to the left to Merlin. Karen now decided that she knew where she was going and told us to turn left. However, since the map Mike had taken a picture of pointed to Galice in the same direction as Grants Pass, I almost screamed, "Turn right!".
As we drove to into the town of Grants Pass, the past two and a half hours seemed surreal and the end of our journey now felt anti-climatic. We talked about how it all could have "gone down". We could have had a flat. We could have turned back when we got to Vista Point and kept going back and forth until dark and had no place to pull over. One of the two motorcycles we passed on the road could have been an inch closer to the car and caused us to go off the road at one of the drop-offs. We felt extremely blessed at this point, so driving into the lot of Motel Six was as good as driving up to the luxury resort at Pelican Hill in the wealthiest section of Newport Beach, CA.
Just Hit Us Over the Head
As if we weren't sending off enough grateful vibes out to the universe after our experience on Bear Camp Road the day before, the next morning as we left Motel 6 to go for breakfast, Mike noticed that our tire was flat.
"Oh, my gosh. Just WHAT would have happened to us if this had happened yesterday on top of the mountain?"
Message received, Universe! Gratitude filled my heart. Never mind that it was 90 degrees in Grants Pass that morning, never mind that we weren't sure where to get the tire fixed. We were on solid ground at a mere 948 ft. above sea level with no drop-offs. We had our tire patched after the mechanic found a cotter pin had pierced it. We can't determine where we picked up that three inch piece of metal. All we know was that the tire wasn't flat until we got down from the mountain, and that's all we needed to know.
If we ever have to go from Gold Beach to Grants Pass again, you can bet we'll be driving down the 101 and up US 199 like Google suggests. (Google seems smarter than GPS-Karen.) In the meantime, I might just call the Bureau of Land Management and see if they have made any progress on putting up more and clearer warning signs on both the east and west ends of the infamous Bear Camp Road.