We Visited Wakonda, A Place That Ken Kesey Invented for a Book, Which Exists Anyway

“All up and down the West Coast,” Kesey wrote in 1963, “there are little towns much like Wakonda."

(Joe Michael Riedl)

There is no town of Wakonda. There is no Wakonda Auga River. These places existed only in the mind of Ken Kesey, who is dead, and in the pages of his logging novel Sometimes a Great Notion, which is long. You can get lost in the pages, but you won't find directions.

Yet a sort of roadmap to the home of the fictional Stamper family does exist. "All up and down the West Coast," Kesey wrote in 1963, "there are little towns much like Wakonda. Towns dependent on what they are able to wrest from the sea in front of them and from the mountains behind, trapped between both."

(Aaron Mesh)
(Aaron Mesh)

Like an analog Garmin, Oregon's preeminent novelist tells you when you have reached your destination. "There will be a small scatter of boxlike dwellings somewhere near a mill, usually on a river, and a cannery on the docks, needing a new floor. The main street is a stripe of wet asphalt smeared with barroom neon."

This is a precise description of at least half a dozen places on U.S. Highway 101 between Tillamook and Bandon. They are most thickly distributed between Lincoln City and Newport, which by no coincidence is where Paul Newman decided to film a movie adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion in 1970.

The timber industry, which Kesey described as stubbornly gripping its logs, is now a lost cause, the federal permits and payments both fading away. Yet these towns refuse to die—which means it's still possible to visit the place where they "never give a inch."


Chase the tipsy ghost of Paul Newman

Before he became a sainted purveyor of organic fig cookies, Newman was a whiskey-swilling heartthrob who pulled into Oregon fresh off Hud and Cool Hand Luke with big plans to translate Kesey's novel to the screen. The movie he directed is rarely watched but not bad at all (it's got good logging footage and a helluva death scene for Richard Jaeckel), which is all the more impressive considering that histories and locals agree Newman spent most of the production drunk. Drop by two of his haunts:Timbers Restaurant & Lounge (181 S Main St., Toledo), where legend says Newman used a chainsaw to trim the legs off a pool table, and the Bay Haven Inn (608 SW Bay Blvd., Newport)>, where the regulars include a dog with his own stool at the Keno machines.

(Bay Haven Inn Facebook)


Stroll the banks of the "Wakonda Auga"

The Wakonda Auga River is a central character in Sometimes a Great Notion—the watery highway that transports rafts of logs to market, drowns a hero and lets the paterfamilias of the Stamper family give the middle finger to union men from beyond the grave. Again—it doesn't exist. But the Siletz River is its closest real-life mirror, and its tidal flows have been restored by the feds.

(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)

Park in a pull-off 9 miles down U.S. 101 from Lincoln City, and hike a leisurely half mile on the Alder Island Nature Trail, where herds of Roosevelt elk can be seen grazing the banks. Pull out your paperback of the novel and compare the Siletz to "a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to the lips." The foggy morning hike is the perfect opener for your day—especially if you spent the night on the Siletz.

Get a Stamper-sized brunch

Everything at the Otis Cafe (1259 Salmon River Highway, Otis, 541-994-2813, otiscafe.com)> is enormous: the loaves of house-baked bread, the sourdough pancakes, the crowds.

(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)

\The only exception is the dining room, which can seat about 25 people if they really like each other. (A canny entrepreneur has opened the Otis Collective dispensary in the same parking lot.) The food here is hearty enough to be the only meal you'll need all day, and you can take a loaf of that spectacular sourdough.


Take in a forest fire

A visit to theTillamook Forest Center (45500 Wilson River Highway, 503-815-6800, tillamookforestcenter.org) entails a two-hour drive up from Lincoln City deep into the Coast Range.

(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)

It's worth the trip, in part for the rugged mountain scenery and also to see the $10.7 million museum, built with private timber dollars in the heart of the Tillamook State Forest to offer the history (and maybe a little propaganda) of state-managed forestry in Oregon. The highlight is a 15-minute film about the massive wildfires that scorched 350,000 acres of old-growth forest starting in 1933. The movie is played in a theater that roars with surround sound, glows an infernal red and is scented with smoke.

(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)

If you had a third round of drinks with Paul Newman last night, it may be too much for you—in which case you can work off the anxiety on miles of hiking trails along the Wilson River. Umbrellas are provided.

Hop in a swimming hole

About 2 miles southwest of the Forest Center on Oregon Route 6, there's an idyllic bend of the Wilson River known as the Footbridge Day Use Area. It's a deep opal pool beneath Bridge Creek Falls, with 20-foot-tall rock outcroppings that beg for cliff jumping. Depending on your energy level, you can hike from the museum and back along the river, taking in the lush forest, beaches, islands and Wilson Falls. Or you can just pull out a blanket and have yourself a picnic using that loaf of sourdough.


Drink with Jack Nicholson

Whale-watching village Depoe Bay is the most fitting port of call for a tour of the Kesey coast, in part because his other opus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, filmed its fishing-trip scenes in the town's dollhouse-sized harbor. (You can take a chartered trip to look for whales, if that's your thing, but it's not really on-theme.)

(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)
(Joe Michael Riedl)

Start your evening five stories above the water, in the recently refurbished beer hall The Horn Public House and Brewery (110 Oregon Coast Highway, Depoe Bay, 541-764-6886, thehorn.pub), where the walls are adorned with Cuckoo's Nest posters and a back room features a shiny new shuffleboard table and darts. Both games feel a little more exciting suspended on a high ocean cliff.

Hit the bottles

The Horn closes at 9 pm, so walk a block north to Gracie's Sea Hag (58 N U.S. Highway 101, Depoe Bay, 541-765-2734, theseahag.com), which is on one side a family restaurant and on the other a deep-1970s nautical lounge with a round fireplace, clipper-ship wheels and live music from blind Hawaiian keyboardist Michael Dane, who leads singalongs of AM-gold standards like "Danny's Song."

(Courtesy of Gracies)

Get a bowl of buttery clam chowder—chosen the best on the coast by WW—and wait for last call at 10 pm. Closing time is announced with a performance of the Swiss oompah song "Der Entenanz" aka "The Chicken Dance Song." The bar staff performs this earworm by tapping on the bar's wine bottles, a trick that was apparently the specialty of Gracie herself until her death last year.

(Gracie’s Sea Hag Facebook)
(Another Believer/CC BY 3.0)

Dive into karaoke

In case you haven't picked up on this by now, part of the fun of a Depoe Bay pub crawl is that you have to keep moving because the bars keep closing on you. The only place open after 10 pm—and so the dive that most deserves comparison to Wakonda's watering hole the Snag Saloon—is on the north end of town, and goes by several names. It used to be Wing Wa Restaurant. It's now identified as the Local Nook but also as the Sampan Lounge (330 N U.S. Highway 101, Depoe Bay)and anyway, it's the town's karaoke bar, with a thick songbook, bottles of Bud Light and all the local residents who want to belt songs until 2:30 am. If you are lucky, you will witness the arrival of a Depoe Bay cannabis-dispensary magnate making his entree around midnight in a two-piece suit patterned in neon-green marijuana leaves.


Eat breakfast with lumberjacks

Don’t fret about hitting the snooze button: On the road back to Portland, Camp 18 (42362 U.S. Highway 26, Elsie, 503-755-1818) keeps cinnamon rolls the size of a catcher’s mitt on the menu all day. (They’re $6.75, served with churned butter. Get one.)

(Aaron Mesh)

If the Forest Center is a company tribute to timber, Camp 18 is a hand-carved logger's monument. Part open-air machinery museum, part roadside souvenir shop and all chainsaw-sculpture garden, the life's work of lumberman Gordon Smith looks like a Twin Peaks scene deleted for being a little too Northwest. In the massive dining room, anchored by an 85-foot fir trunk, nearly everything but the (okay) food is made of lumber. A short stroll away is a memorial to loggers killed in the trees—the most recent in February 2016. "Men by nature," reads a newspaper obituary poem, "loggers by choice."


The Travelodge Depoe Bay
50 Bechill St., 541-765-7773

Runs about $108 a night, has three stories of balconies overlooking U.S. Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean, and is a perfectly acceptable Travelodge. It would be otherwise unremarkable if it weren’t located just one block south of the Local Nook—meaning that you can hear the strains of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” from the sidewalk outside and that your entire party can get singing drunk and walk back to bed. That is a rare luxury on the coast, where saloon visits otherwise require careful logistical planning and/or a designated driver.


Sometimes a Great Notion

How close do you want to get to the Stamper family—that hard-living, strike-busting, stepmother-screwing logging clan who defied the outside world from their "ancient two-story wood-frame house…like a two-story bird with split-shake feathers, sitting fierce in its tangled nest"? Because it is possible to spend the night in that very house, or at least the version of it used in the Newman movie. It sits on the south bank of the Siletz, and is now a vacation rental that can hold 16 people and in peak season starts at $597 a night. If that is how you want to spend the American dollars you earned with the sweat of your brow and the labor of your loins, then by God I'd like to see the man in this country who can stop you.


Coyote Rock RV Resort and Marina
676 Siletz Highway, Lincoln City, 541-996-6824
About 3 miles up the Siletz River from the coast, camping resorts start dotting the banks—rustic jobs filled with RVs and heavy moss, and about the only option for bedding down in timber country. Coyote Rock RV Resort and Marina (1676 Siletz Highway, Lincoln City, 541-996-6824) stands out by featuring six cabins on stilts, safely above flood levels and looking a little like houseboats with stairways. Each comes with a picnic table and a fire pit, and runs $46.20 a night. It’s not fancy, but you’re on the Wakonda.

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