Kooky Side of One Magical Oregon Coast Town
Oregon) - Sure, it’s not exactly the beach. Sure, it’s
not exactly a major tourist distraction along Highway 101 and the
north coast, as that road meanders inland amidst the lush, green
canopies and placid waters of Nehalem Bay. But the sleepy village
of Wheeler has its charms, largely because there doesn’t seem
to be much here.
Or is there?
a quirky, kooky side to this quaint and tiny place. Take a closer
look at the antique shops and some of the oddball impromptu events,
or go hunting for the hidden artist colony. Observe the local herbal
shop, Simple's Herbal Apothecary (503-368-4906), that doubles as
a state-run liquor store (target marketing doesn’t work here).
Check out the home on the town’s southern end that looks a
bit like a lighthouse, where you’ll sometimes see a faux speed
limit sign announcing odd numbers like “23 mph.” There’s
that wacky winery just outside town. And then what about that odd,
paranormal legend about what happens if you make a wish in Wheeler?
seriously popular pastime on the coast is antique shopping, and
on Wheeler’s waterfront lies what could be a kind of Mecca
for treasure hunters. The oddest, kitschiest things pop up at Wheeler
Station – and big, too. A giant horse-drawn sleigh, enormous
gas pumps or huge advertising signs have all made appearances (now
you know where neighborhood dive bars get their décor). You
may find a rounded, pseudo-futuristic TV sets from the 70’s,
or the child’s record player you had as a kid in the 60’s
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was until a few years ago one of two antique shops in town. The
other was Pieffenschneider, which for a time was also the liquor
store. But when that neighboring space became vacant, owners Sandy
and Pat Sandhagen knocked out the wall between the two. Now, at
some 10,000 square feet, Wheeler Station is a massive, meandering
labyrinth of various rooms, all crammed with collectibles of beauty
or varying degrees of chuckle-inducing kitsch.
Pat admits it’s
so big people really do get lost. “That’s why we have
the intercom,” she said. “We’ve had to use it
several times when some man was looking for his wife.” (503)
antiquing has become the town’s number one industry –
all six blocks worth of this town. Three others inhabit the tiny
town’s meager length, including Wheeler Antiques, which is
run by local historian and character Garry Gitzen. Inside, hidden
in the back, is a formidable historical library, bequeathed to him
by the former head of Tillamook County’s historical museum,
after he passed a few years back. Inside is a wealth of information
about the old Tillamook County, including paperwork on intense research
on Francis Drake’s possible roles to the area a few hundred
antique shop is Richfield Antiques. Here, kooky conversations often
pop up amongst the odd surprises lurking in this place. Like the
picture book about Michael Jackson – which is full of chuckles
and gossip possibilities, especially in light of his legal troubles
in recent years. (503) 368-3398.
these sidewalks and charming storefronts, with nearby Neahkahnie
Mountain reflected in the water, and you won’t notice that
something’s off at first. Like Ekhani Books (503-368-6881),
once an art gallery and curio stores which morphed into hawking
books – some of them quite rare. The fact you can purchase
an MBA for nine bucks is your first clue. This certificate, a “Master
of Beachcombing Arts,” comes complete with signatures from
“R. Sandy Shores” and Sir Francis Drake.
Ekhani owner Peg Miller
and her boyfriend Garry Gitzen epitomize the wacky sense of humor
you can find in this town. For years they hosted a variety of offbeat
events, from yearly ones like the Mermaid Festival to the monthly
Full Moon Party – an open mic free-for-all that was held at
Miller’s old store. At these, the wine poured freely and the
social mixing between locals and tourists was a constant kick in
pinnacle of zaniness in Wheeler tends to be with Miller and Gitzen,
and they know it, although they admit the town’s residents
in general seem to be fueled by an interesting, offbeat sense of
humor. “It’s an outgrowth of living on the beach,”
she said. “Being around the ocean all the time just gets your
brain thinking things other than the norm, like ‘what if there
really are creatures like mermaids living under there?’ ”
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first Mermaid Festival, the statue out front was dressed up in a
mermaid outfit. Inside, a six-foot woman wandered about in mermaid
garb. The next year, sea shanty singers from Washington and Idaho
joined the fray of poets, visual artists and other performers.
Now, the festival
and the Full Moon parties are gone, but someone always seems to
pick up the slack of wackiness eventually. For almost a year, a
pizzeria a couple doors down called Guido’s brought the silliness
entirely new standards. The managers, owners and employees there
were like a constant episode of “Seinfeld,” making people
laugh while building an enormous, fiercely devoted crowd. It sadly
closed its doors in summer of 2006 after too many disagreements
between co-owners, leaving a gaping hole in that town’s heart.
Still, the impromptu
gatherings in recent years seemed to really let fly the true colors
of Gitzen, Miller and Wheeler. One night not too long ago, Gitzen,
on a whim, dragged out an old movie projector and started projecting
oddball, B&W training films on the post office wall across the
street from Miller’s former hotel, Maggie’s Guestrooms.
Pretty soon, a party broke out with locals, visitors and entertainers
collecting in and around the store and above at the little B&B.
one stormy January weekend in 2005, a group of Portlanders and south
coast residents took over both Maggie’s Guestrooms and the
Wheeler Hotel, turning both places into a mad jam session and
festival of oddball creative outlets. Those working at the lodgings
still chuckle about the antics to this day.
Outside Old Wheeler Hotel
(888-4theview) is cryptically designated “Artisans Row.”
But where, you’re asking, are the artists, beyond the nearby,
arty Treasure Café or the wacky, multi-colored shops across
the way? Miller said some artists periodically have studios tucked
away in little, secretive places, like rooms in basements and such.
This population ebbs and flows over the years, but always adds a
new, funky dimension to this already colorful and offbeat little
place. You can, at times, visit these working artists’ studios,
but you must check with Ekahni Books to visit these or to see if
there really is anyone in residence at the time.
Wheeler lurk more surprises. In Manzanita, one of the most lively
and entertaining places to stay on the entire coast is San
Dune Inn (503-368-5163), with a host of surprising freebies
to choose from, like bikes and a variety of beach equipment,, and
a sense of humor and kooky fun that often makes for unforgettable
stays. There are numerous addicts to the unassuming little motel,
and some of the more regular guests become the targets of hilarious
pranks by management and employees – which in turn causes
them to return more often. This is a place with a bit of a cult.
nearby Nehalem, Wanda's Cafe & Bakery is more than a delicious,
rather innovative breakfast spot (it’s actually recently added
dinner on the weekends). Its décor is one wacky collection
of Americana knick-knacks, including dozens of old toasters. There’s
also a fish tank decorated like a TV set that’s labeled a
“telefishin,” with a dinosaur skeleton inside occasionally
moving its jaws. (503) 368-8100.
|Nehalem Bay at low tide
Just south of
Wheeler, there’s a whole hidden world of maritime fun at Jetty
Fishery. Highlights here include the annual Crab Derby – which,
among other prizes, includes a giveaway for a vasectomy. (503) 368-5746.
Bars on the
coast are always a hotbed of inadvertent humor, especially in northern
Tillamook County, where the semi-toothless contingents and coastal
characters gather to get truly goofy after the sun goes down. Add
to that the sometimes unnecessary sense of reckless abandon the
tourists feel when they mix alcohol with being out of town, and
you have a veritable circus of soused surrealism. You’re bound
to see chunks of this kind of amusing behavior at The San Dune Pub
in Manzanita, The Watering Hole in Nehalem and the quiet but cozy
Sea Shack in Wheeler.
the flagship of local nuttiness is at the Nehalem Bay Winery, just
two miles outside of Wheeler. Here, it resembles parts of France
or Germany’s Black Forest, sitting in the middle of lush pastures,
small mountains and thick forests. The winery even looks a bit like
an old, rustic European home from some angles. But inside the tasting
room, it’s tie-dye t-shirts over dress attire for employees.
The décor boasts everything from local history and comic
pictures to images of Ken Kesey scrawled on the walls.
After all, it’s
here where Kesey sometimes showed up to read his works, hang out
or just show off the Further bus. And it’s here where big
pig roasts and music festivals break the mold of most any winery
you’ll find in Oregon.
|The astounding "roof woof"
of the winery
spokesperson for the winery, said much of the winery’s unusual,
fun-filled approach comes from owner Ray Shackelford, a renowned
coastal character. “We wanted to be different and not look
like wine snobs. We just want to have a good time. We don’t
want to follow any rules. And the day we follow the rules, we’ll
be wondering what’s going on. That’s not the winery
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So, the good
times roll. Every Memorial Day features an increasingly high-profile
blues festival. June boasts a lot of reggae. Until 2001, Shackelford’s
Juneteenth Celebration featured classical music; now it’s
an ever-growing reggae festival. And every August brings an ambitious
bluegrass festival that in the past has snagged talents like David
Grisman, Laurie Lewis, Jim Hurst, Missy Raines and the Austin Lounge
Lizards. These and other festivals always feature a lot of families,
wandering dogs, food and much wine and beer. They’re like
the typical American family picnic, but slightly skewed if not occasionally
at the winery
Bay Winery is at 34965 Highway 53. 888-368-9463.
During the summer
months, the Oregon Coast Explorer train brings visitors around Tillamook
Bay and Nehalem Bay to the winery a few times a day. Stetzel said
some opt to forego the return route and stick around the winery.
Sometimes, just as in Wheeler, impromptu jam sessions erupt if musicians
are among the visitors. “All of a sudden, you’ve got
a crowd. There’s always a big surprise waiting.”
Surprises are de rigueur
in this community, it seems, tucked away behind the beauty of the
bay, the nearby beaches and the hiking possibilities.
African fun at
the winery in June
One aspect of
Wheeler that has increasingly caught the eye of the tourism media
is its startling legend of the “Wheeler Moment,” where,
if you make a wish, you just may find it happening. Or certainly,
hang about long enough and you’ll have strange coincidence
of some kind or another.
Manzanita and the bay
Don Campbell was in town this year to do a story on the Old Wheeler
Hotel, and heard a lot about the Wheeler Moment legend. During his
research, he had tow such odd coincidences where he ran into not
one – but TWO – long lost friends. One was a relative
of his wife from back east whom she had not seen in years.
Other locals talk of
an endless array of simply thinking about a problem needing solving,
and some oddly timed bit of serendipity happens where the answer
seems to just fall in their laps unexpectedly.
go on, and on, and on….(more
here on Wheeler Moments)
Miller, believes there is something different about Wheeler, a kooky
quality where it takes itself less seriously than even neighboring
Nehalem or Manzanita. “It’s in the water,” Stetzel
joked. “I think this area’s a magnet for people from
all walks of life. And with Wheeler’s little art community,
it’s a little offbeat. And that’s pretty cool.”