Monday, July 3, 2017


On the road from the Jackson Hole Writers Conference

Early in my college career, I enrolled in “California Geography,” a class taught by Dr. David Lantis.  In speaking of highway corridors, he referred to some bergs at GEMs, his acronym of “Gas, Eats, and Motel.”  We’ve all seen ‘em.

We’ve also seen ghost towns.

Thirty-five years ago, I was traveling north toward Spokane, Washington on US 395 on a 1981 BMW R-65 motorcycle.  The 650cc Beemer was my first foray straddling anything that could do distance in relative comfort.  The rub, I soon found out, related to fuel capacity.  Although the little machine returned good economy, when crossing the high sage desert, one didn’t want to pass a gas station.  Fortunately, just after the amber idiot light illuminated indicating low fuel, I rolled into Wagontire, Oregon.  Leaving a ten on the counter of the café/store, I pumped about four gallons of regular (all they offered there) and went in to retrieve my change.

Last week, I rolled through Wagontire again.  Good thing I wasn’t running short of fuel on the big T-Bird.

Ghost towns like Calico, Bodie, Paxton or Twain CA, I usually associate with the bust that follows some sort of a boom – the decline after the gold or silver plays out, the movement of railroad construction further down the line, or a slump in the timber industry.  Maybe prolonged drought.  I also figure that ghost towns haven’t been real towns with bars, schools, churches and residents for well over a hundred years.

But what about Wagontire?  I clearly remember when I could get fuel, get fed and get a night’s rest in this used-to-be GEM. On this day, however, after I pulled off to stretch my legs and rest my bum, the highlighted activity of the moment was a ball of sage slowly rolling across the highway pushed by a light southwesterly breeze.

It had been 28 miles since I’d turned south on 395 at Riley and it would be another 84 until I got to Lakeview.  The first half of that 112-mile run would be through high sage desert rolling over slight undulations and across ancient playas.  The latter half, along the Albert Rim would be more scenic, but there wasn’t going to be any gas.

I’m not sure what might have kept Wagontire afloat during its halcyon years.  Given that a wagon tire is that steel rim placed on a spoked wooden wheel attached to a buckboard’s axle, I suspect the site dates back to the days of horses and buggy whips. 

Perhaps they ran cattle in these parts. 

Maybe it was a jumping off point for some high desert hunting.  There is evidence, after all of a one-time landing strip. 

Maybe it simply served as a little resort for those seeking solitude in the middle of nowhere.  A strong argument could be made that Wagontire is the middle of nowhere.

I figure that since modern transportation allows that a hundred-plus-mile gap between filling stations is nothing of concern, Wagontire now crumbles and dissolves into the desert floor.

Among the mental games I play when riding through an at-one-time-somewhere is imagining what life was like in the day.  Heading south on 395, the Wagontire words that came to mind were open space, fresh air, sage (of course), peace, solitude and starry nights.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

But as I ride south toward home, the sage, solitude and presumed starry nights of this once-necessary GEM continue to intrigue me.

© 2017
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. The wikipedia article has a small amount of additional info. Airplanes would taxi from the airstrip across the highway to the gas-station for fuel....

  2. I never heard of Wagontire before reading this post, and I was born in Oregon. Go figure. Always learning something, thank you.