Pro tip: carry your own music, preferably on your phone and on a pen drive. That’s because the distances are vast, and radio in America, outside the cities at least, is interesting. Not that you don’t get a choice. You get to choose between Jesus, country music, I-want-to-rock-with-Jesus, dog-died-girlfriend-broke-up-with-you (or vice versa) country music, asking for money on behalf of Jesus, or news about who’s been shot where in the world, the last delivered with particular relish. Oh, and Jesus.
You have plenty of time for spiritual nourishment along the way, because, unless you’ve planned this early and booked a room at Crater Lake Lodge, you’ll have to stay miles away. The only room we’ve found is in not-especially-charming Medford, which is a two-hour drive from Crater Lake.
Each way. I’m so sorry about this. The good news is, Crater Lake is gorgeous. It’s snowed here, and there are still sheets of white on each side of the ridge road, and the views, even away from the lake, are Grade A. Again, a little discomfort makes for greatness: stay past sunset, when the other visitors are gone, and you’ll be rewarded with a sky, a lake and a moon that would have the head of Windows Wallpapers weeping with joy.
With a very crisp wind tweaking your nose, the moon glowing off the water and the snow, you feel like you’re in a movie. You almost expect wolves to howl, and you realise just how stunning this country can be. Even with only a sandwich for dinner and a two-hour drive back, you feel pretty lucky to be here. Oregon, indeed the whole of the Pacific Northwest, is supposed to be permanently rainy, but either we’re lucky, or lots of people are liars, because we have nothing but sun all the way down to the coast, where the views of the sea are blocked by truly enormous dunes. But that’s fine, because it’s the dunes we’ve come to see at Coos Bay. Or rather, to sputter up and down them on ATVs.
This is huge, huge fun, available in sizes from junior ATV to a sexy-looking dune buggy, or a modded Wrangler for dune- bashing tours. Even if you’re a natural coward like me and don’t want to launch yourself off a 100ft dune, you can still have a great time among the lesser slopes, dodging tussocks of grass and pretending, in your faceless helmet, that you’re a henchman in an action movie (all you need is a submachine gun, zero aiming ability and a comical manner of death). You get a decent safety briefing, all kinds of dire warnings, and yet, Hashim manages to do exactly what we’ve been told not to, and almost flips his ATV going up a slope. There’s just no hope for some people. Coos Bay is lovely.
After the strip-mall, checked-shirt sameness of the inland towns, this feels like being back in the America you know: it’s relaxed, and, in Sharkbite’s Seafood Cafe, the food is excellent salads and fish, there’s even a gay bartender. In shorts! This is a likeable, good-looking place, liberal and great fun.
Our inn, the Old Tower House, is right out of Enid Blyton, down to the curly-haired labradoodle who wants you to chase him round the garden. I can’t decide what to take home: the dog, the tiny, adorable cottage we’re put up in, or our fellow guests, an elderly and gracious Jewish couple whom we talk with for about two hours over breakfast. There’s a feeling of great contentment about our stay here – that’s the best way I can put it. Just a couple of hundred miles of driving (at one point past a volcanic landscape of black stones that looks like Mordor’s holiday park) takes you to Bend.
And you need time here. First, to soak in the many, many craft breweries here. And then, having handed the keys to the designated driver, to head up towards the immense peace of Mt Bachelor, through jaw-dropping countryside. First, there’s the surprise of being in a high-altitude desert, with succulents growing out of red sand. Big, big skies.
The feeling that this part of the USA was explicitly designed for horses. Then, as you climb, the dryness gives way to the typical eeriness of a wetland, loons and deer crying mournfully into the wind, the only sounds around. Then there’s the moon, rising over blue-and-white mountains. The soft swish of an angler fishing in a stream, a very lonely figure against a darkening sky. A rising chill that seems to cut through your jacket and makes you realise why being home by sunset is such a big thing. You feel, in a very tiny way, what it must have been like to be one of the first Europeans coming this far west, facing a land that seems to never end, never lose its wildness, and you feel just a little shiver down your spine.