Sam McManis

Discoveries: Tilting reality in Oregon

Even travel writers have to go on vacation sometime, but I found time to stumble upon at least one important truth recently on a visit to one of our bordering principalities.

Namely, this: By no means does California have a stranglehold on funky roadside attractions.

Take Oregon, our wacky sitcom neighbor to the north. I saw hotel rooms built as tree houses in Takilma, a monkey in a diaper working at a burger joint in McMinneville, all sorts of oddities in Portlandia, including a museum, “The Peculiarium,” that certainly lives up to its name.

But what really caught my attention, got my Cali Pride all ruffled, was a billboard along Interstate 5 just outside Medford touting something called the “House of Mystery” at a “world famous” spot called the “Oregon Vortex.”

Uh, sorry. But I submit that our state is the undisputed leader in altered states of being and skewed perspectives, optical illusions that seemingly defy gravity and explanation. I mean, nothing has more magnetic appeal than the “Mystery Spot” in Santa Cruz, right? Every third car in Nor Cal on the road has a yellow bumper sticker slapped on the back, attesting to a pilgrimage into the realm of unexplained physics.

Indignant, I pulled off to visit this touted Vortex, set back from the highway in yet another tree-crowded Oregon foothill, to see just how inferior it would be.

Forty-five minutes later, I left humbled and thoroughly impressed by a fast-talking, polysyllabic-word-drenched presentation of so-called scientific phenomena that made the Santa Cruz site look like a middle-school science fair experiment by comparison.

I’m not saying I believe in all that talk of a “spherical field of force” whose magnetic lines result in phenomena like golf balls rolling uphill and one’s height growing or receding depending on where one stands. Professional debunkers, such as the SyFy Channel show “Fact or Faked,” have checked out the Vortex, dismissed some of the stunts as optical illusions but could not explain other phenomena, such as the height disparity and the screwy readings on compasses within the vortex zone.

But I didn’t come in the interest of science; I wanted to gauge degrees of entertainment value and good-old-fashioned roadside cheesiness. On both fronts, the Oregon Vortex scored off the charts.

A lot of it is in the presentation, and the family that runs the Vortex has not underestimated the public’s gullibility in the face of important-sounding and hard-to-follow scientific mumbo jumbo. First, they take your $12.50 at the gate, and then they take your incredulity by casually throwing out phrases like “obliquity of the ecliptic” and “magnetic declination,” while you nod like a bobble-headed doll because you don’t want to appear stupid.

Power of persuasion is strong here, almost as strong as the purported force field underground. The guy who hands you your ticket warns, slyly, that he hopes you aren’t prone to motion sickness, because this can be a vertigo-inducing adventure for some. And tacked onto the outside wall of the gift shop, across from the laminated photocopies of the scientific study done by English physicist (and original Vortex site owner) John Litster, is a quotation from noted scientist and inventor Charles F. Kettering: “We know practically nothing about anything.”

Seeds of susceptibility thus planted, visitors then are unleashed into the powerful linguistic vortex that is tour guide Lindy Brown. Talk about a force of nature. Used-car salesmen seem narcoleptic compared to her. She barely has time to breathe between sentences, rattling off facts about the Earth’s axis pliability of molecules, or some such thing, while whipping out one of those levels with the bubble in the middle to “prove” she’s on the level and then doing the roll the ball thing or having short-and-tall volunteers hold a pole over their heads and then switch places to see a stark height disparity. Nearly every sentence is punctuated with the interrogative, “OK?” or “right?” or “understand?” (Note: I’m omitting them, dear reader, to avoid annoying you.)

Brown first leads us to a tree in the “front yard” equidistant between the gift shop and the radically tilted old shack that serves as the center of the vortex. She did a quick vertigo check.

“Anybody feeling weird?” she chirped. “It’s hitting me today. I just ate lunch and with the heat, I’m not feeling so good. So the magnetic line runs along right here. If you’re not feeling well, you don’t want to stand right there. Some of you might start turning green. Other people, it doesn’t bother them at all. … I always get dizzy. A lady came up and she had a heart valve replacement, and she told me it was regurgitating as she stepped up here, meaning going backwards. She didn’t seem worried, you know. Some people feel the magnetic line in their bodies. Some people can walk across them and tell me where they’re at. Weird.”

Much of the next 10 minutes are spent explaining the geologic phenomena. We’re asked to absorb a lot of information, and I can see eyes glazing over, so Brown tries to simplify.

“Things are weird here,” she said. “The vortex is a acre to half-acre that expands and contracts and it has the shape of a hurricane. The center is calm, right outside the center is strongest and then it gets weaker and weaker. The center is right outside here, where we are at is the strongest point. The phenomena is created because of the magnetic lines running through here. Instead of being straight, they are curved. Magnetic lines move all the time. So that means when they’re moving, they’ll have areas a lot closer together, areas with a larger gap than if you just had two straight lines. That’s why the energy is different. That’s why you’ll appear taller on a level platform on one side and shorter on the other.”

Perhaps sensing the visual will work better than the verbal, Brown then calls up a kid from the crowd and an adult with a significant height difference. She places the level on a wooden beam to “prove” that the board is not slanted, then has the kid and adult stand on each side with a pole atop their heads. The adult’s a good 6 inches taller, and the pole angles down toward the kid. Ah, but then they switch sides, and the kid is just as tall as the adult.

Somebody in the crowd actually gasps. What is the name of David Copperfield is going on?

“Wait until I show you how you change height without even moving on the platform,” Brown promises. “You know, I had identical twins up here once, and their parents could tell a (height) difference. They were blown away because they didn’t look the same anymore.”

One man in the crowd pressed for an explanation – there’s always one, huh? – and Brown went deep into Litster’s research.

“He corresponded with Einstein and came up with this theory,” she said, increasing speed of delivery as at the end of the TV prescription drug commercial. “It’s called the theory of mass change. It’s about density. Take a sponge and squeeze it down, it appears to be smaller but it really is the same sized sponge. On this side of the platform, I look smaller because my molecules are a little more tightly composed. Walking to the other side, like letting that sponge out, it’s going to be larger looking. But it really is the same.”

We follow, lemminglike, into the “house,” the former gold mining assay office from olden times that is at an extreme angle due to a mudslide. Brown stands on a level platform and is leaning forward like Leonardo DiCaprio at the prow of the Titantic. She encourages us to take photos. She balances a broom on the floor and it tilts left, rather than stand up straight. The golf ball is rolled seemingly downhill, but rolls back uphill in “gravity-defying” swiftness.

At this point, I wasn’t in danger of motion sickness, but I did experience a feeling of déjà vu. Then, it struck me: The shack looked just like the slanted shack at the Santa Cruz site. My incredulity returned from the dormant stage, and I pulled Brown aside, and mentioned the Santa Cruz “coincidence.” She barely batted an eyelash.

“Yes, that’s a true vortex, too,” she said of Santa Cruz’s site. “John Litster built their house for them. He took the specs of this house down to them and built theirs. … There are a lot of vortexes, but there are a lot of people who just build a house and say it’s a vortex. There are 400 replicas of this house all over the world. Some are in fun parks. There was one in Knott’s Berry Farm. Those obviously aren’t real vortexes. Santa Cruz is a true vortex, but not as strong as here. There are vortexes all over the place. There’s one by Mount Rushmore, one by the Pyramids. The Bermuda Triangle is a vortex. In Europe, they call them lay lines, not vortexes. You know …”

She continued on for some minutes, bludgeoning me with facts and fancy terms. I feared I’d be caught in this vortex all day. I eventually was able to disengage. A trip farther north to “The Peculiarium” suddenly didn’t seem so strange.