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Darsi Garry of Clackamas stands opposite Mike Hurtadu

Oregon Vortex oddly enjoyable

Story and photos by Jennifer Margulis

We’d passed the enormous sign on Interstate 5 dozens of times before finally deciding to visit the Oregon Vortex/House of Mystery in Gold Hill. My kids and I were heading to the coast, and the tourist attraction offered a chance to get out and stretch our legs 45 minutes (and lots of fussing) into our trip.

Following the signs from I-5, we drove a few miles past forest and dilapidated houses to a circular area, only 3/4 of an acre altogether. The area is known as the Oregon Vortex and inside it is the mystery house itself, an old mining shed that now appears half stuck in the earth. Gold was discovered nearby, in Sardine Creek, in 1854.

It was raining lightly on the cool spring day we visited. But that didn’t stop tourists from pulling up, eager to see an attraction that is billed as one of the world’s most mysterious natural wonders. Seventeen people came on our 45-minute tour. According to general manager Maria Cooper, attendance swells in summer, with 25-30 people in each tour group.

So what exactly is the Oregon Vortex? It’s a strange, uneven place where weird things happen. Our guide, Mark Cooper, began by telling us that Native Americans called the area the Forbidden Ground. Their horses refused to enter it, and the Native Americans themselves avoided the place.

Cooper also pointed out that although we were in a wooded area with a stream running through it, there were no birds, no deer, no animals except us humans who had paid $8.50 for adults, and $6.50 for kids (children five and under are free).

Once inside the Vortex, your senses get knocked off balance. There are a number of unexplained phenomena that happen within the line of demarcation. Nobody is sure why it looks like golf balls are rolling uphill or why, when two people of different heights change places on level ground, one suddenly seems to grow taller.

Many theories have been offered, including the idea that the Vortex acts as a huge lens and as light enters the area it tends to bend, refract or distort, causing it to travel in a circular motion rather than a straight line.

John Lister, a geologist and physicist (and canny businessman) studied the phenomena in the 1920s and first opened the area to the public in the 1930s. It has since caught the attention of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” the Japanese media, and television’s “The X-Files.”

Albert Einstein corresponded with John Lister and proposed the Mass Change Theory — that a mass increase and decrease occurs in the Vortex. Like a sponge, you condense (and get physically shorter and smaller) when you go toward the magnetic North, and when you go toward the magnetic south you expand and get taller.

“The effects change hour to hour, minute to minute,” said Cooper as he showed our group various bizarre phenomena. He added that it is not just an optical illusion.

— — — — Tour guide Mark Cooper stands in front of the famous House of Mystery.

(A later call to Southern Oregon University found no physics department faculty members who wanted to discuss the questions raised by the Vortex.)

Throughout the tour Mark Cooper asked for volunteers from the audience. “Make me taller!” cried one man, Mike Hurtadu of Klamath Falls, as he stepped forward to stand opposite Darsi Garry of Clackamas, Oregon. Maybe the spirits were listening? When they switched places his height had changed noticeably.

“It’s just weird,” said Garry, who remembered coming to the Oregon Vortex when she was seven or eight years old and wanted to revisit the place with her children. “It’s wild,” she added.

My ears started ringing, my head ached and my chest felt heavy, especially inside the House of Mystery itself, which has a precipitously slanted floor. The feeling went away as soon as we were back in the parking lot. Various people are affected differently, said Maria Cooper. She added, “It has a lot to do with our own sensitivity.”

I found the Oregon Vortex/House of Mystery very interesting, despite its touristy nature, and worth a stop if you are in the area. Its worst features were a set of terribly smelly Port-a-Potties and a kitschy gift shop.

My 6-year-old found the tour fascinating. My 5-year-old got a little bored. My 2-year-old wailed “mine!” and insisted he be allowed to take home the seeming-to-roll-uphill golf ball. It would be great if the place offered more hands-on activities for small children. But the “Don’t Climb This Tree” and “Stay Out” signs on the premises suggest that other antsy little ones have found creative — if verboten — ways to pass the time.