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Oregon Vortex coronavirus woes a sign of the times

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Now in its 90th year, the Oregon Vortex has weathered the Great Depression and World War II.

The oddball roadside attraction outside Gold Hill in Southern Oregon is now hoping to survive another storm — the COVID-19 pandemic.

Business Manager Elena Cooper made the tough call to temporarily shutter the Oregon Vortex, which had just opened for the season March 1 with plans to attract tourists through the end of October. Like many small-business people across the state and country who’ve closed their doors, she’s not sure when it will be safe to reopen.

“I’m not going to let the Vortex stop on its 90th year,” Cooper vowed. “We have been here for far too long for this to beat us. But it’s going to be tight — and it’s going to be really rough on our employees.”

This week, the sharply tilted House of Mystery built on a steep slope at the Oregon Vortex stands empty. Crowds aren’t battling dizziness and vertigo as they stand on the angled floorboards. They aren’t puzzling over a broom standing up on its own, or looking out crooked windows and doors.

Kids aren’t staring wide-eyed as a golf ball rolls down a ramp, then reverses course and seems to roll back uphill.

Instead, the sound of a gurgling creek, blue jays and wild turkeys are the only sounds amid the towering Ponderosa pines, oaks and smooth-trunked madrones.

Tourists aren’t visiting the gift shop and sticking pins in a global map to mark their home towns in Oregon, Washington, New York, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Peru, Italy, Russia, Australia or China — where the COVID-19 virus first made the jump from animals to humans.

The profusion of pins that sprouted on the map in just two weeks of operations before Cooper closed down this month is exactly why she believes she made the right decision.

People from around the world stop at the Oregon Vortex. They bunch together in groups listening to tour guides, run their hands along guard rails and handle merchandise and cash in the gift shop. Kids wipe their runny noses, and grandparents click snapshots. Then they all continue on their road trips — carrying any viruses they picked up along with their souvenirs.

Meanwhile, Oregon health officials have canceled school, banned large public events, ordered restaurant dining rooms to close, urged people to stay several feet away from each other and cautioned the elderly and other vulnerable people to remain at home.

Cooper said there was no way to protect the health of tourists visiting the Oregon Vortex and the employees working there.

“If everyone’s supposed to hunker down and stay put, we should not be encouraging people to do the opposite,” Cooper said. “That’s not ethically sound.”

In the last days before the Vortex’s temporary closure, Cooper said some visitors urged her to stay open, saying the coronavirus pandemic was nothing but a hoax engineered for political gain.

Cooper said that attitude was even more frightening than the drop-off in visitors. It meant some people weren’t taking the threat seriously — and were putting themselves and others in danger.

Although Cooper said she believes closing was the right thing to do from a moral and health perspective, it was a hard financial decision.

Like many tourism-dependent businesses, the Oregon Vortex relies on a rush of visitors during spring break in March to help make up for the winter months. Spring break helps the Vortex limp along, paying bills and employees, until the real tourist season starts in the summer.

“I know for every single tourist attraction in the valley, that’s the first big money-maker of the year,” Cooper said.

Assistant business manager and maintenance head Josh Paulson said he and other employees are still reeling from the abrupt closure of the Oregon Vortex.

“It’s definitely a bit shocking. I know a lot of the employees that work here, they get a sense of family and a real sense of community here. So it’s not just a job. It’s like you’re losing a bit of your family,” Paulson said.

For many employees, working part-time, seasonal jobs at the Vortex is the perfect fit. The attraction employs 15 people during peak operations.

Some are students and teachers looking for summer work. Others are single parents who can only work a few days per week. One worker is on kidney dialysis and needs time for medical appointments, Cooper said.

“I’ve got a number of people who are not in the best financial circumstances,” she said.

Paulson said workers enjoy seeing tourists experience the mystery of the Oregon Vortex. Generations of travelers have come through the attraction.

“A lot of times, people are coming here to rekindle an old memory. I’ve had people come out here who are older couples who had their first date here in the ’60s and ’70s. They’re trying to rekindle that feeling,” Paulson said.

Many times, parents and grandparents who visited the Oregon Vortex as children want to create new memories for their own kids or grandchildren.

“It’s definitely a special place. It kind of hurts not to have those people coming through and not to be able to share the magic of the area with them,” Paulson said.

Cooper said there is usually one oddity at the Oregon Vortex that sticks with people, even if they forget everything else about the place or even where it is. Seeing a golf ball appear to roll uphill might stick in a 2-year-old’s mind, for example.

“You know that’s going to be one of those memories that’s like, ‘I don’t know where I was. I don’t know what I was doing. But I remember this golf ball rolling back uphill toward me.’ That’s the flash memory I have from being a toddler,” Cooper said.

Reactions to the Vortex vary widely.

The House of Mystery was built by the Old Grey Mining Company in 1904 for use as an assay office to test the purity of mined metals. It was later used for tool storage.

The site was turned into a tourist attraction by geologist, mining engineer and physicist John Litster and opened to the public in 1930. Cooper’s mother-in-law now owns the Oregon Vortex.

Called tourist traps by some and mystery spots by others, crooked houses popped up across the country in the 1930s. While some promoters say they defy the laws of physics, skeptics say they rely on optical illusions to fool onlookers.

These days, online reviews run the gamut, with some calling the Oregon Vortex an overpriced, boring scam and others voicing amazement at what they’ve seen. Kids under 5 get in for free, but adults ages 12-61 have to pay $13.75.

One reviewer chastised those who complain about the attraction. She called it a simple roadside attraction that is a refreshing change from today’s fast-paced world.

“It’s certainly not a roller coaster ride through a black hole, but duh? It’s supposed to be a campy experience. If you embrace it, you’ll have a blast,” Mary from Beverly Hills, California, wrote on Yelp.

Cooper said some visitors go all-in on the experience.

Some see the Oregon Vortex as a physics puzzle and want to expound on string theory. Others see it as a spiritual place and treat visits like a pilgrimage. One woman said the House of Mystery was the gateway to heaven.

“I get to meet fascinating people with really interesting perspectives on life and I get their stories,” Cooper said.

The Oregon Vortex is also the retail hub for a diverse cast of Southern Oregon artisans who sell their wares at the gift shop. Shannon King, a working mom, makes earrings and medallion necklaces to express her artistic side. “Bob the Bearstick Guy” crafts hand-carved walking sticks with wood inlays and grips made from wrapped parachute cord. Clint Richie copes with his PTSD by carving the faces of mysterious mountain men into wood knots.

“I’ve actually watched the faces get happier over the years,” Cooper said of the figurines’ expressions.

Other souvenirs come from further away. Cooper ordered $4,000 worth of magic wands made out of amethyst, rose quartz, lapis lazuli and other minerals from a Canadian company. With no way to sell the wands for now, Cooper is asking the company if it will accept a delayed payment or smaller payments over time.

Paulson said the financial hit will be worth it if business and school closures can help slow the spread of a virus that is proving deadly to thousands across the world.

“We’re all being affected economically right now. But economics is one thing,” he said. “The loss of human life is totally another. People are going to feel that. We’ve already had people die in this country. So I don’t know. It’s a weird time. It’s definitely a weird time.”

As Cooper prepares to go on unemployment for the first time in her life, she said she’s trying to take a long view while facing the challenges of the weeks or months ahead.

The Oregon Vortex ultimately may have to stay closed for all of what would have been its 90th season.

But Cooper wants the roadside curiosity to make it through to its centennial.

“One way or another, I’m going to find a way to make sure this place stays so we can hit 100,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

The Oregon Vortex sign at the corner of Highway 99 and Sardine Creek Road near Gold Hill.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Elena Cooper watches as a broom stands alone in the House of Mystery at The Oregon Vortex Tuesday morning.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune