WHEELER, Ore. – The tiny town of Wheeler sits just a tad off the Oregon coast: a six-block-long bit of old Americana that seems rather unremarkable to those passing between Rockaway Beach and the beaches of Manzanita. It’s not really the coast, after all. So why bother, right?
It is, if you manage to experience this for yourself, Oregon’s own version of the ABC show “LOST.”
For those who are addicted to “LOST,” however, Wheeler and the Nehalem Bay towns of Manzanita and Nehalem provide a strangely pleasant, paranormal parallel to that mysterious island where Jack, Locke, Hurley and “the others” have captured our imaginations for the last few years.
Between its many legends of spirits, hauntings, a strange penchant for mind-boggling coincidences and people who are interconnected in startling ways, the bay area has some striking similarities to that freaky island on TV.
It’s loads of fun for the LOST fan – or the seasonal paranormal hunter.
Now, you won’t find any black smoke monster or “time traveling bunnies’ (yeah you LOST addicts know what I mean), but there are plenty of other striking similarities.
Remember how early on in the show Jack spotted what appeared to be the ghost of his father? Or Locke’s constant encounters with one kind of deceased person or another? Or the flash-forwards of Hurley chatting with dead members of the castaways?
The big difference between the spirits in LOST and the haunted legends of Wheeler is that they don’t seem to be trying to tell you anything – and they’re mostly just that: legends of ghosts.
First, check out the Nehalem Bay Winery (Highway 53, about a mile from the 101 junction).
Employees there claim the place is haunted by what appears to be more than one ghost.
While owner Ray Shackelford simply scoffs at the idea, manager Melissa Stetzel says she’s encountered things like a door suddenly open, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw something mysterious dart out. She and employee Angi Wildt have also heard things happen with creaking floors and feeling something nearby, or catching brief glimpses of some mysterious wisp of light.
A ghost hunting group from McMinnville scoured it last year and didn’t come up with anything on their recording equipment, but some investigators said they heard a woman’s voice say “kill me” over and over, which they believed to be spirits in a kind of temporal loop of the afterlife.
Now, that’s somewhat reminiscent of LOST.
At the north end of Wheeler, locals say a woman obtained state permits in the 90’s to actually burn down her own house. The reason: she believed it to be haunted by spirits of native children who were burned to death on that spot. She refuses to let anything be built on that land today, say locals.
The Sea Shack, according to some employees, has something that goes bump in the night in the upstairs area, which is only used for special events.
Then there’s Old Wheeler Hotel, which owners Winston Laszlo and Maranne Doyle-Laszlo say apparently has a set of spirits which seemed to fight them when they first began remodeling the dilapidated building into the lovely little glory it is today.
For the first half the construction, almost a year, one bizarre thing went wrong after another - a constant stream of construction disasters, which even included a window blowing out in a storm. This almost never happens on the rugged Oregon coast.
Then, mysteriously, the pitfalls ended, and the next few months were smooth sailing for the rebuild. The Laszlo’s say it was as if they suddenly passed the judgment of the building itself.
Later, after the hotel opened, some ghost tales popped up, even though the Laszlo’s maintain they don’t believe in such stuff.
Some came from guests; the most memorable one from Winston. He said he was in the guest lounge, and he happened to glance into the mirror and see a man sitting on the couch there, someone he didn’t recognize as a guest. He turned to look at the couch itself – and no one was there.
Local resident Amy Dunlap was familiar with the building as she was growing up. Her family sold the Laszlo’s the building around 2000. She was so spooked by it she refused to go in there.
While the running theme of spirits is a big aspect of LOST, it’s those freaky coincidences and people interconnected in always surprising ways that play a major part. You remember the “magic box” (as Locke called it), where people and things can just appear? There’s even something reminiscent of that in the Nehalem Bay.
Locals call it the “Wheeler Moment:” a bizarre, yet thoroughly pleasant way the area has of providing startling coincidences, even granting wishes. It’s like serendipity on steroids.
Peg Miller, owner of Ekahni Books in Manzanita, calls the area a “spiritual vortex lite.”
“You’re thinking about something, or needing something, and it just sort of appears,” Miller said.
She described one example of a Wheeler Moment, back when she had a B&B in Wheeler.
“I had just discovered a leak,” Miller said. “And I was wondering what I was going to do. Then I was interrupted by the doorbell of the B&B, and there was a guest at the door. During registration, I mentioned I had this leak to deal with, and it turned out he was a plumber.”
The man helped her repair it and became her regular plumber after that.
The list of these goes on and on. But a few more examples are:
Wheeler Moments can have their “omen” aspects, just as the coincidences on LOST do. Phil Kaufmann, co-owner of Pizza Garden in Nehalem, talks of one local couple who were ogling a house for a while in the area. They suddenly noticed a telephone pole in front of the home had a heart scratched into it with initials the same as their own. They took it as a sign and bought it.
The Laszlo’s first introduction to Wheeler was cheerfully LOST-like. The pair, originally from Colorado, stumbled on the town while on a yearlong RV trip around the country.
“We always said wherever we ended up, it had to be ‘within walking distance of an espresso coffee shop and a fabric store,’ ” Laszlo said. “When we finally started to consider buying the Old Wheeler Hotel, those words came rushing back to us as we suddenly realized that the only two existing tenants of the building were an espresso coffee shop and a fabric store.”
Back during Miller’s B&B days, one day she was having trouble with the latch on a thousand-dollar bracelet. As she complained to one guest, it turned out he was a jeweler and fixed it.
Lynn, the owner of Garbo’s, a vintage clothing store in Wheeler, told me recently about a local woman who sometimes performs in a kind of Patsy Cline tribute act. One day, Lynn was listening to the radio, and a Patsy Cline song came on – on a very unlikely radio station, she said. It was quite out of the ordinary for them to play that kind of music. During the song, the woman from the Cline act walked in.
Then there’s that whole LOST aspect of people being connected without knowing, or bumping into someone you met in your past. Remember how Jack realized he’d met Desmond years ago while they were jogging in a stadium? Or in the last season, the new character – Charlotte - who realizes she was apparently born on the wacko island, and already connected to the place?
Wheeler Moments have been noticed by other journalists in such a way.
Writer Don Campbell did a story on the area for a magazine in the Gorge two years ago. He and his wife stayed bumped into a cousin of hers they hadn’t seen in years – in tiny, out of the way Wheeler.
Laszlo tells of another hotel guest who was sitting in the coffee shop below and ran into a cousin she hadn’t seen in 11 years.
Then, there was the truly weird ancestral family connection to Wheeler the Laszlo’s discovered one day. Laszlo’s sister-in-law realized that her aunt had visited the building decades ago from another state, back when it was a clinic for the treatment of arthritis. It also turned out the aunt’s in-laws owned the building at the time.
Looking for the magic box aspect of the Nehalem Bay? Try this one:
Writer Jenny Cunningham, in the September issue of Sunset Magazine, wrote about a kayak trip on the bay that didn’t yield the sunset she was hoping for. So, she said out loud what she needed was to at least see a seal. Just then, a small seal poked its head up. She had just had her own Wheeler Moment.
Laszlo and Miller’s boyfriend Garry Gitzen were among the first to coin the phrase after noticing the high degree of coincidences in this tiny place.
“I'd say that the ‘Wheeler Moment’ is the result of some sort of spiritual vortex that apparently exists in this little corner of the Oregon coast,” Laszlo said. “It seems that the vortex - or whatever it is – causes wishes and visions to become manifest at a higher than normal frequency here.
“I believe ‘funky coincidences’ occur all the time. It's just that apparently that property of nature is stronger around here. The phenomenon occurs here at a much higher frequency - and at a higher speed - than elsewhere. Whether it has to do with the geography of the area, or the meteorology, or maybe even the human history, it is something that you have to experience for yourself.”
Personally: I live part time in Manzanita, but mostly in Portland. I don’t believe in ghosts and such, but I can verify something trippy is happening with the Wheeler Moment. I have dozens of personal tales to tell. And they don’t happen to me while in Portland.
Is something truly paranormal going on here in Wheeler and Manzanita? Or perhaps is it just that everyone has a little more time on their hands to contemplate the finer points of everyday coincidences?
You’ll never know unless you head out to the bay area yourself. And don’t forget to make a wish while you’re there. You may be surprised.
Andre' Hagestedt is the editor of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, a travel news and entertainment Web site about the upper half of Oregon’s coast. He has been a journalist for nearly 15 years, having been employed at or written for a variety of media organizations throughout the Northwest. He lives in Portland and in Manzanita part time, and admits he is "so obsessed with the Oregon coast that it's ready to take a restraining order out on him." He is also the editor of TravelParanormal.com.