Chasing Shakespeare: An Elizabethan Tour of the American West

The roads around Ashland, Oregon, offer up fantastic riding. (Photos by the author)

The Plan “…then begins a journey in my head…” (Sonnet 27)

Bourbon and conversation, biscuits and gravy, movies and popcorn–some things just seem to go together. Having always enjoyed a good pairing of my favorite things, I conjure up a plan to unite two seemingly disparate personal obsessions into one fine journey. It’ll be a comingling of Shakespeare and motorcycles. Read on knave, and discover the wisdom in my folly.

The two preeminent Shakespearean festivals in the western U.S. (and arguably in the nation) are the ones staged annually in Ashland, Oregon, and Cedar City, Utah. Further, the small cities are central to two of the West’s most beautiful regions and are linked by miles of great riding. Clearly you can see that my combination of the bard and the bike is not so dichotomous after all.

The beautiful Allen Theatre is a cornerstone of Ashland.

On Oregon “The fields are fragrant and the woods are green” (Titus Andronicus)

I begin my renaissance ride in the green vibrancy that is southern Oregon. Ashland sits at the heart of the region and provides its artistic and educational lifeblood. The town and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival coexist so harmoniously that it’s impossible to separate them. There is little doubt why the festival attracts thousands of theater-lovers every summer.

For the motorcyclist, the roads emanating from Ashland are a wonderfully varied array of winding tarmac ribbons that offer up grassland vistas dotted with oak trees to the east, and thick evergreen forests to the west. There are many tantalizing roads available in the area, and I sample two on the day before the evening play. I venture out and back on Oregon State Route 66 (aka the Green Springs Highway) from Ashland toward Klamath Falls in the morning, and in the afternoon, I take a ride on State Route 227, which loops north of the city. Both roads offer a fine mix of curves and amazingly sparse traffic. In the end, you really can’t miss no matter which roads you sample in this region of the Pacific Northwest.

A view of Emigrant Lake just off Oregon’s State Route 66.

After a day spent rolling through the hills of southern Oregon, I pull off the riding gear and shower away the patina of the road at the delightful Manor Motel in Ashland. It’s time for a visit with the Melancholy Dane in the impressive Allen Elizabethan Theater. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s version of Hamlet proves to be a raucous, heavy-metal laced and thoroughly enjoyable retooling of the iconic Shakespearean tragedy. Six hours of riding followed by three hours of Hamlet spells the end of my Ashland day. After a night’s sleep at the Manor, I’ll head southeast to Cedar City.

The Manor Motel in Ashland, Oregon.

The Road Between Festivals “Call it a travel that thou takest for pleasure.” (Richard II)

It’s roughly 815 riding miles from Ashland to Cedar City. That’s almost identical to the full roadway distance of Shakespeare’s Great Britain from north to south. Coincidence? I think not. Four states and lots of wide open spaces grace my traced roadmap between the festivals, so my pre-ride preparation has included careful fuel location and lodging research.

The ride begins as a southward jaunt on Interstate 5. I must say that if you have to spend time on a freeway, this stretch that spans southern Oregon and northern California is among the best you’ll find. It has enough curvature to keep it from being tedious and the forested mountains are a visual treat. After leaving the Interstate, I pass through the evergreens on California State Routes 89 and 44. A large part of the ride sits within sight of the impressive Mount Shasta and on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. The road is well-paved and the sweeping corners lead through forests and grasslands, and past mountain reservoirs.

Mount Shasta was an imposing and beautiful presence for much of the California portion of the ride.

As I enter Nevada through Reno, the terrain begins to morph from the emerald greens of the Pacific Northwest, to the muted and expansive browns of the Southwest. When I make it to U.S. Route 50, it becomes clear why it has earned the moniker “The Loneliest Road in America.” Lonely, yes – but I find U.S. 50 to be intriguing on a grand scale. I roll by miles of salt flats, beside sand dunes and through burnt red mountains of rock. There are long stretches of straight road, but it becomes increasingly curvy the farther east I ride. At a subtly marked intersection, I take a turn on a portion of the old U.S. 50, now called State Route 722, into a scenic and winding mountain pass. Even after hours in the saddle, this last leg of the ride is a blast.

After 450 miles, I have ridden through forests, mountains and deserts, and I am beat. Like Shakespeare, “…I seek my weary travel’s end…”, and I am ready to call it a day. In my pre-trip Internet research, I found a bed and breakfast that sits near the isolated town of Austin, Nevada. The B & B rests in the middle of the Nevada desert and is (wait for it) built in the form of a castle. In keeping with the theme of this ride, I had to book a room. It is an odd view as I roll up to the incongruous visage off of Route 722, but the stay is delightful. There is even a full-sized, armored knight guarding the formal dining room.

The Paradise Ranch Castle Bed & Breakfast in Austin, Nevada.

After a good night’s sleep, I am ready to make the final leg of the journey to Cedar City. The miles east of Austin are some of the best that this portion of the Loneliest Road has to offer. I roll through sweeping curves lined with juniper trees. Stretches of curves linked by panoramic straights are the rule on the remainder of my ride on U.S. 50.

My ride takes a beautiful southern turn on U.S. Route 93, which carries the official Nevada designation of “Scenic Route.” The highway is a long, relaxing straight skirted on both sides by mountain ranges, grasslands and a full palate of desert wildlife. After miles of this expansiveness, I take my final eastward turn onto State Route 319. This road, which becomes Utah State Route 56 at the Utah border, is my route directly into Cedar City.

It’s hard not to hum Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” when starting off on U.S. Route 50.

On Cedar City “As on a mountain top the cedar shows…” (Henry VI, Part II)

Cedar City is a tidy college town nestled in the multihued rock formations that are the trademark of southern Utah. For the purposes of my Shakespearean journey, it is the final destination. However, there are motorcycling wonders in every direction from the town. The Grand Canyon is to the south and most of Utah’s amazing national parks, linked by great roads, are close at hand.

As I settle into my seat in the warm, open-air Engelstad Shakespeare Theater on the Southern Utah University campus, the last rays of the evening sun illuminate the stage. The top-notch performance is a lively, traditional interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing. This play is a happy ending to an Elizabethan journey that began 800 miles, four states and two days earlier with the tragedy of Hamlet. Truly “all’s well that ends well,” especially when it begins well, too.

The Adams Theatre is an historic landmark on the Southern Utah University campus.

Manor Motel in Ashland, Oregon
The quaint Manor Motel in Ashland is a perfect home base for sampling the great southern Oregon roads and attending the festival’s theatrical productions. The 1940s-era motor lodge is within walking distance of the festival and the bustling downtown area. The rooms are spotless, the grounds are green and welcoming, and the owner, Cheryl, is a delight.

Paradise Ranch Castle in Austin, Nevada
Surrounded by desert and ranchland, the 12,000 square foot “castle” is the brainchild of Donna Sossa and her late husband. This truly unique place is an amazing find on this lonely stretch of highway. While it is certainly a work in progress, the finished rooms are beautifully decorated and comfortable. There’s a great basement game room and a rooftop viewing deck. To top it off, Donna’s breakfast is delectable.

The Festivals
Set in welcoming, motorcycle-friendly and stay-worthy towns, the Oregon and Utah Shakespeare Festivals have become immensely popular summer theater destinations. The OSF was founded in 1935 and the USF in 1961. The rich history of both festivals shows in the quality of the performances, the rich ambiance of the venues and the exceptional experiences they provide. Both festivals feature multiple theaters and a full spectrum of plays each season.

Oregon Shakespeare

Utah Shakespeare


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here